Saturday, March 03, 2007

Prayers of the Eucharist, or "so many liturgies, so few Sundays..."

In the previous post's comment thread, Brian (UrbanMonk) began to take us a bit deeper into discussion about the possible structures of our eucharistic celebrations and the range of possible prayers that we might utilize. Although I'm not sure how "eloquently" (his word) I can comment, he did allude to my interests in liturgical history and eucharistic theology, which I took as an invitation to expand a bit on the subject.

Now, while I naturally have convictions and preferences about liturgy, I hesitate to make any strong recommendations of particular "best" liturgies, because I know different folks have different views and theological opinions about the eucharist. But I will indicate a few things for those who might be interested in trying out or adapting certain historic rites and prayers.

My doctoral supervisor's late father, Ronald Jasper, was a prominent liturgist in the Church of England, and headed up the ecumenical Joint Liturgical Group in the 60s and 70s. He co-edited an anthology with Geoffrey Cuming, now in its 3rd edition, called Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (Liturgical Press, 1990), which despite its boring cover design is an excellent resource, covering everything from Jewish table blessings through the 1790 Prayer book of the Protesant Episcopal Church. However, note that it contains only the anaphora or eucharistic prayer of a given liturgy, NOT the whole liturgy. Liturgies of the Western Church, ed. Bard Thompson (Fortress Press, 1961/1980) is a good resource for complete liturgies beginning with Justin Martyr and ending with Wesley's Sunday Service - but it's only the major liturgies, e.g. the Roman Rite, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, Knox, etc, and they're all Western, which to me is a bummer. Have a look at Richard Baxter's 1661 liturgy ("The Savoy Liturgy"), which is in both of the aforementioned books, and in the Jasper and Cuming book, the Nonjurors' Liturgy of 1718, both of which I think are of particular interest for those with Wesleyan proclivities.

Baxter's epiclesis: "This bread and wine, being set apart, and consecrated to this holy use by God's appointment, are now no common bread and wine, but sacramentally the body and blood of Christ." This statement has a charming simplicity about it, especially when considered in context of the whole liturgy, which over and over emphasizes sanctification, both of us and of the meal, which is "meat and drink indeed." And I love this exhortation at the start of the liturgy of the sacrament:
"The benefit of the Sacrament is not to be judged of only by present experience and feeling, but by faith. God having appointed us to use it, and promised his blessing, we may and must believe that he will make good his promise; and whatever we feel at present, that we sincerely wait not only him in vain."
Point of interest: my colleagues at Nazarene Theological College tell me that Baxter is an influence on Wesley, but I can't say much about this connection - maybe a possible topic for further research, or for someone who knows what they're talking about to comment on!

The Nonjurors' liturgy, which certainly influenced the Wesleys via William Law, actually refers to the eucharist as a "Sacrifice", which is somewhat shocking for the 18th century Protestant context. This epiclesis says:
"...send down thine Holy Spirit, the witness of the Passion of our Lord Jesus, upon this Sacrifice, that he may make this Bread the Body of thy Christ, and this Cup the Blood of thy Christ; that they who are partakers thereof, may be confirmed in godliness, may obtain remission of their sins, may be delivered from the Devil and his snares, may be replenished by the Holy Ghost, may be made worthy of thy Christ, and may obtain everlasting life, Thou, O Lord Almighty..."
That's the stuff right there. Change all the "they"s and "their"s to "we" and "our" and you've got yourself a pretty incredible prayer of consecration. Who wouldn't be moved by that? (Give that one a couple of tries and we might find that the eucharist can be a "converting ordinance" after all!)

To go back even earlier, WAY back in fact, the Jasper and Cuming book also includes the Egyptian Anaphora of St. Basil (probably 4th century), which doesn't include a request for the Holy Spirit to change the bread and the wine but only that the "Holy Spirit may descend upon us and upon these gifts that have been set before you, and may sanctify them and make them holy of holies. Make us all worthy to partake of your holy things for [the] sanctification of soul and body, that we may become one body and one spirit..." Anything with sanctification language should work pretty well in our context(s), I would think, so this is an excellent and very ancient possibility.

If I may take the liberty to say also that I am very inspired by and proud of the ministry team at Community Church of the Nazarene, Longsight (near Manchester, England and Nazarene Theological College), who in addition to having a weekly Word and Table service was brave enough to use an adaptation of the entire Coptic liturgy of St. Basil for their service on Pentecost Sunday last year - my wife was at the service and brought me back a copy of their liturgy booklet. The version they used asks that the "Holy Spirit descend upon these gifts set forth, and purify them, change them and manifest them as a sanctification of your saints." The entire liturgy is wonderful. And as a sort of side-note, Longsight celebrates their liturgy in a very small, communal setting - usually only 10-20 people seated in an oval with a small table bearing the bread and cup at one end. They use a combination of lay and ordained leaders so that, e.g., the "priest" parts of the liturgy, the sermon, and the epiclesis, might not always be performed by a member of the clergy.

Along these lines, I have also heard about experiments with the entire congregation praying the epiclesis, which is a decided break with tradition but might have its merits in a Nazarene setting. So, for example, everyone would pray together:
"Hear us, most merciful Father, and send your Holy Spirit upon us, and upon these gifts of bread and wine, that overshadowed by His life-giving power, they may be for us the body and blood of your Son, Jesus Christ, that we may be kindled with the fire of your love, and renewed for the service of your Kingdom."
Those are the words of epiclesis in the liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is my own current worship setting (although only for a short time's been incredible, but the PhD is drawing to a close and it's nearly time to move back to the USA and Nazarenedom). The SEC liturgy revisions of 1982 were heavily influenced by Eastern liturgies, so there is a definite affinity here. The whole thing is available online directly from the SEC, and earlier versions of the Scottish liturgy can be found on the queen mother of prayer-book sites, although it must be said that the earlier versions are extremely "groveling" and penitential (e.g. "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we form time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us...we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table..." &c ~1929 Scottish BCP - very Cranmerian), such as might be objectionable to Nazarenes who (as my father-in-law says) "don't believe in a sinnin' religion." The 1982 revision was a pretty significant move in a new direction, and I have grown quite fond if it, I must confess.

And a final word, if I may: never forget that eucharistic prayers, and the liturgies they are a part of, can as (if not more) often be instruments of polemic and ideology as they can be true expressions of worship to the Almighty - see John Knox's "Forme of Prayers" 1556 as one example: "...let us not suffer our minds to wander about the consideration of these earthly and corruptible things, which we see present to our eyes and feel with our hands [i.e. the bread and wine], to seek Christ bodily present in them, as if he were enclosed in the bread and wine, or as if these elements were turned and changed into the substance of his flesh and blood...[but] lift up our minds by faith above all things worldly and sensible..." (&c.) (Seems to me that somebody doesn't quite understand that sacraments are necessarily "worldly and sensible," embodied and bodily, and only as such do they re-present the incarnate Christ.)

I guess what I mean is, even though many of us feel strongly about the need to emphasize Christ's real presence in the eucharist, I think we need to exercise caution and a bit of restraint to ensure we're not cramming it down people's throats (!) and turning worship and celebration and communion into soap-boxing. Although I've not been given many opportunities to try it out in practice in Nazarene churches, I suspect the way to go is to just use these (or any) prayers as naturally and nonchalantly as possible and hope that the theological significance seeps in gradually to the hearts and minds of all those who participate, such that we all are sanctified and transformed.

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