When my wife and I first visited churches after moving to New Haven, our first stop was at a certain Anglo-Catholic parish. I walked out and said, “That is how church should be!” She said, “I am not going there!” She had grown up Methodist and the combination of chant, incense, and the like seemed to trigger her protestant allergies. I am happy to report that she now lobbies regularly for East-facing celebration, kneeling, and other godly practices at her parish quite regularly – if not always successfully!
We next visited a local Methodist parish. It was rather like a group meeting of some sort or another. There were lots of affirmations and story sharing while the faith component was conspicuous only because of its muted nature. I walked out and said, “I am not going there!”
Our third Sunday, we visited Trinity Episcopal Church on the Green. The welcome there was warm without being cloying. The music was beautiful. The choir that day was the Choir of Men and Boys. The liturgy was dignified without being self-conscious. It was Rite I Morning Prayer with Hymns and Anthems done with grace, dignity, reverence, and joy. In short, it was classically Anglican and my wife and I both fell in love with the parish.
Coming to New Haven, I had grown up Roman Catholic and my wife had grown up United Methodist. We were looking for a church that we could attend together. The beauty of Trinity on the Green’s Morning Prayer service was that I could participate fully and prayerfully without wrestling with what it meant to come to a “protestant” Communion service. By the time a service of Holy Communion came around at Trinity, I had talked with the priest there, gotten to know parishioners, read large parts of the Book of Common Prayer, and made up my mind that this was the church for me. More importantly, it was the church for us.
Morning Prayer served an evangelical function in the best sense of that word. We were brought into the life of the parish and, over time, made the decision to receive Communion there. It was a service in which the presence of God was made manifest through art and warmth and we were drawn into the Presence of God, in the Sacrament, over time and after much thought. We committed to the parish and felt deeply and warmly cared for.
We were not rushed into a relationship we were not ready for but were counseled and welcomed even as we were taught about the church and given a chance to ask questions and learn more about what would become our new church home. I daresay that I owe my vocation in the Episcopal Church to Morning Prayer (as well as kind priests who encouraged me).
For those parishes looking for a way to be welcoming while maintaining the historic Reformed and Catholic understandings of the Sacraments, I would urge a re-examination of our Church’s history of Morning Prayer as a central act of worship.
As someone who serves in the aforementioned Anglo-Catholic parish, attended an historically Catholic seminary, helped found the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church, and believes fervently in the Real Presence and objective grace offered in the Sacraments, it causes me no small degree of discomfort to suggest reducing the frequency of Communion. If the choice, however, is between Communion without Baptism (an abandonment of the Reformed and Catholic traditions) or regular Morning Prayer with less frequent Communion, then Morning Prayer makes great sense.
Anglican Catholicism “won” much in the new prayer book. Elements like Confession, Prayers for the Departed, and Communion as the primary Sunday liturgy mark the 1979 BCP as a distinctly Catholic one. Moreover, Episcopal parishes now regularly have those markers of advanced churchmanship that once caused riots. Candles, Incense, Chasubles, and more now are regular elements of worship.
And yet, have we lost sight of what DeKoven called “the thing itself” in our recent history?
“…to adore Christ’s person in His Sacrament, is the inalienable privilege of every Christian and Catholic heart How we do it, the way we do it, the ceremonies which we do it, are utterly, utterly indifferent; the thing itself is what we plead for…”
Now so many have much of the ceremony but little of the theology. The liturgy at its heart points toward that divine condescension of the Divine taking the form of humanity and reconciling all to the One by blood and Spirit. “The thing itself” invites all that we have to offer, all that we are, all that we hope to be. Christ’s Presence is the Mass.
Our offerings add not one bit if we have masked that essential truth in our own needs and agendas. Vestments, candles, incense, and music combine in a gaudy celebration of self-involvement if we make ourselves and our sense of “inclusion” the center of the liturgy.
Morning Prayer can be an absolutely beautiful and dignified service full of joy. It is a service ideally suited for education, formation, and evangelism. It can prepare believers for Baptism and Communion. For those who are seeking a way to welcome, educate, and form believers for the life of the Sacraments, Morning Prayer is a meaningful and authentic liturgical response.
As more and more people come to our churches with little or no experience of the Church, minimal knowledge of the story of Christ, and virtually no understanding of the Sacraments, regular Morning Prayer may make far more sense than regular Mass. In many ways, it would be a return to a time when we had a Mass of the Catechumens (those being instructed in the faith) and the Mass of the Faithful (those that have received Baptism).
This does not impart judgment or a lesser status! This means we have a group of people being raised up in the faith and that we trust them to hear, learn, and to make the choice as to whether they want to make that step through Baptism to the Altar. If I were to enter a temple, mosque, or any other holy place, I would not expect to be welcomed to their holiest rites as a visitor. In fact, I would assume they were not all that important to them if I were!
Our modern Christian experience is looking evermore like that of the early Church and our practices need to be informed by them. We will have more adult baptizands, more people knowing little of the story of Christ, and less cultural influence. We will have to take the time to bring these folks into the fullness of the faith we have received. It is not our role to dismantle the Sacraments we have been entrusted with but to find new ways to draw those who have never heard to the Remembrance. Morning Prayer may be the perfect Anglican answer for this day and age.