Is the historic Prayer Book an evangelistic liturgy?
Can a church that uses one of the classical Prayer Books (England 1662, USA 1928, Canada 1962) fulfill the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations”?
By the Rev. Gavin Dunbar
It is a mark of our time that many Anglican and Episcopalian Christians would answer these questions in the negative. The Prayer Book may be good for some things – but not evangelism. So runs the current wisdom. So prevalent is this view, that even many Prayer Book Episcopalians share it!
Two intersecting influences are responsible for this negative view of the Prayer Book – first, the influence of revivalistic evangelicalism and its 20th century charismatic development, and second, the influence of the “church growth” movement, with its use of modern marketing techniques to boost church membership.
The first perceives the genuine movement of the Spirit and genuine faith, in worship which is emotionally exciting and open to spontaneous self-expression. In Anglican or Episcopalian churches, this is often expressed in a resistance to “worship styles” that seem old or dated, and an expectation that corporate worship will be varied – thus demonstrating, it is thought, a willingness to be flexible and responsive to the Spirit’s leading. Where these presuppositions exist, the ancient, predictable objectivity of Prayer Book worship appears unspiritual, rigid, and dead.
The second influence, the church growth movement, uses worship services as evangelistic outreach events. Thus, services are carefully designed to attract and hold worshippers, who are treated as religious consumers. In this approach, what happens during a service should be immediately understandable and accessible both to the unconverted and to Christians coming from non-liturgical backgrounds. Such “seeker-sensitive” services are deliberately unchurchy and undemanding, providing upbeat contemporary music, and upbeat “messages” that aim at “relevance”. The “churchiness” of the Prayer Book, its preoccupation with the administration of Word and Sacrament, the demands it makes of the worshippers, these are thought to be useless for church growth.
There is a real loss to Anglican Christianity when the evangelistic strategy embodied in the reformed and catholic tradition of the Prayer Book is abandoned for the sake of ideas drawn from revivalistic-charismatic Christianity, or from the marketing approach of the church growth movement. Though these are not without certain strengths, they are at best only part of the Christian and Biblical tradition, and do not represent historic Anglican Christianity.
For the sake of Christ, and the Church’s witness to him, Anglican Christians need to rediscover in understanding and practice the Prayer Book as an evangelistic liturgy.
In this essay we shall consider (1) the historic record on the Prayer Book as an evangelistic liturgy; (2) the Biblical teaching about evangelism; (3) the Prayer Books conformity to the Biblical teaching; (4) the practical use of the Prayer Book for evangelism.
The Historical Record
To suggest that the Prayer Book is something less than adequate as an evangelistic liturgy, flies in the face of the historic evidence.
The Prayer Book emerged from the 16th century rediscovery of the Gospel (the “evangel” of evangelism) and is itself a primary witness of the degree to which the gospel mandate to “make disciples of all nations” was embraced as a normative characteristic of all faithful Christian ministry. At no other time in church history – certainly not the hey-day of 20th century liturgical revision – was there a comparable clarity of conviction about the Gospel.
As an instrument of evangelism, moreover, the Prayer Book has been effective for more than four centuries, from the mid-i6th century onwards, not only in England but around the world. Wherever English traders, explorers, navies, armies, settlers, government officials, and missionaries went, they went with the English Bible and the English Prayer Book. Missionaries expended enormous energy not only in translating the Bible into local languages, but also the Prayer Book. The present-day Anglican Communion was a result of that Prayer Book Christianity.
The Bible’s Teaching about Evangelism
It is in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that we find the best-known expression of the Church’s evangelistic mission, in the “Great Commission”, given by the risen Christ to the apostles:
“All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth: Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatso- ever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20).
There is another version of it in the ending of St. Mark’s Gospel, also given to the apostles:
“Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15, 6).
While in St. Luke, the commission is given to other disciples as well as the apostles:
“Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations: and ye are witnesses of these things” (24:46-48).
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples,
“As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you … Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (20:21-23).
In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus tells the apostles,
“ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Finally, there is the witness of Paul:
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 4:17-21).
While there are many more that could be cited these six verses allow us to identify the four primary aspects of this commission, namely its goal, agency, means, and duration.
First, the goal of the mission: the mission consists in the making of disciples of all nations.
The word “disciples” means literally “learners”, by which it understands not only the instruction of the intellect but also the training of the will in subjection to the authority of Christ’s teaching and example, and by participation in the fellowship of his Church.
The sketch of the Church in Jerusalem after Pentecost in Acts 2:41-47 illustrates the ecclesial form of discipleship. The reference to “all nations” bespeaks the catholicity of the church’s evangelistic mission, because Christ died “not for that nation only”, that is, the Jews, “but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 12:52 cf. Ephesians 1:10), without respect to any distinction of nature – sex, age, race, language, culture, economic or social status, and religious back- ground (see Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22).
Second, the agency of the mission: authority to evangelize is granted primarily to the apostolic ministry (thus Matthew, Mark and Acts) ordained of Christ and empowered by the gift of his Spirit. This authority should not be understood as excluding other Christians (the other disciples mentioned in John and Luke), for the mission belongs to the whole Church. (Remember the Israelite slave girl, whose testimony sent Naaman the Syrian to be healed and converted by Elisha the prophet.) Rather, this authority to make disciples is vested in the apostolic ministry, as their special office and responsibility, to ensure that is a priority of the Church as a whole.
Third, the means by which the mission is carried out: the preaching of the gospel, the administration of baptism, together with the teaching and learning of Christ’s commandments. The first two (preaching and baptism) are not essentially different activities, but complementary aspects of Word and Sacrament, both of which require repentance, and authoritatively proclaim remission of sins in his name, thus bringing about reconciliation with God. Moreover, what Word and Sacrament proclaim (as signs) they also effect: those who receive the Gospel and Baptism in repentance and faith are indeed saved;those who do not are, by their own choice, damned. “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained”.
As for the teaching and learning of Christ’s commandments: although disciple-making has a beginning point (baptism and faith in response to the preaching of the gospel), the Bible presents it not as a “one-time” event (a conversion experience), but rather as a continuing process of growing to maturity in the knowledge of God (see Ephesians 1:15-18; 4:8- 16), and learning to obey his commandments (e.g. Matthew 5-7 esp. 8, 24-27, John 13:17, 34-35,1 Corinthians 11:23-29). Of necessity this will include growth in doctrinal, moral, spiritual, ecclesiastical and sacramental knowledge and practice.
If the preaching of the gospel and the administration of baptism correspond to justifying faith, the teaching of Christ’s commandments corresponds to the sanctifying good works of charity in which lively faith is expressed. This pattern corresponds to the pattern of disciple-making set forth in the Great Commission, and the pattern of Christian conversion and spiritual growth envisioned by the Prayer Book in its pattern of initiation through Baptism, Catechesis, Confirmation, admission to Holy Communion, and perseverance in the fellowship of good works.
Thus, neither preaching for conversion by itself (the “altar call”), nor baptism by itself, nor both together, are sufficient for disciple-making: ongoing theological, moral, and spiritual formation, by catechesis and common prayer, is also necessary.
When the whole scope of Biblical teaching is taken into account, the calling of the Church cannot be restricted simply to the mandate to turn unbelievers into believers (evangelism, narrowly construed). If this were the sum of the Church’s calling, it would make sense for her corporate gatherings to be oriented primarily to the “outsider” whose adherence she is seeking to woo. (Though one wonders then what the Church triumphant would do in heaven.) But when all the implications of the Great Commission are allowed to shape our understanding of Christian duty and calling, evangelism in this narrow sense must be seen as but part of the whole.
Evangelism must be understood as terms of discipleship: learning to know, love, worship and obey the Lord. Therefore, the making of a disciple cannot be regarded as simply making converts to the Faith. It is rather a transformative process which embraces the whole of a disciple’s life, and begins with his conversion.
A Christian is always a learner in the school of Christ, and the Church’s calling is to embrace and manifest the fullness of Christ’s commandment to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”.
To be continued in Part II