Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Divided by a Common Prayer Book

I am a regular reader of, and occasional responder to, the Thinking Anglicans web site. Among those sites where current issues in the Anglican Communion are discussed, this is one of the best. It is, at least, one of the few that focuses on civil discourse, with voices from a variety of perspectives.

So, not long ago in a discussion at Thinking Anglicans the Baptismal Covenant came up. An American in a comment justified actions of the Episcopal Church as appropriate expressions of the Baptismal Covenant; to which a number of respondents from other parts of the world said, "What? Baptismal Covenant? What's that?"

I think most of my readers are American and Episcopalians/Anglicans. For any reader who isn't both, let me explain the Baptismal Covenant. In the rite of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer (1979) pages 304 and 305 are devoted to “The Baptismal Covenant.” The Covenant begins with and is built around the Apostles' Creed. This is consistent with other Anglican provinces, and with other Christian communions. However, the Covenant goes on to include a series of commitments to express the Creed in how we live:

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People I will, with God’s help.

Now, the American church is not the only place where this, or something like it, is used. It is also used in the same form in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services (1985), and an abbreviated version of it is used in Holy Baptism 2005 of the Episcopal Church of Scotland. The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand & Polynesia and the Church of Ireland do not use in Baptism, but do use it in Confirmation (New Zealand/Aotearoa I had to find in hard copy). In Common Worship of the Church of England, where it is an option in the baptism of adults, the commitment to “strive for justice and peace among all people” is rephrased as,

Will you acknowledge Christ's authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.

This is from a limited and cursory review of liturgical resources available on the web. Not all provinces of the Communion share on their web sites what Book of Common Prayer is officially recognized. I’m also limited in examining those resources available in English and Spanish. However, what I did note in doing some further looking is that many provinces would not have this. This apparently was an innovation of the American church that was picked up by other, later liturgical revisions and authorizations. So, any church whose most recent version is about the same time or earlier is not likely to have it. For example, it is not in The Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980). As the Church of Nigeria – Anglican states on its web site that the official text is the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, they would certainly not use it. The web site of the Diocese of Singapore in the Church in the Province of Southeast Asia makes a similar statement. We cherish worship in “a tongue… understanded of the people,” as Article XXIV states. And if that worship were translated from an earlier English or American Prayer Book, again, these questions would not be there.

I find myself wondering what this says to the current controversies in the Anglican Communion. It was Shaw who said, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” I seem to remember from the days of Prayer Book revision some joke about folks being “divided by a common Prayer Book.” But, this is precisely what has happened. We have still the concept of a common Prayer Book; but one has to wonder how much we have in common.

In this instance, there is a distinct contrast between seeing faith primarily in action, as in the Baptismal Covenant; and in seeing faith primarily in acceptance of the necessary content. That isn’t to say that the former doesn’t take the content as necessary; nor that the latter doesn’t expect to see the content expressed in action. But we practice common worship precisely because we believe that we are conformed by it. How differently are we conformed when, in every baptism and/or confirmation and often with the bishop present, some of us focus on the content of the Apostles’ Creed, and others of us go on to illustrate the Creed with commitments to action? And when I look at my survey, incomplete and unscientific as it is, I wonder if the lines between those positions within the Communion don’t look an awful lot like the lines between the Global South and the liberal West.

In the current arguments those of us who call for full inclusion appeal to the prophetic call to justice. Those who think we go too far appeal to the authority of Scripture and received tradition. I can’t help but wonder whether being conformed with or without the commitments of the Baptismal Covenant hasn’t led us to grow apart. I have not yet despaired that we can continue to live together. I’m sure our divergence is far more complicated than this one specific difference of practice. Still, I have to think that a full generation with this difference in practice, in how we understand the faith, has played its part.

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