23 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (15) Morning & Evening Prayer

Following the Exhortation, in logical sequence, the services of Morning and Evening Prayer set out to do what it proposes. It is suitable that worship should begin with a public confession of sin. Like Isaiah in the temple, as soon as we enter God’s presence we become conscious of our unworthiness and of the sin that pollutes our being: “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Following the imagery of Isaiah 53:6, we confess that we have strayed from God’s ways and that we stand in need of his mercy and restoration. The words of absolution are from Ezekiel 33:11, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

Having confessed our sin and been assured of God’s forgiveness, we are ready to sing God’s praise in canticle and psalm. In the course of a short series of versicles and responses we move from our knees in penitence to our feet in worship and adoration. From the beginning, Cranmer allowed for a variety of canticles to be said or sung at Morning and Evening Prayer. For the most part they are biblical material, taken from the Psalms (Venite, Jubilate Deo) and the Gospels (Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis).

The Te Deum Laudamus (“We praise thee, O God…”) is an ancient song of the church, traditionally ascribed to St Ambrose and St Augustine on the occasion of the latter’s baptism. The Benedicite, Omnia Opera (Song of the Three Children) is the apocryphal account of the song of praise uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.

It was Cranmer’s original intention that the entire Psalter be recited once a month and the whole Bible be read in the course of a year at Morning and Evening Prayer. This meant that a considerable proportion of the services was taken up with the reading of Scripture. Successive revisions of the lectionary have reduced the amount of Scripture that is read at each service. It may have been that Cranmer was asking for too much from the beginning. Yet I cannot help but fear that in our world of sensory overstimulation we have lost the art of listening to, meditating upon and taking in longer passages of the Bible.

The proper response to God’s word is faith, and this is expressed liturgically in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed following the lessons. Hammered out of the early controversies of Christian history, the creeds provide a useful summary of the content of Christian faith. While the creeds are formulaic at best, they do afford us the opportunity, within the context of worship, to give testimony to the faith that is within us and to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord.

The word of God not only shapes our faith. It also leads us into prayer. In the Book of Common Prayer, our intercessions and thanksgivings begin with the Lord’s Prayer; in the Book of Alternative Services they conclude with it. Either way, by reciting that prayer we are acknowledging our dependence on Christ and our desire to be led by him and to pray as he would have us pray. Usually the prayers are in the form either of a litany (a series of biddings and responses) or of collects.

The collect could be said to be a classic Anglican form of prayer. The general pattern of a collect is to begin by addressing God, then acknowledging some aspect of his being or character (e.g., “Almighty God, from whom all holy desires, all good thoughts, and all just works do proceed…). The address is leads into a petition (“Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give…”), followed by an aim or object (“that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments…”). Finally there is a concluding phrase (most often “through Jesus Christ our Lord”) and sometimes a doxology (e.g., “to whom be glory for ever and ever”).

Not all collects follow this pattern slavishly. Some begin with a petition; others contain a number of petitions; still others are mainly praise. However, their brevity makes them memorable. It also enables the congregation to follow them easily and therefore to join heartily in the “Amen” at the conclusion.

Dyson Hague summarized the service of Morning Prayer under four p’s, which reveal the logic of the service and make it easy to remember: penitence, praise, proclamation and prayer.

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