remember my first time walking into an Episcopal church. It was intimidating because my previous church norm was theater seating with cup holders, loud music, and a light show. In this environment, I felt comfortable, like it was made for me. But once I entered St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, I found myself afraid of doing something wrong. The space felt sacred, and I was not sure I belonged there. It took me a year of asking, “Why do we do that?” Well, honestly, I asked, “Why do you do that?” The “we” didn’t come until later, when I began to feel comfortable. I must have asked various forms of this question about a hundred times. Each time that I received an answer felt like an invitation into a new way of being Christian, a sacred way of being Christian. I began to learn that I belonged in the sacred spaces of the church, that God wants us in God’s sacred spaces.
One of the first questions I asked when I arrived at St Andrew’s was, “Where are all your Bibles? All I can find are these Prayer Books.” I was eventually pointed in the direction of a Bible. However, behind the question there were two things happening. The first was my initial encounter with the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). As someone coming from an evangelical mega-church tradition, I found a prayer book odd. I had no idea the Daily Office was not a room with a desk. To me, a collect was what you did to things that were scattered. These had nothing to do with prayer. The BCP was a foreign book, and I met it with skepticism. Secondly, my question had created a framework that placed the BCP against the Bible. My previous church experiences taught me to be leery of anything that was not scripture. Regardless, over the next several months I explored the Prayer Book and realized that I was often praying the scriptures. The BCP was not against the Bible; rather, it was a tool that enhanced my ability to encounter and be affected by scripture.
As I continued to use the Prayer Book, I grew increasingly fond of the section of Prayers and Thanksgivings. All my life, my prayers had only been a conversation with God. I still think that an intimate and spontaneous prayer life is important, but there were times when I encountered tragedy or a complex issue for which I simply did not have words. In these situations, I found comfort in pages 814-841. The prayers not only gave words to the groans of my heart, but they often challenged me to see things and engage the world in a new way.
While I continued to explore this book, I also learned how the BCP connects us to the rich history of the church. It contains many prayers that have stood the test of time. Christians have gathered for centuries and sometimes longer reciting forms of our same prayers. Our connection to history in this way helps us to have assurances that our faith and worship continue from, and remain connected to, the historic church. This connection is especially important in a fast-moving and ever-changing world. The BCP ensures that the church will not shift just because the culture shifts.
Even though our Prayer Book has roots in history, it is certainly not stuck there. The BCP has gone through and continues to go through thoughtful revisions. These revisions help the BCP continue to pass down meaningful historic worship while also keeping it accessible and making it relevant. The BCP roots us in good soil, but it is comprehensive enough to encourage its worshipers to think and engage its current time and place.
It seems to me that as a society we do not only change fast, but also we change passionately. These passions often lead us into divisions. We are in a country and a world that is increasingly dividing over many issues. These divisions have also led to polarization. Polarized people see the other and treat the other as an enemy. This way of “being” leads to a life of contempt of the other. The church has not been immune to this polarization. Oftentimes the church has been one of the culprits. In this passionate and fast-changing world, the BCP helps us to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the worship of God. The BCP helps ensure that our church will not be hijacked by polarizing ideologies. The people of the church are not Democrats or Republicans or whatever ideological label that we divide over; no, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. In times of division, the BCP helps us to understand that we have something in common, that we have a lot more in common than we can ever have in conflict. The BCP draws this commonality by being incredibly comprehensive in ways that allow polarized groups to worship together. The beauty of the way it does this is that it does not quench the passions of the people, rather it connects those passions to God. It does not allow the church to be easily distracted by polarized opinions; rather, it calls us back to the focused worship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in ways that give those passions guidance.
Finally, for me, the BCP has become more than a book that shows us how to pray. It is a book that teaches us how to believe. We have a book of prayers and services that continue to orient our lives back toward God. Bishop Jeffery Lee says it well in his book Opening the Prayer Book:
"The prayer book does not offer precise doctrinal formulations that must be adhered to; rather, it provides the forms that outline our practice of the Christian faith, shaped principally by worship. If you ask an Anglican what it means to belong to the church, the answer might well be, ‘Come and worship with us.’ Being an Anglican means doing what the church does – and what the church does, first and foremost, is worship the living God. It is out of our common worship that our understanding of God proceeds and our ethical and moral decision– making takes shape."
If someone wants to know what Episcopalians believe, invite them to come and pray with you. Belief cannot be separated from the actions of worship and prayer. As people who worship and pray, we are constantly having our beliefs formed. Beliefs are not static, although we often treat them as if they are. Beliefs are dynamic. They come out of a relationship guided by prayer and worship. And when prayer and worship are done well, they open us up to new and challenging experiences with God.
There are many reasons that we use the Book of Common Prayer. I’m sure you even have a few that I have not shared. I encourage you to think of times that the BCP has influenced your life. Maybe it is a prayer that comforted you, maybe one that challenged you, or maybe one that helped you to pray for your enemy. The BCP is a wonderful tool that helps us to root and grow in our faith. May it be that for you in this next season of your life.