Sunday, January 16, 2011

What do we mean by Common Prayer?

At my previous parish about 8 years before I started as the curate, the parish had a graduate student commissioned for a major sculpture for the courtyard. The parish church was right off the campus of a major university. It had this nice brick courtyard with a bench and all. When the artwork was finally finished, a huge winged lion sculpture graced the courtyard. It was a lovely depiction of the iconic image of St. Mark, which was the patron of the parish. The sculpture was life sized and faced outward toward the street where many students walked on a daily basis.

What was interesting about the sculpture was how it was immediately understood and accepted as the beloved lion in the courtyard by the members of the congregation. They cared for it and polished it on a regular basis. They put hats on it during home football games and even a Santa hat during Advent. It quickly became the stock image that was used on the business cards and website of the parish.

Ironically, those people not associated with the parish and knew little if anything about the church or the traditional meaning of a winged lion in classic Christian symbolism has the exact opposite reaction. This was something that the congregation always found shocking, and to an extent, never knew how to handle. This was because this life sized lion in the courtyard was very forbidding looking to the onlooker on the street.

Whereas the "church folk" loved and embraced the sculpture as a wonderful work of art and as a welcoming "Aslan"-like figure, the students at the university who didn't understand that it depicted the patron saint of the parish, found it to be downright ghastly, as if a grand lion was constantly on guard to growl and eat any potential newcomer to the parish doors.

Over on the Facebook group that I contribute to as a writer, we are going to be for the coming week having reflections on Common Prayer, particularly focusing on such things as the Daily Office. I think one of the things that needs to be cleared up at the beginning before we get those meanings is to tackle the question of, "What do we mean by Common Prayer?"

I think like that Lion in the courtyard of the parish, those of us "on the inside" understand what we mean by "common prayer." (At least I hope we do...) But to people on the outside who don't come from our tradition, the term seems quite bizarre and off-putting.

The term "common" in "common prayer" does not mean what common has largely come to mean in modern parlance. Common does not mean boring, everyday, run-of-the-mill prayer, as if it is something of mediocre or inferior quality.

Common Prayer means prayer we pray in common. We join as a community and equally share in this prayer. Thus, a Book of Common Prayer is the book with which we come together as a community to communally pray from. In an individualistic society, this type of prayer in common is, in fact, anything but ordinary. In a world that likes to cater to individual preferences and buffet-style religion, Common Prayer holds us together in a common worship of the Divine.

This may seem remedial to most who read this, but it is always worthwhile to always bear in mind that the great gem or treasure of Anglicanism, i.e. the Book of Common Prayer, has a meaning that people on the outside of our tradition might not even grasp because modern language changes and morphs. I post this as an opening salvo into reflections and postings on Common Prayer in the hopes that we start from an open, or common if you will, understanding of the term itself. I think this is crucial to any discussion on that matter.

This is probably pointing out the elephant in the room, but I've found that you should do this and do it often with religious types.

We do love our sacred cows.

No comments: