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: www.wipfandstock.com http://www.common-prayer.net

Available at Wipf and Stock and on Amazon.


Sophfronia Scott: A Taste of Grace

Meet Sophfronia Scott, author of “A Taste of Grace.”

Sophfronia Scott is author of an essay collection, Love’s Long Line (Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press), a memoir, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World (Paraclete Press), and two novels, Unforgivable Love (William Morrow/HarperCollins) and All I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile-High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her family attends Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, Connecticut.

Q & A with Sophfronia Scott

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

A: My favorite is actually a piece of service music: S-280 Canticle 20, Glory to God: Gloria in excelsis. It feels bright and joyous and I like having this immediate reminder that we’ve gathered to praise and worship God. I also really love—and this may sound strange—the triplets in the music. There are four sets. It’s a rhythm where three notes are played in the space of two. I’m not really a musician but I played clarinet between the ages of 9 and 22 and for some reason this music reminds me of when I learned to play triplets and how I always enjoyed them.

My second favorite? It’s solemn and has brought me to tears, but I love Hymn #172: Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? It’s soulful and reminds me of something my mother might sing. My son did sing it when he was in the children’s choir at our church. I have this lovely memory of him at home playing with his toys and singing this hymn to himself. 

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

A: I’m a big fan of morning prayer. I’ve practiced it on my own and these days I attend the service at Christ Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Morning Prayer is my favorite service in the BCP and I especially love Canticles 9, 10, and 11, which are the first, second, and third songs of Isaiah. I find them hopeful and inspirational. My heart just wants to burst with love whenever I read the opening words of Canticle 11, Surge, illuminare: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.” Such wonderful, glorious words. And in Canticle 10 I consider this an important reminder of how small our human thinking can be: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Because of these words I try to think with a more open mind and to always reach for my better angels.

Q: What projects are you working on now? 

A: I write both fiction and nonfiction so I tend to have two books in process at once. Right now I’m writing a novel of historical fiction, set in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Ohio during the Civil War era, about a young orphaned biracial woman making her way in the world. In the nonfiction realm I’m writing about my personal spiritual engagement with the work of Thomas Merton. He’s someone who has felt like a kind of mentor to me despite the fact that he died over fifty years ago. I’m excited about both books so it’s a challenge to split my time between the two, but I’m managing.

Q: One thing you reflect on in your essay is about getting very involved in a variety of ministries in your church. Any words of wisdom about discerning when to say yes and when to say no to a request to serve?

A: It helps to know your spiritual gifts. You can find assessments online to help you, but you might already have a sense of what activities draw you. For example, I’ve never felt a calling to mission and outreach. My gifts focus on teaching, writing, and hospitality. It’s easier to say yes if you know the ministry will make use of your gifts. And the “yes” has to feel like an opening, like the start of an adventure—you don’t know how it will turn out, but you have a sense that you have something to bring to the table and you will be changed by whatever comes of the ministry. That might sound selfish, but if you say yes to something because you feel you should, it will feel like a burden, not service. And if you struggle because the ministry isn’t suited to your talents you won’t be able to bring your best self to it. When you pray about it, you’re seeking clarity on these issues. 

Q: Is there a Biblical figure you feel particularly connected to?

A: I’ve long admired and connected with Mary Magdalene because of her fierce love and faith. She was always willing to make the extra effort to show her love. The disciples must have given her a hard time when she showed up and told them Christ had risen. But she knew what she’d seen and stood firm. Like her, I continue to reach for Christ and hope to recognize him when he calls my name.

Read more about Sophfronia, her publications, and find her blog at www.Sophfronia.com

She also has a website for the spiritual memoir she wrote with her son, This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World

Follow Sophfronia on Twitter: @Sophronia.

Check out some of Sophfronia’s books: