Translating Tradition

The first half of our worship service today has no doubt seemed very familiar to you. It’s regular 1979 Book of Common Prayer Liturgy of the Word. Comforting, customary, accessible to those of us who have been Episcopalians for awhile.

But the second half of our service, the Liturgy of the Table, will be according to the first Book of Common Prayer, the 1549 edition.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Book of Common Prayer, and it seemed worthwhile to bring back the 1549 liturgy that we used back during our historic liturgies project last fall.

And no doubt the second half of the Eucharist, the 1549 version, will not seem familiar and comfortable.

We’ll have to concentrate. We’ll have to read carefully. We’ll squint at the page and struggle to translate the Elizabethan language into something that is meaningful for us today.

This is such a worthy exercise because it helps us understand Thomas Cranmer’s goal in writing and compiling the Book of Common Prayer.

During our historic liturgies project last fall, as we made our way backward in time from 1928 to 1789 to 1662 to 1549, did you ever feel totally lost in our worship service?

Did you struggle to understand what was going on?

Did you ever wonder what was the point of coming to church at all if everything was so confusing?

That is exactly the situation that faced the people of England in 1548 and for generations before when they went to church.

The liturgy was in Latin. The common people didn’t speak Latin.

Most of them understood that something important was happening at the altar, but they were pretty vague on the details.

And most people in that day and time couldn’t read, so they were doubly barred from participating in their own religion.

In fact, the words and actions were so foreign as to seem like magic.

The Latin mass is where the term “hocus pocus” comes from. The Latin phrase “Hoc est corpus meum,” or “This is my body,” which we recognize from the Eucharist, became “Hocus pocus.”

And the liturgy might as well have been magic for all the English congregations understood of it.

For generations they weren’t even regularly receiving Holy Communion.

They showed up at church, watched a priest move things around on an altar as he spoke in a language they didn’t understand, and then went home.

That doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for transforming hearts and souls in the love of Jesus Christ.

Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Protestant Reformation, knew that, and it concerned him deeply.

He was committed to finding a way to bring the common people deeper into their own faith, to make the gospel accessible to everyday folks.

He began campaigning for vernacular liturgy, worship in English, during Henry VIII’s reign.

He got Henry to agree to the first piece of English liturgy, the Great Litany that we still pray every year on the first Sunday of Lent, because he told Henry that the people’s prayers in support of Henry’s war against the French would be more powerful if they were in a language the people understood.

That incident cracked open the door, and the full Book of Common Prayer followed in 1549, after Henry’s death. Finally, worship was in English throughout the realm.

Congregants were able to worship in spirit and in truth, as our gospel says, not in confusion and darkness.

Why does this matter for us today? What does worshipping out of the 1549 prayerbook have to do with the mission of St. Francis In-The-Fields in 2018?

A lot, it turns out.

What Cranmer was doing when he wrote the prayerbook was serving as an ambassador of the tradition to people who did not have access to it.

That is exactly what we should be doing right now.

Think about how you felt in worship during the historic liturgies project last fall. You didn’t know which end was up, did you?

You had to concentrate to try to figure out what was going on. You had to ask your neighbors in the pews questions. There may have been vast portions of the Eucharist that simply went over your head.

That was certainly true for Davies and me, and we worked extensively with the liturgies before trying to lead them. We got the Creed and the sermon out of order almost every week. No telling what creative things we’ll end up doing in the Eucharist today as we try to get our minds back to 1549 mode.

That overwhelming sense of confusion, of lostness, of knowing something important is happening but not understanding what—that is exactly what the 1548 English Christians felt in worship every week.

And that is exactly what newcomers to our congregation who were not raised Episcopalians feel like in worship today.

Many of you are not cradle Episcopalians. The first time you walked in this nave and tried to follow this service, it was an uphill battle, wasn’t it?

We Episcopalians like to think of ourselves as welcoming, but we actually have one of the least accessible worship traditions across the entire Christian spectrum. Only the Orthodox churches are more arcane than we are.

That doesn’t mean that our tradition is not beautiful and valuable and worthy.

When people realize that it’s not immediately accessible, sometimes there’s an instinct to dumb it down and make it indistinguishable from any other Protestant worship service.

But that is an abandonment of our rich heritage of faith, faith that martyrs like Cranmer died to make sure we would have.

We should instead take a page out of Cranmer’s book—literally.

Cranmer was an ambassador of the tradition to the people. He took the beauty and richness of the Roman Catholic sacramental life, and made it accessible and understandable to the people, in their own language.

We need to find ways of doing the same thing.

It’s not the fancy words, or the gestures, or the vestments, or the candles, that create the Holy Eucharist.

It’s not the prayerbook that creates our communion with God and one another.

It’s the Holy Spirit.

We love this tradition because when we were introduced to it by others who loved it. We were enabled and empowered to worship God in spirit and in truth.

That’s our mission to those we would see join us in worship—to find ways of giving away what we love.

The 1549 prayerbook was revolutionary for those who experienced it at that time.

It was like they had been blindfolded their entire lives in worship and suddenly someone had ripped the blindfold away to reveal a rainbow of grace and joy and the call to new life in Christ.

So what are we doing to translate our tradition?

What are we doing to bring forward and affirm the rich legacy of worship in the beauty of holiness while making sure that it doesn’t just live in this room on Sunday mornings?

What are we doing to speak faith out in the world?

To welcome people on their terms, not our own?

What blindfolds are we insisting people wear?

How could we be brave enough to take off our own blindfolds?

Because what we’re doing here, whether it’s in the language of 2018 or 1549, is not just hocus pocus.

We’re not here to wear fancy clothes and say fancy words.

We’re here to be strengthened for mission.

We’re here to give our broken hearts to God in humble trust that God cares.

We’re here to ring out our joy as people are baptized and married, and to mourn as people are buried.

How many times have you come to this altar with your soul so heavy within you, you weren’t sure you could make it down the aisle?

And how many times have you come to this altar so sure of God’s love for you that the world practically glowed?

And here’s the question we really need to answer: who in our lives needs this altar and does not have access to it?

We’re not asking who needs to become an Episcopalian, or who needs to learn the prayerbook. We’re asking who needs the radiant love of God in their lives, and the answer to that is “everyone.”

Thomas Cranmer saw that the richness of the sacramental tradition was blocked from the people because it was not in their language. And the great work of his life was translating the tradition so people could reach their own faith.

We are called to do the same.

We won’t be translating our liturgy literally into a different language.

But we will be finding ways to awaken people to the gifts of faith they already have.

It’s not as though the English people of 1548 weren’t pious and faithful. They just needed someone to give them the tools to go deeper.

That’s what we’re called to do today.

We’re called to meet people wherever they are in their spiritual journeys, and say, “Here’s what’s helped me go deeper in community and practice of my faith. Maybe it could help you as well.”

That’s evangelism, making the Good News of Jesus Christ accessible to everyone, and that was the purpose of the first Book of Common Prayer that we celebrate today.

Translators of tradition, ambassadors of faith, witnesses to the transformative power of God’s love. That’s what it means to be a prayerbook people.

So as we stumble our way through this 1549 Eucharist today, think of someone in your life who would feel equally confused if they showed up on a normal Sunday with our 1979 liturgy.

And think about how you could help them find the grace beneath the beauty, the power beneath the pomp, the love beneath the liturgy.

That would be a worthy undertaking.

As Cranmer would say, “It is meet and right so to do.”



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