I wish the Episcopal Church had more and better micro-liturgies in the Book of Common Prayer, the better to support family- and small-group worship. My wife recently observed that some religious traditions provide more structure to help people practice their faith outside of formal church services. Jews have Shabbat prayers; Mormons have Family Home Evening. Most "mainstream" Christians, on the other hand, seem to practice their religion primarily in church, on Sundays.
The Prayer Book has some resources for non-church family worship. We have the Daily Devotions for families, as well as the Order of Worship for the Evening. There are plenty of miscellaneous prayers starting on page 809, as well as the various collects. And of course Morning and Evening Prayer, or Compline, are always options.
But by and large, most of these are church-type services. They're not really great for families or small groups, especially when meals are involved and people are eager to dig in.
Consequently, Episcopalians may well miss out on some important sources of spiritual strength.
Liturgies: Community Bonding Through Shared Ritual
It's a commonplace that shared rituals and traditions bind us together. Liturgies are prime examples. A faculty member at Brigham Young University reported the comments of a Jewish mother about Friday-night Sabbath prayers, in an article based on his Ph.D. dissertation:
"Traditions give you a sense of family and they give you a sense of belonging to a group of people, not being alone in the world," a thoughful mother explained. * * *
"Even though we are scattered all over the world, I can go anywhere and observe Sabbath and it will be pretty much the same. . . . Our rituals give us an identity. They give us a sense of who we are . . . . "
I remember a spine-tingling scene toward the end of the movie Schindler's List: Oskar Schindler assembles his Jewish workers and announces to them that the war is over. Schindler calls for a moment of silence to remember those who died. He makes the Sign of the Cross and bows his head to pray. In the silence, one of the Jewish workers, probably a cantor or rabbi, begins singing a mournful prayer in Hebrew. The whole crowd -- hundreds of Jews -- sing the Hebrew responses together, at the proper times.
It'd be a wonderful thing if Episcopalians -- and for that matter, Christians worldwide -- had easily-accessible prayers to do likewise for some of the milestones, triumphs, and tragedies of life.
Shared rituals of this kind help us to navigate our way through life. They provide the comfort of familiarity and participation. They send or reinforce some subtle but powerful messages:
- You, the individual Christian, are not alone -- you're supported by your community, in our case, the Body of Christ.
- The community has experience in dealing with good times and bad times. The familiar prayers convey that we aren't merely winging it, we're not making it up as we go along.
Extemporaneous Prayer Isn't Enough
Episcopalians do indeed have such shared ritual for the major, church-based worship services. At just about any parish in the United States, an Episcopalian can join in the liturgy for the Eucharist (or baptisms or weddings or burials), often from memory. That's a great thing, as I can attest from personal experience.
It's a very different story for the routine, everyday events of life. If we pray at such events at all, we often limp along with an extemporaneous prayer, usually by a single person, with others simply responding "Amen."
Extemporaneous prayer has its place, certainly. But it does little or nothing to bind us together as a community, it seems to me. Neither does it impart a sense of tradition, of continuity with the community of the present and the past. Our children and grandchildren won't think of our extemporaneous prayers as part of the spiritual fabric of their lives.
We Need Short, Participatory, Family-and-Friends Liturgies
So, I submit, the church needs some very short, easy-to-use, participatory liturgies, to help the laity to set apart for God -- that is, to sanctify -- such everyday events as:
- Sunday dinners
- dinner on a designated weeknight when everyone agrees to be home
- wedding anniversaries
- rehearsal dinners
- baptism and confirmation family celebrations
- travel -- e.g., leaving on a trip
- job transitions
- new business ventures
- All Saints' Day
- Advent-wreath lighting
- Hospital visits
- Mourning (similar to the Jewish Kaddish)
It would also be great to have micro-liturgies that could be used at recurring parish functions such as
- Sunday-school classes
- Bible study
- Small-group meetings
- Choir practice
- Vestry- and committee meetings
- Parish dinners
Some Implementation Ideas
Few in Number: There should only be a handful of micro-liturgies, otherwise people won't remember them and won't use them. (We wouldn't want to be like the scene in the original movie M*A*S*H, where the Catholic chaplain was reading from a missal: "Bless this jeep, and keep its occupants safe ...." )
Brevity: Most such micro-liturgies should be just a few lines or a few paragraphs long. People won't use anything much longer than that. The point is to get people thinking about God and his blessings; this can be done without going on and on. Any advertising executive will tell you that multiple short "impressions" are more effective in conveying a message than one long one. Likewise, any schoolteacher (or parent) can confirm that frequent, brief study sessions are more effective than an all-night cram session.
Participatory Format: I think it's critical that these micro-liturgies be as participatory as possible. The general format should be along the lines of the Prayers of the People Form III or Form VI, or of Eucharistic Prayer C, or the Psalms. (I wish all the Eucharistic Prayers were as participatory as Prayer C.)
Mix and Match Lines from Familiar Prayers: A good way to design such micro-liturgies would be to combine portions of various familiar prayers, especially Morning Prayer and the Prayers of the People. That would make it much easier for people to participate without a script. For example:
- If you loudly say "The Lord be with you" in any crowd of Episcopalians, you will get an immediate, near-unanimous response, "And also with you."
- If you were to say "Create in me a clean heart, O God" -- from Psalm 51, if memory serves -- many Episcopalians would immediately respond, "And renew a right spirit within me."
- A small group to which my wife and I belong meets for dinner once a month. We sometimes close the evening with the Post-Communion Prayer from Rite II, because everyone knows it by heart.
- Another small group in which we participate uses the Prayers of the People, Form VI, again because we all know it.
There's a lot of potential for community bonding in the prayers people already know.
Individual Prayer Opportunities: Many if not most such micro-liturgies should include opportunities for individual prayer.
Cut and Paste, Mix and Match: The easiest and least-controversial way to create these micro-liturgies would be to cut and paste from existing Prayer Book texts, making them participatory by designating them to be said in unison or responsively if they're not already that way.
I've started tinkering with a couple of micro-liturgies along these lines. They draw heavily on Morning Prayer (both Rites I and II) and on the Prayers of the People. I'll post the results for comment when I'm finished. I think the two small groups to which I belong may be willing to try them out.
If you've got ideas of your own, please take a stab at drafting something and post them as comments or email them to me. Maybe working together we can develop something useful -- and who knows, eventually we might have something "official" in the Prayer Book.