It’s a day late, but here is your “Saturday” book review. This time we’re looking at Praying Shapes Believing, by Leonel L. Mitchell. Its subtitle is A Theological Commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, and it should be noted that this is specifically for the 1979 Prayer Book. I know a lot of my readers are biased against the 1979 book, and I frequently advocate caution against making use of that book also. But, for many Anglicans in America today the 1979 book was the formative book in our training, and this book by Mitchell is one of its foremost commentaries. It is therefore an important book to look at.
Its format is an excellently straight-forward and clear succession of chapters:
- The Service of the Church
- The Calendar, Times, and Seasons
- The Daily Offices
- The Great Vigil of Easter
- Christian Initiation
- The Holy Eucharist
- The Pastoral Offices
- Ordination Rites
- The Theology of the Prayer Book
For the most part, these chapters follow the format of the 1979 Prayer Book, and most of their subsections walk through the contents of those parts of the prayer book. The last, ninth, chapter, focuses on the catechism near the back of that prayer book.
As the title and subtitle suggest, this book provides a running theological commentary on the ’79 prayer book. There are number of explanations for the historical and ecumenical sources of the prayer book also, which can be very helpful. If you are used to the 1928 (or other classical) prayer book, and are wondering about a “new” feature in the 2019 book, chances are it was introduced in the 1979 book, and chances are that Praying Shapes Believing will explain where it came from. Some of the stranger features of the 1979 book, like the infamous Eucharistic Prayer C, are also explained – in that case it was based on a draft by Howard Galley (one of the authors of the previous book reviewed here).
Its comments on the liturgical calendar are worth sharing. Mitchell argues that is not “merely as a kind of high evangelical pedagogy” (a ritualistic teaching tool), nor is it “a psychological device” to make us reflect on the same parts of the gospel together, nor is it “a system of readings… to cause us to go more deeply… into the Word of God.” He grants that these are functional truths about the liturgical calendar, but also goes further to assert that they serve a mystagogical or sacramental role – that there is “some real relationship between the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Christ” (pages 13-16). The calendar doesn’t just lead us to commemorate history, but to participate in it.
On the whole, this book is positively useful for us as it shows and explains the theology behind the 1979 Prayer Book. We in the ACNA can benefit from this not only in understanding the echoes of the ’79 tradition in the 2019 book, but also in understanding why other elements of the ’79 tradition had to be let go. There are two big examples that I’ve picked out to highlight how this book shows us a clear difference between current Episcopalian and orthodox Anglican theology.
Red Flag #1 – the doctrine of Scripture
This is going to be a problem with virtually everything from the pen of an Episcopalian since the mid-20th century. When dealing with the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, Mitchell states that “the closest the liturgy comes to explaining biblical inspiration” is in the supplemental book Lesser Feasts and Fasts, wherein the Collect for St. Jerome says “we pray your Holy Spirit will overshadow us as we read the written Word, and that Christ, the living Word, will transform us according to your righteous will.” He then goes on to say that the liturgy does not teach “Fundamentalism” and that it is the Church’s job to interpret Scripture. These are technically true statements, but the way the term “fundamentalism” is often used, and the way the teaching authority of the Church is often abused are both serious red flags here. Mitchell reveals that the Prayer Book is essentially a companion piece to the Bible, something that helps us interpret the Bible, which again is technically true, but without a clear statement of what biblical inspiration and authority actually mean this is a recipe for the church to take the lead in doctrinal development rather than allow the Bible to lead us.
Red Flag #2 – the authority of the Bishop
In a twisted and ironic sort of way, it is very appropriate the Episcopal Church (USA) is now called the Episcopal Church, because it is their view of the authority of the office of Bishop that is their most noteworthy feature compared to other denominations and traditions. And their view of the episcopacy is not Anglican, either. He notes that “we learn from [the Scriptures] the Good News of Jesus Christ and “all things necessary to salvation”” but then asserts that “The bishop, at ordination, is charged to interpret the Gospel.” He cites the ordination liturgy on page 517 of the 1979 Prayer Book, where indeed that phrase “interpret the Gospel” is used:
A bishop in God’s holy Church is called to be one with the apostles in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and interpreting the Gospel, and to testify to Christ’s sovereignty as Lord of lords and King of kings.
Yikes. It is no wonder that the very first piece of liturgical work in the ACNA was to replace the 1979 Ordinal with something substantially faithful to the actual Anglican tradition. The closest equivalent text in the 2019 book reads as follows:
Question Do you believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the Holy Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach or maintain nothing as necessary to eternal salvation but that which may be concluded and proved by the Scriptures?
Answer I do so believe, and I am so determined, the Lord being my helper.
Question Will you then faithfully study the Holy Scriptures, and call upon God by prayer for the true understanding of them, so that you may be able by them to teach and exhort with wholesome doctrine, and to withstand and convince those who contradict it?
Answer I will, the Lord being my helper.
Question Are you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word, and both privately and publicly to call upon others and encourage them to do the same?
Answer I am ready, the Lord being my helper.
A comparison with the Ordinal attached to the 1662 Prayer Book will find that what we ask of our bishops is the same as all Anglicans before us. The Episcopalian doctrine of bishops places them too high, too powerful. Bishops must proclaim the gospel, not interpret it. Granted, the Gospel and the Bible in general must be interpreted in the sense that people in every culture and age need to be able to understand it, but we must be very careful as to how we speak of such things lest we give bishops free reign over the faith to run amok, as has clearly taken place over the past few decades.
Anyway, these are primarily critiques of the 1979 Prayer Book, but it is Mitchell’s commentary, Praying Shapes Believing, that helps bring these issues to the fore, even if he himself didn’t believe these issues to be actual problems. That’s why I think this book is useful even if you have no personal history with the 1979 prayer book – it is a good and attentive analysis of the bullet we are dislodging from our ecclesiastical body. If we know and understand what went wrong in the past, we will be better prepared not only to prevent ourselves from repeating those mistakes, but also to heal from the wounds already sustained.
The ratings in short:
This books is readable, organized, and has a nice handy index, making everything easy to find and easy to understand.
Devotional Usefulness: N/A
This isn’t a devotional book, it’s a commentary. But it is a tool that can help you rate the ups and downs of the 1979 prayer book’s devotional usefulness!
Reference Value: 3/5
If you’re trying to study Anglican liturgy starting with the basics, don’t grab this book. Save it for later when you’re already grounded in good historic liturgy, and want to start branching out to the variety of modern variations on the prayer book tradition. If and when you want to study what’s good and bad about the 1979 Prayer Book, then this will be an excellent reference.