On the service for institution of ministers
The most distinctive service of the US prayer book tradition, and why it matters
Welcome, new readers! It’s been great to have an influx of you as Twitter possibly lurches towards collapse. Here you’ll find a mix of commentary on the contemporary church, reflections on Anglican history, and various other theological and liturgical miscellanea. I typically write between once and twice a month, occasionally more when I’m feeling inspired.
Here’s a few of the pieces of which I’m the proudest:
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Communion Without Baptism and the Collapse of Eucharistic Discipline
Against the Rhetoric of ‘Religious Experience’
For Anglican Reconfessionalization
Now, on to today’s post, which takes us somewhat into the weeds of Anglican liturgical history:
What is the most distinctive element of the American prayer book tradition?
Scholars of American Anglican liturgical history typically focus above all on the American Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharistic rite. Here, the framers of the American prayer book, drawing in particular upon Bishop Samuel Seabury’s Communion Office, framed a service of Holy Communion that hewed more closely to the Scottish prayer book tradition (and, before it, the 1549 Book of Common Prayer) than the 1662 English prayer book which would become normative for most of the rest of Anglicanism. In particular, this liturgy included an explicit epiclesis (a prayer that the Holy Spirit would descend upon the elements) and placed the prayer of oblation (‘And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves…’) before the communion rather than after it, as in the 1662. This American liturgy is often read as an expression of high-church, non-Juror principles, and has proved helpful for those wishing to find an Anglican but more ‘catholic’ alternative to the 1662’s service. Thus you often will find analysis of Anglican eucharistic prayers that distinguish between an ‘English’ and a ‘Scottish/American’ family of prayers, and indeed the latter would be taken up beyond the US and Scotland in prayer books such as the South African 1954 and the English proposed book of 1928. The treatment in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey is typical here.
But I hope to show today that the American Eucharistic rite is actually not the most distinctive feature of the American prayer book tradition. My point here is not to derogate the importance of the American Eucharistic rite, nor to weigh in on the question of whether the ‘English’ or ‘Scots-American’ Holy Communion service is preferable. But I think our focus on Holy Communion in thinking about the American contribution to Anglican liturgics leads us to miss what is, in fact, the most novel and one of the most interesting features of the American prayer book tradition: the office for the institution of ministers, called in the 1979 BCP The Celebration of a New Ministry.
The American prayer book tradition here does something genuinely new, and I think quite beautiful: it provides a liturgical service, which it places in the prayer book itself, for the institution or induction of a new minister into service at a parish. Now, there are other things included in the American BCPs that were not included in, say, the 1662 English BCP, like the family prayers or the service for the consecration of the church. But both of these have clear precedents in Anglican liturgical practice (and indeed family prayers were often bound with editions of the English BCP).In contrast, the service for the institution of a minister was not just newly-included in the prayer book but was new to Anglican liturgical practice more broadly!
There were some fairly minimal practices for the institution or induction of ministers in English practice. Marion Hatchett helpfully points us to John Johnson’s The Clergyman’s Vade Mecum, in which Johnson describes the set of actions a new clergyman would undertake upon his induction into a parish: subscribing to the Articles of Religion and reading them out loud at two services (a practice worth recovering, in my opinion!), several oaths, receiving the key to the church, ringing the bell, and so forth. But even if parts of this induction might take place within the context of a liturgy (the reading of the Articles, for example), it was primarily a set of legal actions.
The American prayer book does something different. In 1804, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America adopted an order for induction of ministers based on a rite drawn up for the Diocese of Connecticut by the Rev. William Smith, rector of St. Paul’s Norwalk. While for a brief while the rite had legal status, this was quickly dropped: it became instead a liturgical way to mark the taking up of a new pastoral charge, and to teach both the minister and the people about what parish ministry is.
The service is fairly similar throughout all versions of the American prayerbook, although unsurprisingly the 1979 prayer book includes the most significant deviations. The letter of induction is read, the minister receives the keys to the church, the Bible, a copy of the Canons and Constitutions, and a prayer book (technically this need not be a BCP in the 1979 rite, for some reason, and the 1979 rite also involves the handing over of various other clerical accoutrements), and – most strikingly – the new minister kneels and says a truly gorgeous prayer of self-dedication. Somewhat amazingly, the prayer in the pre-1979 office, which was apparently an original composition by William Smith for the 1799 office, survives in contemporary language form in the 1979 rite!
It is worth quoting the prayer, both in its original 1799 form, which was found with minor variations through the 1928 book, and its current 1979 form:
O LORD my God! I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof; yet thou hast honoured thy servant with all this honour that I am appointed to stand in thy House, and to serve at thy holy Altar. To thee and to thy service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit—with all the powers and faculties of the same.—Fill my memory with the words of thy Law; enlighten my understanding with the illumination of the Holy Ghost—and my Will—O may all its wishes and desires centre in what thou hast commanded, O Holy Jesus. And, to make me instrumental in promoting the salvation of the people now committed to my charge, grant that I may faithfully administer thy holy Sacraments, and by my life and doctrine set forth thy true and lively Word. Be ever with me in the performance of all the duties of my ministry: in prayer, to quicken my devotion; in praises, to heighten my love and gratitude; and in preaching, readiness of thought and expression suitable to the clearness and excellency of thy holy Word. Grant me the help and comfort of all good men; —and from wicked and unreasonable men, good Lord deliver thy servant who putteth his trust in thee. Our Father, &c.
O Lord my God, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; yet you have called your servant to stand in your house, and to serve at your altar. To you and to your service I devote myself, body, soul, and spirit. Fill my memory with the record of your mighty works; enlighten my understanding with the light of your Holy Spirit; and may all the desires of my heart and will center in what you would have me do. Make me an instrument of your salvation for the people entrusted to my care, and grant that I may faithfully administer your holy Sacraments, and by my life and teaching set forth your true and living word. Be always with me in carrying out the duties of my ministry. In prayer, quicken my devotion; in praises, heighten my love and gratitude; in preaching, give me readiness of thought and expression; and grant that, by the clearness and brightness of your holy Word, all the world may be drawn into your blessed kingdom. All this I ask for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.
If you’d like to see the whole service, you can find the 1979 version here, the 1928 one here, the 1892 one here, and the 1804-1808 and 1808-1892 versions here.
This service would come to influence other Anglican uses around the world. The Canadian prayer book of 1918 and 1962, for example, included services of induction clearly derived from the American rite, and according to Hatchett various English dioceses would adopt the American use as well. But as far as I can tell, no one has adopted by the prayer of self-dedication. This appears to be an American distinctive, all the way to the present day.
At this point, you might well be wondering ‘so what?’ This, after all, is a service that even priests are likely to experience only a few times during their lives, and that your average layperson may well never experience. And to defend my spending some time writing about this service, I’d point first to its significance in thinking about Anglican liturgical history and questions of the distinctiveness of American Anglicanism within the broader Anglican tradition (incidentally, it provides the only instance of the word ‘Altar’ in the earlier American prayer book tradition!). But beyond its importance there, I think it is worth reflecting on for all who have charge of a parish, and indeed for all clergy and people.
For this service, and perhaps most perfectly the prayer of self-dedication, tell us what we believe parish ministry is about, what the work of a parish priest entails. To be a parish priest is to stand in God’s house, to minister at God’s altar in order to be an instrument of salvation to God’s people. Such work requires entire self-dedication to God, a mind that contemplates God’s works and a heart that desires God above all things. It requires devoted prayer, thankful praise, and thoughtful sermons, so that parish priests can rightly administer Sacraments and by life and doctrine show forth God’s Word. And so of course the priest prays for the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, as all this is otherwise wholly beyond our grasp. This is what it is to have leadership of a parish: to devote all one’s energies to be an instrument of salvation to one’s people, by the power of the Holy Spirit!
Note well: this is not simply to be a curator of spiritual experiences, or someone providing ‘accompaniment’ wherever one’s people’s spiritual life takes them. Nor is it simply to be a community organizer, helping the community discern and enact whatever values they already hold. No - it is to be an instrument of salvation, to be responsible for the people under one’s charge! If this language is sometimes criticized as clericalist, I wonder how much of this is we clergy desiring to wriggle our way out of the responsibility put upon us as much as genuinely desiring to celebrate the gifts and capacity of the laity. It is a scary thing to contemplate being an ordinary means by which people will either be met by God or will fail to be so met. But this is exactly what the prayer confesses!
The amazing grace and dreadful seriousness of parish ministry is set forth here, and rightly so, for it is in the life of the parish that most Christians are joined to Christ in baptism, nourished at the Table, and strengthened in the Christian life. Generally speaking, if we are to be saved, it is not otherwise than through (as an instrument) the life of the parish and the ministrations of its priest. Here I confess I rather miss the language that shows up in letter of institution associated with the 1804 – 1928 rites, in which the priest is charged “faithfully to feed that portion of the flock of Christ which is now intrusted to you; not as a man-pleaser, but as continually bearing mind that you are accountable to us [ie, the bishop] here, and to the Chief Bishop and Sovereign Judge of all, hereafter.” How rightly each priest kneels and confesses her unworthiness, and prays for the gift of the Holy Spirit! Yet - praise God - God elects to use even such unworthy vessels as ourselves to minister salvation.
It is my fervent hope that I will someday have the opportunity to kneel in the midst of the congregation and pray this prayer – and all the more that God will give me the grace to entirely dedicate myself to him so make me an instrument of his salvation to those people placed under my charge!
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