An Interview about Common Prayer

Here’s an interview we recently did with the publishers of Common Prayer.

How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Increasingly, people inside and outside the church wonder why they should worship. The pulls of family life, sports, and employment raise questions about why spend one’s valuable time in common prayer. We asked a group of talented writers to offer personal and provocative essays about their experience of worship. In a certain sense, we wanted a collection of testimony for why regular worship is essential, irreplaceable, transformative. 

How is this book different from other books about worship?

There are many fine books about the history and theology of worship. These tend to be abstract, objective, general. We wanted a collection of very strong and distinctive voices, personal essays, first-person accounts that provide entrees into the experience of common prayer through the particularities of flesh and blood lives. We call it theological memoir.

How did you select the contributors?

We wanted a collection that reflects the variety of people and experiences one finds in The Episcopal Church. The writers include academics, priests, lay people, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, acolytes, missionaries, vestry members, poets. The most important thing was that they be willing to be put themselves out there and share something personal.

You edited this book while teaching theology at an Anglican College in South Africa. How did that context shape your experience of working on this book?

It brought home the gift of common prayer, shared forms and patterns of worship. The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican tradition and our prayers and liturgies are similar all over the world. Our experiences of worship in South Africa were both familiar and unfamiliar. That’s similar to what we experienced as we read the essays for this book—people opened up the familiar and shed light on differences.

Is this book just for Episcopalians and Anglicans?

Not at all. One of the great gifts of excellent memoir is that through people’s sharing the particulars of their lives, and in this case, experiences of Episcopal worship, readers are drawn in to reflect on their own lives. That is, the particular opens a door to the universal. So people who worship in other denominations or are curious about Christian worship, as well as Episcopalians, can find inspiration for their own reflections on encounters with the divine.

There are pictures in this book. Why? 

Our great editor at Wipf and Stock, Robin Parry, suggested that since these are personal essays, it would be good to put the faces of the writers with the stories. We are so glad he did.

Students at the College of Transfiguration in Makhanda/Grahamstown

An Excerpt From Common Prayer

There are several wonderful books about the theology and development of liturgy. This isn’t one of them. In this book, we gather insights about worship by a number of people in the Episcopal Church who are bold enough to try to find language to describe how worship has formed them, surprised them, amazed them, comforted or confronted them; or rather, how God has done that through Episcopal liturgy. 

We are priests, people who get asked the questions priests get asked: Why worship? Why at that time? In that place? With those words? Sometimes the questions are asked as challenges, other times in wonderment or bafflement, particularly by people who aren’t as in the habit of showing up in church on Sundays as we are. These essays don’t so much answer these questions as they name some truths, some longing, some Love we know we can’t live without.

We originally envisioned this collection as focused on the experience of worship on Sundays, with the working title “Sunday Morning: Reflections on Episcopal Worship.” Some authors, appropriately, ventured beyond Sundays, and the book is all the richer for it. Hence the title Common Prayer.

In these pages, Spencer Reece dresses for his little entrance; Rhonda Mawhood Lee falls in love with Jesus by flashlight; J. Neil Alexander confesses that he is a Sunday-keeper; Sophfronia Scott gets a taste of grace; Lauren Winner wonders what the deal is with communion wafers; Rodney Clapp plays on Sundays; Melissa Deckman Fallon worries she is a bad Episcopalian; Steve Fowl provides a view from the choir; Amy Richter believes in demons; Cameron Dezen Hammon wants to belong to something; Duane Miller sweats in the calid Spanish summer; Paul Fromberg dances in friendship with God; Michael Battle ponders Zen-like riddles and bubble gum-blowing acolytes; BJ Heyboer finds a home at the foot of the cross; Ian Markham tries to be an atheist but fails; Kim Edwards realizes there is no such thing as ordinary time; Luisa E. Bonillas crosses the US-Mexico border every Sunday to go to church; worship saves Joe Pagano’s marriage; Kathryn Greene-McCreight smears ashes on her children’s foreheads; C. K. Robertson blesses heroes; Batman, Robin, and Supergirl show up for the blessing of Amy Peterson’s home; Rachel Stone longs to bring her pets with her everywhere, including church; and Fred Bahnson recounts the legendary chainsaw Eucharist.

We asked this group of writers to engage in an exercise of theological memoir, to write in their own strong, distinct voices about their experiences of Episcopal worship. We were both thrilled with and awed by the result: personal essays that are funny, vulnerable, faithful; people telling of loss, joy, play, belonging, love. This way of writing is risky. But so is engaging whole-heartedly in worship. These authors show us that this way of writing, this way of worshiping, this way of living is worth it. They share their flesh and blood lives with us and we meet the God who meets us in worship. This shouldn’t surprise us. In worship, Jesus shares his flesh and blood life with us; he pours himself out so we may have life and have life more abundantly.

Through the particularity of their reflections on life and worship, we don’t just get to know the authors. There are twenty-three authors in this collection, but the main character who emerges is the God we know in Jesus Christ, the God of, as Steve Fowl puts it, “unrelenting and eager openness.” This book is an invitation to risk offering the particularities of your own life in the worship of the same God.

Praise for Common Prayer

“This gracefully edited collection is a window into the transformative experience of shared liturgy in all its particularity, difficulty, and beauty. May these honest reflections open the eyes of our faith.”

—Sara Miles, author of Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion  and City of God: Faith in the Streets

“If Anglicanism claims to be catholic and reformed, then this winsome volume has the best of both: catholic in liturgy, protestant in testimony. Open this volume and meanwhile open your heart to be strangely warmed by the quirky, the moving, the profound, and the playful.”

—Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London

“In these pages you will see the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—in reflections and recollections that both move the heart and inspire the spirit.”

—The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of The Episcopal Church

 Find out more:

Available at Wipf and Stock and on Amazon.

Fred Bahnson: The Priest in the Trees

Meet Fred Bahnson, author of “The Priest in the Trees.”

Fred Bahnson lives with his wife and three sons in Transylvania County, North Carolina and teaches at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity where he directs the Food, Health, & Ecological Well-being Program. His awards include a Pilgrimage Essay Award, a William Raney scholarship in creative nonfiction at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, a Kellogg Food & Community fellowship, and a North Carolina Artist fellowship in creative nonfiction from the NC Arts Council.

Q and A with Fred Bahnson

Q: What are your two favorite hymns or songs for worship?

A: “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “What Wondrous Love.” I like modal and minor keys, those somber dirges that remind me of Jesus’ self-emptying. 

Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?  

A: I like the Daily Office, which for a few months I was praying with my three young sons before school, but lately we’ve been eschewing words and have been sitting together in prayerful silence. I’m trying to help them listen for God beneath the words. Based on their fidgety movements I’m not sure how well that’s working. I also love the service of Evensong. 

Q: What projects are you working on now? 

A: At the moment I’m working on two long magazine pieces. One is an essay and film project for Emergence magazine about Ethiopia’s church forests. That piece will be out in their “Tree” issue in Fall, 2019. The second is a long piece I’m reporting for Harper’s about what I’m calling “the contemplative turn” taking place within American Christianity. And I’ve just published a long essay on Thomas Merton and pilgrimage. In May 1968 Merton took a 2-week road trip out West. This past May, 50 years later, I set out to follow in his steps. I took along my friend Jeremy Seifert, a documentary filmnmaker, who made a beautiful 11-minute film about our journey. Both appeared recently in the “Faith” issue of Emergence, which you can read here.

Q: Your essay includes reflection on worship out of doors. Do you have an experience of worship either inside a building or outside a building that has been especially meaningful for you–where the setting has contributed in some way to the worship in that place? 

A: As I’m writing this it’s Tuesday of Holy Week, which reminds me of a very powerful Holy Week I spent in 2001 in a tiny hillside village in Chiapas, Mexico. All the services were outside. When we knelt for prayer we knelt in the dirt. There was something elemental, painful, invigorating, and grounding about kneeling on the ground to pray. The hardened dirt, the tiny rocks digging into my bare knees. My hope with this essay is that it will ignite people’s ecological imaginations and make us fall in love again with the more-than-human world, and to do that we need physical contact. Long distance love affairs don’t work. At this time in the human story, rekindling that love affair with the world outside our door may be our only hope.

Q: The subject of your essay describes his love of the Psalms. Do you have a favorite biblical passage or one that especially informs the work that you do? 

A: I love the Psalms, I love Isaiah, the Gospels. Paul not so much, though I do love Colossians 1 for its vision of a cosmic salvation. I return often to that beautiful image in Revelation 21 where we see God descending to dwell among mortals. Rather than anemic souls getting raptured to heaven, we’re given an image of God getting raptured down to Earth, where God will dwell with us in a Garden City. And growing on either side of the River of Life is the Tree of Life with its twelve kinds of fruit, a tree “whose leaves shall be for the healing of the nations.” It’s a lovely ending to the scriptural narrative, this image of God’s healing coming through, not around, Creation. As New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing says, Creation is a conduit for divine healing. Especially now in the Anthropocene when we’ve realized that humans have fundamentally altered the bone structure of the Earth, we need to hang onto these scriptural images that show God’s healing flowing through the leaves of a tree.

Fred Bahnson is the author of Soil & Sacrament (Simon & Schuster) and co-author with Norman Wirzba of Making Peace with the Land (IVP).  His essays have appeared in HarpersOxford American, Image, Orion, The Sun, Christian Century, and Best American Spiritual Writing (Houghton Mifflin). 

Fred is on Twitter: @fredbahnson

Check out Fred’s books:

Find Soil and Sacrament at Indiebound

Find Making Peace with the Land at Indiebound.