Sex and the 1928 BCP

by "James Edward Mackay"

Now that I have your attention ... ar ar ar ar.

From the beginning until now God spoke through his prophets. The Word aroused the uncomprehending depths of their flesh to a witnessing fury, and their witness was this: that the Word should be made Flesh. Yet their witness could only be received as long as it was vaguely misunderstood, as long as it seemed either to be neither impossible nor necessary, or necessary but not impossible, or impossible but not necessary; and the prophecy could not therefore be fulfilled. For it could only be fulfilled when it was no longer possible to receive, because it was clearly understood as absurd. The Word could not be made Flesh until men had reached a state of absolute contradiction between clarity and despair in which they would have no choice but either to accept absolutely or to reject absolutely, yet in their choice there should be no element of luck, for they would be fully conscious of what they were accepting or rejecting.

From "The Meditation of Simeon"
in W. H. Auden's
FOR THE TIME BEING, A Christmas Oratorio

For the first time in many weeks I actually scanned a liturgy-l digest today. Amazing. Simply amazing. It's just like every other church-related list that I'm on at the moment, i.e., with the list apparently hijacked around the issue of whether gay men and lesbian women have any place in God's plan.

It seems to me that those who are most apoplectic when it comes to the issue fall into two camps. (Would that make them "campy"?) One group speaks of God's radical un-inclusion of gay men and lesbian women, the other of God's radical inclusion of all sorts and conditions, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. The former claims that the latter are essentially heretics because they welcome those who were formerly heretics. The latter point out that there are many former heretics who were formally absolved of such a status by the Church and are now fully included in life, work, and ministry of the Church.

I'm presently sojourning in the Roman tradition as there are no orthodox Episcopal parishes here in Fargo-Moorhead, where "orthodox" is defined as being Episcopal parishes who seem to be faithful to the Book of Common Prayer and the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (i.e., the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops which meet together triennially). More about that in a moment.

In the Roman tradition, at present, there are those who accuse the other of being "cafeteria Catholics". This would be where an orthodox group claims that the others are unorthodox as in their opinion they seem wont to pick and choose which of the teachings of the Church they will emphasize and which parts of the liturgy they will use. For the sake of this argument let's call one Group P (we follow the pope lock-step) and Group C (we are faithful to the Catholic faith). Group P often claims that Group C is unorthodox and departed from the Faith for throwing the baby out with the bath water because Group C has built a contemporary church house, distributes Holy Communion under both species at every liturgy, and, gasp, pursues ecumenical relationships. Yet if an inquirer from without the Tradition, high in a sycamore tree, for example, were to view the groups that individual might make the opposite claim: Group C has followed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and has sought with bumps here and there to interpret and implement in fact and spirit what seems at times to be a radically new understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ, the Church, as set forth in the documents and teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

There are several liturgical examples which come to mind in both the Episcopal Church and the Roman Catholic Church which I find illustrative:

-- The Exhortation in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer -- I came into the Episcopal Church right as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was being fully implemented. There were those who cried out that the end of time was at hand and that Doomsday had to be close at hand because the 1928 BCP wasn't being used anymore. I attended several 1928 BCP liturgies. I found that there was as much picking and choosing among the individuals of the 1928 camp as that group accused the 1979 BCP group of doing. Not once at the 1928 liturgies I attended did I hear the Exhortation read. The rubric on p 86 of the 1928 BCP reads:

When the Minister giveth warning for the Celebration of the Holy Communion (which he shall always do upon the Sunday, or some Holy Day, immediately preceding,) he shall read this Exhortation following; or so much thereof as, in his discretion, he may think convenient.

Looking through my rubric-coloured glasses I questioned the priest, as a newly incorporated member might do, why the Exhortation was omitted. I was told that it took too much time to read, that it bored the congregation, and that in place of it there was an announcement of Holy Communion for All Saints Day and the following Sunday in the bulletin. In the bulletin I found:

All Saints Day, Holy Communion, 7.00 a.m.
__ Sunday after Trinity, Holy Communion, 8.00 and 10.00 a.m.

Does that really implement the rubric of the Prayer Book concerning the Exhortation? I think a case could be that it doesn't. Not even so much as a sentence of the Exhortation was quoted or read aloud in the liturgy. It was omitted because it was boring. Is that orthodox? Unorthodox? Can one pick or choose? Is the liturgy something that changes over time? If the answer is "yes" I would put this example of omitting the Exhortation as an adaptation that came to be, perhaps unintentionally because of a new understanding of how to do the liturgy and because of the needs of the congregation. If the answer is "no" I'll be the first to point out that a case could be made that the priest who clung to the 1928 BCP as the perfect deposit of liturgy was "picking and choosing," just as he claimed the 1979 BCP group was doing.

Looking at the life of the Church through liturgical eyes it is evident that the words, actions, mannerism, and accoutrement have changed over time. "Change" is a loaded word for many. A better way to understand this, I believe, is that as we come more and more fully to understand the radical nature of the Passion, Death, Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ means we are changed. Once changed -- transformed -- old shoes no longer seem to fit, new wine does a number on old wineskins. The same core beliefs of gathering on the Lord's Day, hearing the Word of God proclaimed and preached, breaking the Bread and sharing the Cup, and being sent forth into the the world for mission and service were at the core of the life of the Church and expressed in its Liturgy in the 10th Century as it is today in the 21st Century. It looks different, it feels different, it sounds different, we participate in it differently. Nonetheless it is still the same. The mystery of Christ's presence among us subsists in our celebrations today no less, no more than it did centuries ago. People seek to be faithful today no more than people sought to be faithful in times past.

What has changed is our understanding of this whole great big thing that we are a part of, this radical way of understanding God that a simple working- class man in the 1st Century set into motion. Two thousand years of living the Faith has given us new understandings and new insights into the whole adventure.

When I was a youngster I had a collection of every Matchbox car that was produced, repleat with boxes. Probably some of my relatives thought that I played with them incessantly. After all, I missed the grizzly bears as we drove through Yellowstone Park because I was intent on playing with my cars on the floor. What wonderful adventures I had in exploring an ever-fascinating world through playtime. Today, as a liturgical organist I explore this every- fascinating world of Holy Play by often imagining and re-imagining the liturgy through new music, through ancient music, through new rites, through old rites as I gain new understanding of the life of the Church. If I were frozen in time I'd still be playing on floor of my parents 1952 automobile. Today I am keying this on a Pentium-class computer. Could I have imagined that then? Yet today when I am drawn in by a toddler who is playing on the floor in the narthex of my church I am able to remember what it felt like so many years ago.

There are those who claim that the Church today has abaondoned the Tradition through the inclusion of gay men and lesbian women in its life, ministry, and witness. This new-fangled church is labelled as rebellious, sinful, unorthodox, and, in short, going to hell in a handbasket. That's a zero-sum, all or nothing view of life. The more complex my life becomes -- Pentium II or Pentium III, lighted draw knobs or old-fashioned mechanical ones, to midi or not to midi -- the more I am of the opinion that the Tradition has come right along with me/us into the 21st Century. I/we understand it differently. Could Guttenberg have imagined clicking an icon on the screen with a mouse and having an inkjet printer produce 12 copies a minute in colour? No. Did he imagine working with then radical movable type so that multiple copies could be produced in less time? Yes. Yet then and now the goal is the same: print things in less time and in new ways. My movable type today consists of 400 or so fonts stored in the memory of my computer and manipulated by electrons on the screen. The more things seem to change the more things really stay the same.

Thus it is, I believe, that we live at a time in the communal life of the Church, the Body of Christ, where we are coming to a new knowledge Jesus. It is the same as the early disciples who asked, "Who is this guy?" It is the same as Rublev writing an icon. It is the same as the fathers and mothers gathered for the Second Vatican Council, or General Convention, or Churchwide Assembly, or refreshments after Sunday worship.

What has changed? We have. We have been transformed. We have come to a new understanding of what it means to be alive in Christ. We continue to grow in the knowledge and love of God. And that may well be why there is such a hullabaloo over the inclusion of lesbian women and gay men in the life of the Church. The love of God does not change. It was the same when the labouring slaves in Egypt were set free. It is the same today when we are set free as we grow into the likeness of God.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

The concluding lines of W. H. Auden's For the Time Being A Christmas Oratorio 


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