Common Prayer as Common Vision?

How does a conversation on prayer in common and the perspectives of different generations bring understanding to differences of perception and expectation?

While strictly stereotyping an “older” generation (we’ll call them ‘baby-boomers’) and a “younger” generation (we’ll call them Gen Z and younger Millennials) is never wise – after all, there are considerable variables between individuals and between groups with regard to regional differences, ethnic/racial differences, cultures, socio-economic background, education, religious affiliations and more – the conversation needs to start somewhere. So, for the sake of conversation…

About three weeks ago a small group of seminarians from the Faculty of Theology where I teach hosted a webinar entitled “Toward a Common Prayer: An Intergenerational Dialogue within the Anglican Church of Canada.” I had the pleasure of being on the panel of speakers which was composed of a young student speaking on behalf of a larger group of students (after extensive consultation), two faculty/church people with PhDs in liturgy, and a younger priest who is an indigenous Anglican with parish, diocesan, and national church responsibilities. Part of the impetus for the conversation were some frustrations or misunderstandings which were aligned with the generational differences, particularly focused on the preference of some of the Gen Z and younger Millennials for older liturgical texts and patterns. Here is where, I suspect, there are some ecumenical similarities.

The question from the older generation – often those who directly inherited the fruits of the liturgical movement which produced revised, renewed, and expansive liturgies – was “why do these younger people want to return to older liturgical forms? Don’t they understand how difficult it was to get rid of these liturgical forms, their colonial backgrounds, their exclusive language and imagery?” And the response from younger members of these churches (and here, particularly those in formation toward ordination) was to express that ‘yes’, while they recognized some of the difficulties, there was something far more aligned with praying corporately in these older forms than in some more recent liturgical iterations. They found here a common prayer that was, for them, formational and transformational.

One mention of ecumenical difference probably needs to be mentioned here. Aided (extensively) by online social media, the nostalgia for a Latin language mass (from those who never knew it as children), or the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with its classical English prose are well-known. Among Canadian Anglicans and American Episcopalians, however, the desire for these older liturgical forms does not necessarily go hand in hand with a return to a more conservative social agenda – particularly regarding sexual mores. It has been what many call a “generous orthodoxy,” traditional liturgical interest joined to support of progressive social issues. But why the ‘traditional’ liturgical interests?

It was particularly in the questions and reactions to the webinar which followed that some very real differences emerged. The turn to the individual, and the assertion of individual rights which so marked the 1970s and 1980s (and in turn, resulted in far fewer rubrics in that generation of Anglican prayer books) was prominent in the discussion. To use just two examples, instead of common posture and gestures, there has been a defense of allowing and even encouraging people to do what works for them – so a loss of communal embodied prayer. Equally, the ongoing issue of inclusive and expansive language has resulted in three or four options for a given prayer and a loss of common language in some central prayers, an ever-growing phenomenon via official online supplements to printed prayer books.

The impetus for the particular webinar in question, however, was not so much about the Book of Common Prayer as it was about prayer in common. Here there were (at least) two different conversations going on. One emerged from the invaluable insights offered by the indigenous panel member, who spoke lovingly of the Book of Common Prayer in her own formation as a Christian along with the pride of engagement through the book’s liturgy and its association with royal recognition of indigenous Anglicans, and, at the same time, about its colonial implications for a people who have suffered through the church’s cooperation in suppression of culture and the overwhelming damage of residential schools in Canada. The liturgy associated with that book is both the vehicle for prayer and praise of God, and a reminder of repression. That invited conversation that centred common prayer around the Book of Common Prayer, with its double inheritance of blessing and curse.

But the other conversation, here from the younger members of the panel and audience, was about liturgy that was not just done in common but was something other than a mirror of ourselves; liturgy as a ‘space’ into which one could enter, and not a space one had to build from scratch on each occasion of entering. We all know the conversation (and ramifications) of the poor translation of leitourgia as the ‘work of the people’ (full-stop). And I suspect that many of us are familiar with one of the abuses of that human-focused approach to liturgy in which we shape liturgy in our own image. It seemed to be a reaction against that which was underlying so much of the ongoing conversation that evening and since then. I’m not sure we quite found the right words that evening (or even since), but the conversation elicited strong reactions (anger and agreement) because I believe something was named in these circles that had not been spoken aloud in quite the same way. It might be something like Nathaniel Marx’s exploration of “authentic liturgy”, grounded in the Rule of St. Benedict (“minds…in harmony with our voices”) and given purpose (what was the point of all this?): “the quest for authentic liturgy doesn’t confront us with the dichotomy of true or false, but with the challenge of cultivating a virtue, over time and through practice.” (in Marx’s 2020 book, Authentic Liturgy, xi). Or it might be a turn (not for the first time) to recognizing liturgy as a space in which God works on us, forms us into what we are summoned to be.

I do know, that in spite of some of the reactions, in an era of so much bad news about church decline, I see great hope in the questions and actions of those preparing for ordination. They know it will be a different church, and yet they are still willing to answer the call to serve God and the people of God as priests, teachers, and pastors, Deo gratias.

3 comments

  1. As a participant in the webinar I was heartened by the thoughtful, respectful and hopeful spirit of the ‘younger’ generations. My hope is that this positive energy will be able to move the Anglican Church of Canada back into a more focused consideration of worship, its structures, texts and ethos, and bring us back into what I might call a ‘gathering’ mode. In the ‘gathering’ mode we pull together what we are learning, the resources that we’ve been using, and glean from them what can become the core of ‘common’ prayer, common in that it is shared, common in that it speaks to our vernacular Anglican culture.

    1. Thank you Richard – yes, truly gathering together is a good thing! (and it was so very good to be on a panel with you, albeit virtual…)

  2. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that a volume like Paul Hartzell’s “Prayer Book Office “ would be made available in 2021 at a reasonable price since originals can fetch up to $400 online. A gentleman on the west coast was determined to bring back Hartzell’s book with even more additions from other traditional sources, and bring it back he did in a volume he calls “The Anglican Office Book” or the AOB for short.

    He created an informative blog with a loyal following of a thousand + souls. And I thought I was the only one who had an interest in Hartzell and other Anglican office books of yore! Technology has the power to shatter isolation and bring folks of like interests together.

    Requests have even been made for a Latin-English version which would probably be not too difficult since most of Hartzell’s embellishments are from Sarum as well as the Dominican and Ambrosian uses. Bright and Medd do deserve inclusion too although I am inclined to the classical versions.

    The AOB is evidently awaiting a berth in the port of Oakland but should be distributed soon.

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