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.

Rhonda Mawhood Lee: Indissoluble

Meet Rhonda Mawhood Lee, author of “Indissoluble.”

Rhonda Mawhood Lee is a priest, writer, and spiritual director. She currently serves as a canon to the bishop of North Carolina.

Q & A with Rhonda Mawhood Lee

Q: What are your two favorite hymns?

A: Many hymns move me to tears. I’m just that way; my emotions sit very close to the surface in liturgy, and they most often emerge in tears. That being said, my two favorites are “Be Thou My Vision” and “Humbly I Adore Thee.” I want both of these to be sung at my funeral (many years from now, I hope). Both have, I think, beautiful, simple melodies, and both speak to the reality that Christian discipleship is a journey of trust and hope. “Be Thou My Vision” expresses my hope to live each day with the vision of God and the divine Kingdom before me. When I inevitably fail miserably, the hymn’s words are once again my prayer: “All else be nought to me, save that Thou art.” “Humbly I Adore Thee” expresses, for me, that Jesus Christ is the source of any true hope I have, and that I encounter that living hope in the Eucharist: “what the Truth has spoken, that for truth I hold.” And it expresses my ultimate hope, to live in the pure presence of God: “face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see, in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.” Sadly, in my experience “Humbly I Adore Thee” isn’t sung very often in church. Now that I rarely choose hymns (as a diocesan staff member rather than a parish priest), I count myself lucky if I get to sing it on Maundy Thursday. 

Q: You speak English, French, and Spanish. Can you share an experience of grace or beauty you’ve had in a multilingual worship service?

A: I love multilingual worship when it reflects the cultural backgrounds and languages of the people gathered. One of the wonderful things about a liturgical church is that, once someone knows the structure of the liturgy, even if they don’t understand every word of the service, they can easily keep track of where they are. And sometimes members of the congregation help each other out in a pinch. One of my favorite moments in a Eucharist came at the ordination of the current bishop of North Carolina, Sam Rodman. The fraction anthem was in Spanish, which the American Sign Language interpreter didn’t understand. So from my place in the second row, I whispered an English translation to my fellow canon, who signed it to the interpreter, who relayed it to the congregation. It was a lovely little Pentecost moment.  

Q: You write about baptism in your essay. As a priest, when you prepare someone for baptism, is there anything in particular you tell people or ask them to think about?

A: I don’t often prepare people for baptism in my current role as a canon on a diocesan staff. That’s one of just a couple of things I regret about this work (my other big regret is that I rarely get to work with children anymore). But I do preach often about baptism, and I talk about the same things I emphasized when I did baptismal preparation in parishes. First, that through baptism we become members of Jesus Christ’s body in communion with everyone else who has ever been, and will ever be, baptized. The second follows from that: being a Christian is a team sport, a community practice. So participate in the community of the baptized, praying and worshipping together, giving and accepting encouragement, supporting others and letting the community support you. 

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

A: My favorite service is the Great Vigil of Easter—when it is done well. If the service is held too early in the evening, so that the church isn’t really dark, the liturgy loses some of its mystery (not to mention, scriptural and theological resonance); and if only the minimum number of readings are included, we lose the sense of how mysterious, and sometimes boring, it can be to sit and wait for God to do something new. And the church has missed a great opportunity to move and form long-standing members and newcomers alike. But done with care, preparation, and simplicity, following the Prayer Book’s instructions, the Vigil is just gorgeous. Kindling the new fire, processing the paschal candle through the dark church, the Exsultet, the readings that tell the long and ancient story of God’s care for us, the alleluias: this service fills me with awe, joy and hope, every time. 

Q: What writing project are you working on now?

A: I am currently working on a memoir-family history that places my own life experiences in conversation with ancestors whom I knew, and those whose lives I have researched. How did they create and care for—and sometimes, abandon—families in the midst of extreme poverty? How did the white supremacist policies of the British Empire benefit them? How was mental illness and a propensity to suicide passed on, in part, through experiences of loss and the lack of time and space to grieve those losses? These are all questions I explore in this book in progress. 

Read more of Rhonda’s writing in the online magazine, Faith & Leadership

and America.

Check out her book, Through with Kings and Armies: The Marriage of George and Jean Edwards.