I have been pondering the intersection of prayer, authority, and justice lately. There seems to be an increased need for an honest conversation about what a more just society looks like – as there is always a need for such conversation. Within the Church, we are often conflicted about how to respond to the demands of injustice.
We take particular holy days and make them statements, for example, turning a Stations of the Cross into a protest against the death penalty (let’s set aside for a moment what an interfaith Stations of the Cross is) or we make Good Friday into a day to talk about Earth Day. I am not opposed to using liturgy to address the deep needs of the world but it has to first express our deepest need – union with Christ and one another.
With the advent of Enriching our Worship and other options for worship, individual communities often seek to use their liturgical time together to speak truth to power in some way and to remind themselves of their Christian obligations to strive for the dignity of every person. The problem is the increasing disconnect between what worship is and what its purpose is.
Ultimately, worship is an expression of our desire to be united with Christ. In Baptism and the Eucharist we are given the most fleeting of glimpses of the deepest permanent reality – that we are at one with Christ. All we can do in worship is give thanks – to lay ourselves at the foot of the throne of grace and offer all that we are.
Worship is not meant to be a didactic exercise by which we talk about justice – it is designed to so clothe us in the fullness of Christ and be doing so empower us to proclaim justice at every turn of our lives and beyond.
Last year, a popular article that seemed to be making its way around clergy circles was one that exhorted Christians to get out of their churches, not to worship, during Holy Week because the world’s needs were simply too great to waste time on such a thing as worship.
This is incredibly privileged.
It is privileged because it assumes that we are all at some elevated state of grace that will enable us to do justice without ever being truly formed in what righteousness is. Every member of our congregations is being formed for the work of justice with each and every act of adoration. Worship and adoration lay the groundwork for a full sense of belonging in Christ that can shine forth.
Jonathan Myrick Daniels went down to die because he knew that the Magnificat was calling him to go from strength to strength. It is not vague calls for justice that will truly transform an unjust world but an understanding of our fundamental unity with one another in Christ that will. God is at work in the world – we need to trust that enough to not think that acting justly means acting incessantly. The work of justice is, necessarily, the work of common prayer.
John Macquarrie writes of Baptism, “Sin, or rather the conviction of sin, is the presupposition of baptism. We have a sense that all is not well with us.” The baptismal mystery is that we understand ourselves to be washed from sin in Baptism. Yet, we also recognize the reality of sin in our lived Christian experience. How do we hold onto that centered place in which we find ourselves at one with Christ, literally donning Christ at the font?
It is only through ongoing Communion, as the whole gathered Body, that we can constantly claim and reclaim the fullness of Baptism.
Justice cannot be studied in isolation from the rest of the Christian Sacramental life. To do so is to impart a magical quality to the moments and to disconnect them from our encounter with the world rather than framing them in the totality of belief, practice, life, death, hope, regret, grace, and pardon. Each Sacrament must be taken as part of the whole of the experience of Christ’s presence in and with us. Baptism, that moment of washing and donning, cannot be a moment but must be at once a beginning and end of the migration of lived Christian pilgrimage – a pilgrimage made as the whole Church. Our entirety is baptized. Every aspect of our lives is knit to the divinity in Baptism and we are provided a divine source from which true justice can flow.
The individual believer or even communities are ill-equipped to do this work on their own. We are not meant to be lonely charity workers – we are called to be the Body – to see and know the world in the light of the Cross.
When our own self and the fundamental essence of the other are viewed in light of the Cross, they take on inviolability. That inviolability is inherited, for the Christian, at baptism and defines us and the other as linked to the Creator in such a way as to soften the need for competition and redefine common interest and true community.
This True Community, the Church, is one that is ever on the cusp of revelation and is ever-called to greater depths of relationality. Such relational reality is truly possible with honest appraisal and examination and constant rebinding to Christ. We have no source to understand justice other than Christ. Of course, there are other social and religious models for what it means to act justly. But the Christian is given one name by which they call themselves and by which the whole of his or her life is formed.
That encounter with Christ takes place within the gathered Body. It takes place within the shared hopes, memories, and aspirations of a people. It takes place within and beyond history. It takes place before and after death. It is always being offered. It takes the whole of the Body of the Church to begin to express our thanks for the gift offered in Christ – it takes the whole Body of the Church with one voice offering thanks and receiving new hope. It trains us to see all of Creation through the light of God’s ideal.
I suppose this brings me back to the title – the Prayer Book leads us to a more just Church. Justice is not each of our individual conceptions of right and wrong being traded about until someone makes better choices. Justice is not being made to feel bad so that we take part in wan acts of charity. Justice is the whole turning of our selves, our communities, and our Church to the will and mind of Christ. It is finding such unity with Christ and one another that we can do nothing but act justly.
This will not happen via antiseptic, didactic chats about God.
Our shared language, in the Prayer Book, is the expression of our communities’ many different hopes over the centuries. It is that which articulates the shared knowledge that we are being brought to our perfection in Christ.
Justice is not revealed by us to the Church – it is revealed by the Body to us. When we walk the Stations of the Cross, we are becoming that story. We are becoming self-offering so that we can be likewise to the world. This is not the product of an instant but is the result of a lifetime of worship with so changes us that we are a true community – not for the sake of getting along but for the sake of Christ. This necessarily demands a discipline on our part and a willingness to not hear every pronouncement we want to hear from the pulpit or in our prayers.
Every community that abandons the Prayer Book abandons our deepest hope for a more just Church for they have distanced themselves from the whole body. The cost of proclaiming one’s presumed enlightenment is often to be self-separated from the community.
A Church like the Episcopal Church that is without precise doctrinal articulation or a magisterium cannot allow itself to spin apart in the pursuit of theological or social agendas. The source of unity we have, as a worshiping body, is the Prayer Book. It is our means of offering the praises of Christ that we have offered through the centuries and beyond. It is our theological affirmation as a whole gathered Church beyond time and place.
The question “Where am I?” cannot have merely spatial meaning in the Sacraments. The question must be understood in relation to where one is in relation to the very divinity one is encountering in the Mass when and where one is always and everywhere giving thanks and praise. The memory of the believer and the memory of God become a shared space in which the believer and the divinity seek unity, calling and responding to one another. The journey of Baptism requires that we always are asking, “Where am I?”
The Church is the workshop of the soul where we are ever molded and formed in Christ’s own image. It is the answer to the question “Where am I?” for we are home in Christ. The soul is the site of our participation in God. That soul is burdened by the super-impositions of the individual that distance them from understanding their life in, with, and of the divine.
We ask God to make us aware of our begracement, and to free us of the need to acquire new forms of self-definition which propel us toward sin and away from true self, other, and God. This can only happen in the context of community – and not just our local community but the whole Body of the Church – and it is the heart of justice.
In a time of increased theological confusion, and even deeper confusion about just who Christ is, theological or creedal waffling will hardly suffice – and will in fact do profound harm. When each community takes it upon itself to change the worship of the Church, they are contributing to injustice for they are weakening the claim of the whole Body to offer one voice. Moreover, they are declaring the inability of the whole Body’s common life and prayer to be a means of grace and to offer the hope of glory.
There might be better prayers to pray. More we can be doing in liturgy. More modern language we could use. There might be many good and reasonable alterations that could be made to the Prayer Book to make it a better book. Yet it is not ours to change alone – it is the collected longing and debated theological reckoning of this Church. It is the expression of the movement of the Holy Spirit across our history that speaks to and through us to this day.
It is designed to change us. The purpose of worship is the adoration of God. A lifetime of shared adoration will change the Church. The Prayer Book can change the world.