Teaching through liturgy

Daily Reading for May 29 • The First Book of Common Prayer, 1549

The moment that the first Prayer Book was issued in 1549, it came under attack and not only from the people of Cornwall, who could not understand its form of English and preferred the old Mass. Reformed theologians also objected, such as Martin Bucer, who left Germany in the previous year to become a professor at Cambridge at Cranmer’s invitation, and who influenced the more obviously Protestant direction taken by the second Prayer Book of 1552. Debate continued when Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, led largely by churchmen who had fled Mary Tudor’s Catholic England, and who during that time were influenced by the centres of Reformed faith and practice in Frankfurt, Geneva, and, in particular, Zurich. . . .

The man who addressed these issues head-on was Richard Hooker, who, after a high-profile ministry at the Temple Church, London, became a country parish priest. He set about writing his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a series of books which argued for the necessity of the church in a visible, historic form. The fifth book, which dealt specifically with the Prayer Book, appeared in 1598. . . . Hooker adopts a twofold method. First, he argues for general principles. God is God, and we must approach him humbly, and without too many words. People need rhythms in their public prayer, especially those who are less articulate. Tradition provides the best kind of framework, when it has been judiciously reformed.

The second strand to his work, which some scholars think was inserted at the behest of friends, is made up of specific examples, where Hooker takes on the criticisms one by one. Kneeling at communion is a sign of reverence. The surplice is a dignified garment, symbolizing baptism. The Lord’s Prayer at the start of any service is a form of preparation—as was the case in private devotion in the later Middle Ages. Reciting it straight after Communion is a way of giving thanks for spiritual feeding—a practice Calvin did not allow, since he believed the prayer should normally be linked only with intercession.

Hooker’s aim was to see in the Prayer Book the teaching of the church. He knew many of its critics took a different view, in which the inward and the outward were often regarded as separate. For him, however, the sacramental water, and the bread and wine, are chosen and used to express in a heavenly manner what the outward signs convey: water is for washing and birth, bread and wine are for eating and drinking. The words and gestures of the Prayer Book rites are meant to interpret these sacred actions as what they are intended for by the church. “The divine mystery is more true than plain,” Hooker remarks, in the face of those who seem to want every syllable and moment in worship to teach, and nothing else. In an equally pithy sentence, he distinguishes between the distinct functions of the two dominical sacraments: “The grace which we have by the holy Eucharist doth not begin but continue life.” And to those who want to argue endlessly about eucharistic theology, he writes, “I wish that men would more give themselves to meditate with silence what we have by the sacrament and less to dispute the manner how.”

From “The Prayer Book as ‘Sacred Text’” by Kenneth Stevenson, in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, edited by Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

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