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Mission by the book?

This post follows on from Arthur’s. I heard leading Cranmer scholar Ashley Null give a lecture at Ridley today. I think it was mainly for the Anglican ordinands and since I am normally unwilling identify with Anglicanism in general, it wasn’t really my scene. But my love of church history drew me in even though the topic was the Anglican prayer book.

Ashley had two basic points as far as I could see:

1. The prayer book is a missional document

He spoke at length about the work of word and Spirit and changing both the affections and the actions of people. The Bible both tells and turns: it is God’s instrument to tell about God’s saving faith and it is God’s divine instrument to turn the heart by the Spirit to believe it and live it out. The prayer book’s strength is its saturation with God’s words, that people might hear them and be changed. If our use of the prayer book doesn’t implore people to turn to Christ, we have been unfaithful to it.

2. We should use the prayer book

Because the prayer book was a missional document, the theology behind it makes it a useful tool for today. Ashley saw this not just in terms of the content of the theology but also the form. So he thinks that the journey that the prayer book takes the congregation on is a good one. He took the communion service as an example. It mirrors the (classic) conversion experience: hearing the law, reading the gospel, prayers asking God to apply them, realisation of forgiveness, assurance, praise… blah, blah, mainly Anglican words – you get the picture. Ashley thinks it’s OK to update the language of the prayer book (though he doesn’t think this is always necessary) but wants to see the form maintained. He sees this pattern as vital to the theology of the prayer book and the heart experience of the people.

So….

This is an idea I’ve heard before. The former minister at our church in Adelaide, Tim, introduced me to it at a seminar for service leaders. I think there’s something helpful in it and I like the idea of taking people on a journey. But I’m very suspicious of the idea that the prayer book does somehow does that. Even if you update the language, I seriously doubt people pick up what’s going on. I certainly didn’t until it was explained to me at the meeting, and I was on staff at an Anglican church! It may be the language; it may be that we need to explain more of why we do certain things when. But I suspect that it’s more than that.

I think we’ve missed how our culture does ‘corporate’. Australian males can knock singing in church all they want, but there are still more opportunities for secular Australians to sing together than there are for them to read aloud in unison. (Think of the football!) With the prayer book, I think you end up with powerful words in a completely meaningless medium. This is where I think mainline and pente churches are right on the money. The form they use (emotional singing) matches the power of the words. I know evangelicals have had a go at matching the power of their music to the power of their words, but to take one of my favourite straw men, the line “Your glorious cause O God, engages our hearts” hardly makes my chest burn! The words may be great, but the music doesn’t engage the heart!

By all means, take the theology and journey of the prayer book. But throw the book itself out! Take its breadth and depth, even its pattern, but don’t just talk about updating the language as if that’s all it will take to engage the average Australian! We need to think carefully about this. I wondered to a friend after the lecture whether the pentes had got the form right and his concern was that they do it unthinkingly. But I think that’s an issue whichever tradition you’re in! How many Anglicans are just as unthoughtful in their use of the prayer book, relying on Cramner’s form and insight rather than contextualising for their own mission field?! The answer may or may not be music, but the means will certainly be to start thinking, not just about the prayer book, but about those to whom we are sent!

Categories: Church History Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

1 reply

  1. The Anglican church I’ve been at for the last 6 months in Sydney is somewhat unusual (compared to most other Syd Ang churches) in this regard.

    It’s a large growing congregation in the evening (330+) ranging from youth/Uni students through to workers, big on quality music, and big on making the service interesting (ie. props for sermon series).

    Yet they use a lotta prayer-book-type-stuff: every service has a prayer/confession/benediction to be read out in unison, or with the service leader doing some and the congregation the rest.

    Personally I find it quite mechanical, and dislike being “forced through the hoop” of the practice.

    I think your seperation of the *words* from the *medium* is a helpful way of critiquing it.

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