Project Canterbury

What the New Prayer Book Ought to Mean to Us.

A Sermon preached in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Advent Sunday, 1929

By the Right Reverend William T. Manning
Bishop of New York

Printed by request

[New York:] The Diocese of New York, 1929.

Golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Revelation V, 8.

THAT is the text which one writer applies to the prayers in the Prayer Book. Those prayers, he tells us, are golden bowls, beautiful in form and substance, and wonderful in their history and associations. Every worshipper in the congregation is provided with his golden bowl, but what the bowls contain, as we lift them up to God, depends upon us. The golden bowls of some of the worshippers are empty, and contain nothing; the golden bowls of others may be filled with foolish, unworthy, or unseemly things. But the golden bowls of those who are sincere, and real, in their worship are full of incense, which is the symbol of the prayers of the saints.

We have waited long for the New Prayer Book. The work of revision was undertaken in 1913, and now the new book is to be used in all our Churches. It was one of the last requests of our late Presiding Bishop that its use should begin on Advent Sunday and we are carrying out that request today. And it is most appropriate that on this first Sunday of the Christian Year we should begin the use of this new edition of the Book of Common Prayer which holds so sacred a place in the life of our own Church, and so important a place in Christian history.

Let us think first for a few moments of the history of the Prayer Book.

[4] This book which we are putting into use today, and of which we speak popularly as the New Prayer Book is, of course, not a new book at all, but the old Prayer Book with certain changes and revisions.

It is a mistake to suppose that the Prayer Book dates back only to the time of the English Reformation. As the late Dr. George Hodges put it: "This book was not written in the sixteenth century, nor in the sixth. It has grown from the beginning with the growth of the Christian Church."

Its prayer and worship reflect the whole life of the Christian Church both East and West. Its liturgical treasures are drawn from the whole spiritual experience of the Catholic Church on earth.

The first edition of the Prayer Book in its present form was issued in 1549, but that book was formed from the old services which had been in use during a thousand years of English Christianity, and from the ancient liturgies of the whole Christian Church throughout the world. There have been revisions of the Prayer Book from time to time, but the substance of the book has not changed. In the revision of 1552, Unction of the Sick, and Prayers for the Departed, in explicit form, were omitted. Both of these are restored in this Revised Book which we are using today.

The Act of Parliament of 1533 declared that the English Church and nation in the Reformation "intended not to decline or vary from the Congregation of Christ's Church in things concerning the Catholic faith of Christendom, or declared by Holy Scripture and the Word of God necessary to salvation." And the Preface to our own Prayer Book printed on page [4/5] VI of this new book, declares that "this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline or worship; or further than local circumstances require."

That Preface was adopted in 1789 and we should not forget the close relation of the Prayer Book, and the Episcopal Church, with our American life. Fully two thirds of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and of the men who adopted the Constitution of the United States, had been brought up in the use, and the teaching, of this Prayer Book. It has been truly said that "Its history is part of the warp and woof of the history of the English people, which no one can understand who does not know its story."

Not only is the Prayer Book a great classic in the realm of prayer and worship, it is one of the greatest examples of pure and noble English speech and, with the King James version of the Bible, has influenced the whole development of English Literature. In his book "The Nature of Poetry" Edmund Clarence Stedman says, "Upon its literary and constructive side, I regard the venerable Liturgy of the Historic Christian Church as one of the few World Poems--Poems Universal. I care not which of its rituals you follow--the Oriental, the Alexandrian, the Latin, or the Anglican. The latter, that of the Episcopal Prayer Book is a version familiar to you of what seems to me the most wonderful symphonic idealization of human faith--certainly the most inclusive--blending in harmonic succession all the cries and longings of the universal human heart invoking a paternal Creator.... Its prayers are not only for all sorts and conditions of men, but for every stress of [5/6] life in which mankind must feel in common--in the household or isolated, or in tribal or national effort, and in calamity and repentance and thanksgiving. Its wisdom is forever old and perpetually new; its calendar celebrates all seasons of the rolling year; its narrative is of the simplest, the most pathetic, the most rapturous and ennobling life, the world has ever known. There is no malefactor so wretched, no just man so perfect, as not to find his hope, his consolation, his lesson, in this poem of poems. I have called it lyrical; it is dramatic in structure and effect; it is an epic of the age of faith; but in fact as a piece of inclusive literature, it has no counterpart and can have no successor."

But although it is still the same book used by our fathers and forefathers, with its hallowed associations, and its great history, some very important changes have been made in this revision. Some of these are enrichments liturgically and spiritually, some are mere changes of phrases which had become archaic, and some are changes to keep the book in close touch with contemporary life and with the needs and conditions of this present time. There is no change in doctrine. Without passing any judgment or criticism upon other Christians and their ways, the Prayer Book holds to the Faith and Order of the Catholic Church throughout the whole world before the present divisions took place, and it is to be remembered that the position held by the Prayer Book as to Holy Orders is still held by seven-tenths of all Christians in the world today, and it would therefore not be a move in the direction of Christian Unity for the Prayer Book to depart from this position. The Prayer Book is the great bond of [6/7] union between the Anglican Churches throughout the world. No member of the Anglican Church from Canada, Australia, Asia, Africa, or from the Mother Church of England, would find any difficulty in following the service of our New Prayer Book in this Cathedral, or in any of the Churches of our land.

And it is our hope that the Prayer Book, holding steadfastly the middle ground between Protestantism on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other, may help to prepare the way for the coming of Christian Unity, by which we do not mean only a union of Protestants but something vastly wider and greater, the reunion of all Christians of every name both Catholic and Protestant.

It was the Reverend Dr. Shields, of honoured memory, a Presbyterian and a Professor in Princeton Seminary, who wrote of the Prayer Book "It would be strange if a work which thus has its roots in the past, should not be sending forth its branches into the whole Church of the future; and anyone who will take the pains to study its present adaptations, whatever may have been his prejudices, must admit that there is no other extant formulary which is so well fitted to become the rallying-point and standard of modern Christendom. In it are to be found the means--possibly the germs of a just reorganization of Protestantism, as well as an ultimate reconcilation with true Catholicism--such a Catholicism as shall have shed everything sectarian and national, and retained only what is common to the whole Church of Christ in all ages and countries." And it was a devout Roman Catholic of France, de Maistre, who wrote "If ever, and everything invites to it, [7/8] should be a movement towards reunion among the Christian bodies it seems likely that the Church of England should be the one to give it impulse . . . . Between us and those who practise a worship which we think wanting in form and substance there is too wide an interval; we cannot understand one another. But the English Church, which touches us with the one hand, touches with the other those with whom we have no point of contact."

I wish I could speak at length as to the practical and spiritual value of the Prayer Book and what it should mean to us in our religious lives. The Prayer Book is the Church's Book of Doctrine, Life and Worship. Here we find not what this or that individual thinks, but what this Church itself holds and teaches as to the truth of Christ and His Church. Here you will find what the Church itself teaches as to Baptism, Holy Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders. To quote Dr. Hodges again, "The Prayer Book is the guardian of the people's rights." The minister may have his preferences or prejudices. "Every religious teacher knows how difficult it is rightly to divide the word of truth, and to preach the whole Gospel of God. But here the Prayer Book is a constant guide and inspiration. Week by week, as the Christian seasons pass, the Church herself, in the Prayer Book, whether the Minister wishes it or not, sets forth the great round of Christian truth. Not one essential or helpful article can be left out." The Prayer Book is not only the Church's book of doctrine, it gives us also the way of life in which the Church calls us to walk. In this Church the teachings and the rules of the Prayer Book are of [8/9] obligation upon all of us, Bishops, Clergy and people. It gives us in practical form those teachings of this Church which we have voluntarily and thankfully accepted and which we have promised loyally to follow.

Let us in this Diocese make this beginning of our use of the New Prayer Book a time of renewed faithfulness to the Church, and to the teachings of her great Book of Doctrine and Worship. Let us study it carefully, understand it intelligently, and use it faithfully, so that its prayers on our lips may be in truth "golden bowls full of incense."

Who can doubt what it will mean if all of us, clergy and people, all over the Church, will now do this.

It will mean such a stirring of faith in Christ, and loyalty to Him, as will make the Church the Divine power, and strength, and blessing, in the lives of all of us that it ought to be, and that Our Lord expects it to be.

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