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.

Kathryn Greene-McCreight: Ashes

Meet Kathryn Greene-McCreight, author of “Ashes.”

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, PhD, is a Priest Affiliate at Christ Church Episcopal, New Haven where she also serves as a spiritual director to Saint Hilda’s House. She is a mentor with Berkeley Divinity School’s Annand Program at Yale Divinity School. Kathryn’s most recent books include Darkness is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Revised Edition (Brazos, 2015), and I Am With You: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book, 2016, (Bloomsbury, 2016). Kathryn is co-chair of the Patient and Family Advisory Council of Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital, and is on the board of the Elm City Affiliate of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).  She has two adult children, and lives in New Haven with her husband and goldendoodle.

Q and A with Kathryn Greene-McCreight

Q: What are your favorite hymns?

A: One of my favorites is “Love Divine All Loves Excelling” (Hymnal 1982 #657).  We sang it at our wedding 35 years ago, and I can never make it through singing it without tearing up. Among my other favorites are: “My Song is Love Unknown” (#458), especially verses 4 and 7. I also deeply identify with the lyrics of Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” (#112). Two converts to Catholicism have written hymns that move me deeply: “Lead Kindly Light Amidst the Grey and Gloom” (by John Henry Newman) and “I Shall Not Want” (by Audrey Assad). 

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

A: I am not a “cradle” Episcopalian.  Because my first experience of Episcopal worship was as an adult, I remember it distinctly. Technically speaking, I come to the Episcopal Church through the Anglican Church, more precisely, through the Church of England. 

Over the years, I have fallen in love with the BCP’s collects.  My favorite, maybe not surprisingly, is the Collect for Proper 28:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer that I find most profoundly preaches the Gospel is the Easter Vigil, and also Burial Rite I.  The Daily Office keeps me spiritually safe and sound.

Q: In your essay, “Ashes,” you reflect on some experiences you’ve had while traveling. Do you have favorite places you’ve visited? Places that have made the biggest impact on you?

Photo by Kathryn Greene-McCreight from the Camino de Santiago
Photo by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. Image referred to in “Ashes.”

A: I spent my junior year of college studying towards my major in Romance Languages and Literatures. The Fall semester I was in Madrid, and the Spring semester in Paris. During my time in Madrid I lived with Trinitarian nuns, and through them my Protestant caricature of Roman Catholicism was transformed. While I was in Paris, a friend invited me to her (ex-pat) Anglican church, and there I had my first taste of the Via Media.

Because the understanding of the sacraments in the church of my childhood was Reformed, communion was taken only quarterly. Deacons distributed cubes of Pepperidge Farm bread on silver trays lined with white linen to parishioners who sat quietly in their pews. The cup was not common: deacons served grape juice in individual cups.  

At St Michael’s, Paris, the differences were stunning. The bread that resembled a French franc more than it did my daily baguette and the heady aroma of wine in the common cup were alien to me. But the simple act of coming forward and kneeling to receive the Eucharist with that bodily posture of both penitence and thanksgiving profoundly moved me.   

Years later, after my doctoral work and ordination in the United Church of Christ (too complicated a narrative to recount here), my first priestly ministry was in an Episcopal Church that located itself in Anglican Evangelicalism. In more recent years, I have been drawn to Anglo-Catholicism. Ironically, maybe, I have found it to be more biblical than my childhood Reformed piety, even with its own appeal to sola scriptura

Q: You clearly love words and uncovering for your readers the striking word plays in the Bible. Are there words that you especially like to carry with you or to offer to others?

A: Psalm 27:1

The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?

The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

A parishioner said long ago that I “gave” him this psalm.  All I did was read it to him as he was about to go in for quadruple bypass surgery (he lived many healthy years beyond that, thanks be to God).  The Psalms are powerful.

Years later, I tried to recite this verse to myself as I was in an ambulance being transferred to the hospital after complications from a stroke (I have lived many healthy years beyond that, thanks be to God).  I could recall only the first clause: “The LORD is my light…” That was enough.  The Psalms are powerful.

Q: What projects are you working on now? 

A: I am presently working at a snail’s pace on a commentary on Galatians for the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.  I think I would have finished the commentary by now had I been assigned a book from the Old Testament. The TANAK challenges and fascinates me with its vast narratives, its tangled legal codes, its eloquent poetry and wisdom, and even its humor. (Who says the Bible is not funny?). In contrast, the New Testament seems so obvious.

I am also now under contract to write a very short book on a huge topic: Forgiveness.

I participate in the Storytelling Project at Yale-New Haven Hospital for training staff, employees, and volunteers. I occasionally Skype into various academic and church audiences for lectures and presentations, and am open to invitations.

Find out more about Kathryn:

Brazos Authors’ Blog Interview Personal Website

Amazon Personal Author’s page

Check out Kathryn’s books: