Fasting has a Purpose

Fasting is perhaps the most prominent and well-known feature of the season of Lent, even though many people today don’t practice it. One of the issues that presents itself to people seems to be that fasting is often misunderstood. Since today is Friday, a fast day, let’s take a look at a few examples of what fasting isn’t, and what it actually is.

Fasting is not an end unto itself

Simply “giving something up for Lent” or refraining from eating certain foods at certain times does not make a person more holy. All foods were created for our enjoyment, provided we give thanks to God. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). Fasting, however, is a powerful tool in the toolbox of spiritual disciplines if used rightly. Fasting is a discipline that we can celebrate and use in conjunction with prayer and alms-giving. You can read more about that connection in Isaiah 58 and in part of this short article.

Fasting is not abstinence

It is not always clear in the Bible, but there is a difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is a reduction, abstinence is an elimination. When Moses, Jesus, or others fasted for 40 days, it does not typically mean that they ate or drank nothing at all – the human body can survive without food that long if properly prepared, but certainly not without water. One might appeal to divine providence in certain cases, but to belabor that point would be to miss the spiritual point: the discipline of fasting before special occasions or for special intercessory or penitential purposes is valuable to every believer. To fast is to reduce the amount or luxury of a thing. The biggest traditional example of this is to cut meat out of the diet because eating meat was associated with feasting, celebration, even worship. If you want some tips on what fasting might look like in today’s world, you can check out this article.

Fasting is not self-harm

Again, fasting is a spiritual discipline. It is geared toward exercising self-denial such that your spiritual attentions are provoked and improved in some way. Thus, fasting in such a way that your health suffers is not a true fast. The goal is redirect your passions, not make yourself sick. This is not about self-punishment, but self-control. This is why, traditionally, the young, the old, the sick, and pregnant women have been exempt from rules of fasting. It’s not that we’re going easy on “the weak”, but that people must not be encouraged to harm themselves. If you’re on medication, have dietary issues, or other food-related situation, fasting from food is something that you should not pursue without pastoral and medical advice.

Fasting is not just about food

Last of all, there are many other things that can be reduced or eliminated by way of the spiritual discipline of fasting. Social media, television, other activities of leisure or entertainment, are all excellent examples of things that can profitably be reduced or set aside for the sake of increased spiritual pursuits. Don’t get hung up on “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent!” when there are so many other possibilities out there. Look to where your habits and desires are found, and explore ways to curb and control those habits and desires – that is where you truly learn self-control.

Comforting those who mourn

After someone has died, there are mourners to comfort. That’s where the Prayer Book’s Prayers for a Vigil come in – after the death but before the burial/funeral. It’s not a feature of the classical Prayer Books, though it is a long-standing custom and a very real practical and pastoral need.

One of the biggest challenges in life, especially in ministry, is knowing what to say at critical moments. Obviously, when someone dies, one can’t just spout off any old sentimental drivel, toxic positivity, or (in the opposite extreme) act callously and flippantly toward those who grieve a loss. This rite helps give us sound words to say: two excellent Psalm examples, two excellent brief Scripture readings, and a set of prayers all geared to help people understand and process the painful reality of death, and the Christian hope to be found therein.

This Customary’s walk-through of the Prayers for a Vigil can be found in full here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-prayers-for-a-vigil/

Bringing Communion to the Sick or Homebound

The contexts in which people are unable to attend church services may have changed somewhat since the early prayer books, but the need remains: sometimes there are those who are sick, elderly, or otherwise incapacitated who need the visitation of their pastor (or other authorized minister) bring the ministry of the church to them. The Communion of the Sick, in the 2019 Prayer Book, is our template for such home or hospital visitations.

If people are unable to attend church due to, say, a global pandemic in progress, elements of this liturgy might help parish priests work out how to make door-to-door Communion visits also!

The full Saint Aelfric Customary entry for this rite can be found here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-the-communion-of-the-sick/

There you will find guidance for selecting Psalm and Scripture according to the situation, notes about the need for recurring visits, and even insight and advice on how to handle preaching and prayers.

About Private Confession

Private confession of sin to a priest is a subject of some controversy among Anglicans. Some argue that it has no place in our tradition whatsoever, while others advocate it as a good and proper practice worthy of normalization. A look at the historical Prayer Books reveals something in between: this practice was allowed, but not normal. Two references to private confession stand in the old Prayer Books:

  1. The Communion of the Sick provide an absolution for the Priest to say if the sick person wants to make a confession to him.
  2. The Exhortation at Holy Communion (the one announcing an upcoming celebration of Holy Communion) invites people to make a private confession if their consciences are particularly troubled, “to remove all scruple and doubt” and receive godly counsel.

Thus we find a clear outline of an authentically Anglican approach to private confession: it is a special pastoral ministry whereby a priest can provide more particular spiritual guidance to his flock and bring the benefits and comforts of the regular liturgy to those who are shut up sick at home.

To this end, modern Prayer Books (like our new one) provide an actual form for private confession. In the 2019 Prayer Book, the absolution from the old 1662 Visitation of the Sick is retained for this very purpose! It’s an excellent resource for priestly/pastoral ministry, drawing upon both ancient and specifically-Anglican tradition, in our modern context.

One of the things that people new to the practice often misunderstand is the issue of secrecy. Our Prayer Book notes that “The secrecy of a confession is morally binding for the confessor and is not to be broken” – no exception is provided. As far as the East is from the West, so far has the Lord put away our sins from us.  That established, it must also be noted that a true confession involves contrition.  The penitent concludes “I am truly sorry” and “I firmly intend amendment of life” and “ask for counsel.” The confessional is no more a place for ‘cheap grace’ than the Holy Table or the pulpit. For more specific guidance on how to use this rite, and how to handle the issues of particular sorts of sins that may be confessed, read the full Customary entry here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-reconciliation-of-a-penitent/

Considering the Wedding and its Due Preparation

After the theological drift in the past two American Prayer Books, the service of Holy Matrimony in the 2019 Prayer Book is a breath of fresh air, its content rooted in the traditional material of the classical Anglican tradition. The format of the service is very much in the modern style, but language and doctrine it contains are long-awaited returns to historic orthodoxy.

The opening text on BCP 198-199 outline the doctrine of marriage and call for “great care” in the preparation of all candidates for Holy Matrimony. The word “candidate” should be taken seriously: just as in Confirmation and Ordination, those preparing for marriage are merely candidates, and the minister is well within his rights to deny officiating the wedding if the couple is not prepared or ineligible for marriage. The Banns of Marriage are one line of discernment, wherein the congregation is to be given at least three opportunities to offer any “cause, or just impediment” that the wedding should not go through. Furthermore, the minister is expected (and in many dioceses required) to have the couple sign the Declaration of Intention on BCP 200. This, and its accompanying liturgy on BCP 213, is essentially a formalized betrothal ceremony, and serves as the primary “gateway” to the path to marriage. If the couple is unable to sign the Declaration in good conscience they need further instruction and catechesis concerning Christian marriage before they can receive the Church’s blessing. The minister should take this role with grave solemnity, as many believers have slipped through the cracks in recent decades, entering into marriage with (at best) anemic views of biblical marriage.

What follows is but one way of approaching pre-marital counseling, which the minister can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the couple in question.

“Marriage is two people made one flesh in community bearing fruit for life before God.”

1. “Marriage Is”

  • Examine the Declaration of Intent study its four-fold purpose of marriage
  • Examine Holy Matrimony as an image of Christ & Church
  • Gateway: Sign the Declaration of Intention

2. “Two People”

  • Profile the personalities of the man and the woman with appropriate social and religious tools and measures
  • Consider their schedules, lifestyles, interests, personal spaces
  • Gateway: Make plans for Confirmation if not yet done

3. “Made One Flesh”

  • Consider the unity of the couple, especially their disciplines (spiritual and otherwise)
  • Examine their conflict resolution past and present, and where peace is found
  • Gateway: Have them paraphrase the Wedding Vows for their own understanding

4. “In Community”

  • Consider the community, especially the future in-laws, for this couple, and their relationships
  • Explore their baggage, expectations, history, and wishes about family and friends
  • Gateway: Offer Healing Prayer

5. “Bearing Fruit”

  • Explore the subjects of agape love that sacrifices & spreads, especially with regards to sexuality, family planning, and child-rearing
  • Examine their sexual desires, history, expectations, and ethics
  • Gateway: Offer private Confession & Absolution

6. “For Life”

  • Consider ordinary household plans like finances, spending & saving habits, occupations
  • Explore the subjects of homemaking and domestic duties and expectations
  • Gateway: Have them prepare a budget and list major milestones as a couple for their first year

7. “Before God”

  • Explore spiritual habits shared by the couple and pastoral accountability for the future
  • Consider the religious life of their family-to-be
  • Gateway: Plan the wedding ceremony’s liturgy together

Customary update: Holy Baptism

Work on the Saint Aelfric Customary continues; we are getting into more “occasional” services now, where there are fewer options to choose from. But options, there still are, and so some sort of customary is needed to assist the decision-making.

One of the biggest things about the Baptism service in our (2019) Prayer Book, along with the 1979 Book, is that it is expected to be a part of the Communion service. The baptism basically takes the place of the Antecommunion, or the Communion liturgy up to the Offertory. In the classical books, Baptism was a stand-alone office, and as a result there are a number of tradition-minded folks who lament this change. Some are concerned that the Eucharist will overshadow Baptism. Some are concerned that the clarity of our baptismal theology will be hidden amidst a longer, less focused, liturgy. Some are concerned that the Baptism will overshadow the Communion. So there are a number of considerations at play here, giving us good reason to say “no thanks” to the Prayer Book’s recommendation of holding Baptisms within Communion services. There are times that’s a fine idea, and times when it may not be.

So you can read more about that, and how these decisions can impact the execution of the liturgy as a whole, on the Customary page here: https://saint-aelfric-customary.org/customary-for-holy-baptism/

A de-revision: A Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time,
with one accord to make our common supplications to you;
and you have promised through your well-beloved Son
that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will grant their requests:
Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us;
granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting.

As the name indicates, this prayer’s earliest-known appearance is in the Eastern Orthodoxy Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and Saint Basil, at the end of their Entrance Rites. It first came to Anglican liturgy at the end of Archbishop Cranmer’s Litany of 1544, before the first Prayer Book was compiled. It was removed from the Litany in the American Prayer Books of 1928 and 1979, and the 2019 Prayer Book has followed suit. This prayer was added to the Daily Office in the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637, and then the English Book of 1662, where it has remained all subsequent Prayer Books, albeit rendered as optional starting in 1892.

In 1979 several wording changes were introduced. In part this was to align the text with the primary Scriptural reference (Matthew 18:19-20), as well as to conform more closely to the Eastern liturgy from which Cranmer originally drew this prayer. This revised phrase, “you will be in the midst of them” has been rolled back in our present version: “you will grant their requests.” Although the 1979 revision matches the biblical text, the historic Prayer Book wording matches the liturgical purpose of the prayer in its specific context. At the end of a worship service or liturgy, assurance of God’s answering of prayer is more appropriate than assurance of the presence of the Lord.

This ancient prayer draws together two sayings of Jesus: Matthew 18:19-20 (“where two or three are gathered”) and John 14:13-14 (“if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it”). Functionally, this prayer is akin to the shorter Occasional Prayers #98, 99, and 100, though its specific appeal to the prayers of the church gathered makes it particularly appropriate for the public liturgy of the Church. In that light, the rubric rendering it optional in American Prayer Books since 1928 is probably a concession for instances where the Office is said by an individual in private.

To offer God “our common supplications” is described here as a gift of grace – liturgy and worship are not so much the efforts of man as they are the power of God in us. And even the power of prayer itself is based on the promises of Christ. In short, this prayer both humbles us and encourages us, as we rehearse the basic theology of prayer: God commands it, God empowers it, God fulfills it. And even when we get it wrong, we simply hope that God will answer “as may be best for us”, which is spelled out as knowledge of his truth and life everlasting. If we come away from the Daily Office remembering nothing else, that desire for divine knowledge and life will be enough.

Singing through Hallowtide

Hallowtide is one of the nicknames for the period of time around All Saints’ Day – perhaps most especially from All Hallow’s Eve (October 31st) through the Octave of All Saints’ Day. Indeed, we do kind of need a name for the phenomenon of how modern Prayer Books direct that we should observe All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday in November. Last year we looked at that in a brief write-up here, so this year we’re taking a more devotional tack.

There are two groups of hymns to consider when looking at how to sing our way through Hallowtide: hymns about the Church Triumphant and hymns about the Church Expectant (or At Rest). You may be familiar with the Roman pair of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day on November 1st and 2nd, honoring the Saints in heaven on the former and praying for the souls in purgatory in the latter. Obviously, the Anglican tradition does not teach the Roman doctrine of purgatory, so we have no need of All Souls Day. But many Anglicans today do observe a Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, looking at the mournful side of death (the other side of the coin in All Saints’ Day where we celebrate victory amidst death). So as we sing through Hallowtide we should consider both of these angles along the way.

Here are the hymns appointed in this Customary’s “daily hymnody” plan, remembering that the hymn numbers refer to Book of Common Praise 2017 or Magnify the Lord:

There are, of course, plenty of other appropriate hymns out there that you could draw in. These are just the ones that I selected from one hymnal for this particular week; there are others are scattered throughout the year on particular saints’ days.

After Hallowtide, you may also wish to consider some national hymns on November 8th through 11th, building towards Remembrance Day (Intl.) / Veteran’s Day (USA).

Customary Update: Communion options!

The Saint Aelfric Customary’s directions through the 2019 Prayer Book’s Communion liturgy is complete now. You can read it in full here.

One note of particular interest are recommendations for Communion Hymns based on the liturgical season, drawing from the lovely collection of thirty-seven (!!!) such hymns in the excellent REC hymnal. There is, of course, a lot of argumentation to be found among Christians concerning music, its accessibility, appropriate styles, and theological and biblical content. The subject of Holy Communion (or any sacrament, really) tends to suffer the most neglect in contemporary music, and sacramentology also tends to be something of a partisan battleground among Anglicans already, so making use of a set of lyrics that describe the Lord’s Supper can indeed be quite valuable for our congregations today.

Another feature that may appear somewhat strange here is the implementation of a little rubric in the 2019 Prayer Book’s liturgy authorizing “a sentence of Scripture at the conclusion of the Communion“, immediately before the Post-Common Prayer. Before the Reformation, each Mass had an appointed Communion Sentence. The 1549 Prayer Book reduced this complexity to a simple list of Sentences for the celebrant to choose from, and exploring that list is particularly interesting as it highlights the Reformation doctrine of faith much more prominently than the exaggerated sacramentalism of late medieval piety. Most subsequent Prayer Books have omitted this little piece of the liturgy, but now that it’s authorized again this Customary has seized the opportunity to restore the 1549 list, with a few additions from prior tradition. Check them out!

Which Communion Rite should I use?

The first question a liturgical planner faces when looking at an upcoming service of Holy Communion is which rite to use. Episcopalians have at least six in their Prayer Book, the Roman Rite has several iterations these days, even the Eastern Orthodox have a couple different standard liturgies too. Historically, Anglicanism has had only one rite, locally adapted from Prayer Book to Prayer Book; this range of options is very much a modern phenomenon. But, while the modern and post-modern mentalities will say “variety is the spice of life”, historical wisdom tells a different story: consistency is key. Musicians and other artists will also attest to the value of repetition; it’s how we learn and grow.

And so, the 2019 Prayer Book rolls back the modern cafeteria of liturgies to just two options: the Anglican Standard Text and the Renewed Ancient Text. If you want to explore what’s most different about them, you can read about that here. But honestly, the names give you the gist of it: the Anglican Standard is the standard Anglican liturgy, and the Renewed Ancient is a modern take on an ancient text called The Apostolic Tradition with some controversy behind it. It was either written by Hipollytus of Rome in the 3rd century or compiled from disparate sources by the 5th century, and it may contain a proposed liturgy rather than one that was actually used. In any case, this document’s discovery in the 19th century led to its widespread adoption especially among Romans and Anglicans in the 20th century; two of the four the modern-language Communion rites of the 1979 Prayer Book are based upon it. And thanks to their sheer popularity, a new form of it has been adopted by the 2019 Prayer Book.

Back to the question at hand, there are two approaches to answering this question.

  1. Use our new Prayer Book in a way that is consistent with our classical tradition.
  2. Every option in the Prayer Book has its proper time and use.

It is my conviction, and the aim of this Customary, to present these two principles to my fellow American Anglicans as a better way to stabilize our liturgical formation across the province and provide our congregations with solid and coherent spiritual formation. But this is a case where the two principles diverge somewhat. If you operate primarily under the first principle (historical precedent) then the answer is simple: always use the Anglican Standard Text.

For those who prefer to give every Rite its time, one must consider the strengths and weaknesses, the emphases and assumptions of the options. The language and content of the historic liturgy is unbeatably clear and focused on its dealing with sin and salvation. Yet, although Renewed Ancient Text may be more shallow in that regard, its Communion prayers take a grander sweep of the work of God into consideration, perhaps most notably the incarnation of our Lord. In these distinctions we find the best opportunities to use the Renewed Ancient Text are in “incarnation”-themed times, such as Advent, Christmas, and the Epiphany.

For more specific guidance, check out the Holy Communion Customary page.