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.
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
From his essay, “Singing in the Choir,” in Common Prayer: Reflections on Episcopal Worship.
What is worship? What happens when we worship?
Here are 10 great Quotes about Worship from contributors to Common Prayer.
It is too easy to think that the success of our worship depends on the choir, or the preacher, or the celebrant when it really depends on God’s unrelenting and eager openness to our offerings. Remember, this is the God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.Stephen Fowl, “Singing in the Choir”
In worship, in holy play, we engage in a game with one another and most of all with God. There is no end or purpose to it. It is a glorious waste of time.Rodney Clapp, “The Play of the People”
As I kneel and stand, sing and pray, my voice melds with a hundred other voices, and time falls away.Kim Edwards, “Ordinary Time”
I participated in the liturgy with my whole being: hands, feet, legs, knees, ears, voice, lips, tears, body, mind, and spirit. In the silence of deep remembrance, I was recognized as a daughter of God and welcomed by others as a living member of Christ’s body.BJ Heyboer, “Being Remembered in the Liturgy”
If worship is about participation in the self-giving love of the triune God that liberates and creates new life, then that means we must also share in God’s solidarity with the vulnerable and God’s hope for the whole creation.Michael Battle, “The Sound of One Hand Clapping”
Episcopal worship is far from passive. It is engaging and physical: a workout for body, mind, and spirit.Melissa Deckman Fallon, “Bad Episcopalian”
The Sunday liturgy ingrains in us the gracious, ineffable scheme of God to pour out God’s saving love for a world that has lamentably and with pronounced consistency turned its face away from God.Duane A. Miller, “Spreading Blessing to Those Who Don’t Work for It: Liturgical Reflections of a Cross-Cultural Missionary”
[W]ithin the liturgy, God has space to heal, help, and illuminate.Ian Markham, “How the Book of Common Prayer Kept Me in the Family of Faith”
The Risen One gives himself to me, not just theoretically, but sacramentally. I feed upon the fullness of his risen life and it nourishes both soul and body. It is not for me commemorative, but generative. It makes me me, in Christ.J. Neil Alexander, “Of Sacraments and Sundays”
We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’s table.Paul Fromberg, “Dancing in Friendship with God”
Meet Stephen Fowl, author of “Singing in the Choir.”
Stephen Fowl is Professor of Theology and Dean of Loyola College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, MD. Steve and his family worship at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore. An active lay person, Steve preaches and teaches in parishes around the country. He also serves on the House of Bishops Theology Committee.
Q & A with Stephen Fowl
Q: What are your two favorite hymns or songs for worship?
A: My two favorite hymns are “For All the Saints” because it is fun just to belt it out. You can’t really sing it too loud. Also, “What Wonderous Love is This?” You can do so many great harmonies with it and the bass line sometimes gets the melody.
Q: What is your favorite worship service or part of the Book of Common Prayer?
A: I really love baptisms and the baptismal service. Recently, though, we have had a number of funerals at the Cathedral and I have to say that the BCP funeral service is quite moving, turning a sad occasion into one of hope and joy.
Q: What projects are you working on now?
A: I’ve just completed a book on idolatry that Baylor U. Press will publish this fall. If we can find the time, Rob Wall and I are hoping to write a commentary on Acts. That will be my next big project. I’m also pondering writing a theology of universities. Mike Higton has done some interesting work on this, but there is more to do.
Q: Many parishes don’t have professional church musicians. Especially thinking of places where a priest, deacon, a lay leader may be choosing the music, is there any advice you would give or principle you would offer to people making choices about hymns or other music?
A: This is a really great question. I’m not sure I have a lot of insight here. The music from the Taize community is relatively easy to sing/play; it is repetitive so congregations can pick it up and the texts are almost all Scripture.
Q: Are there any hymns that make you cringe as a New Testament scholar?
A: Personally, I find many of the hymn texts from the 19th century (which probably extends to 1919) cringe worthy. They are so optimistic about building the Kingdom through human efforts.
Check out some of Stephen Fowl’s books:
More by Stephen Fowl:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of The Bible and Ethics, 2 volumes, Robert Brawley editor in chief, Stephen Fowl (area editor) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Engaging Scripture: An Essay in Theological Interpretation. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998; translated into Korean, 2018).
The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings. (Editor) (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
Reading in Communion: Scripture and Ethics in Christian Life with L.G. Jones (London: SPCK/Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991). Reprinted by Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998.
The Story of Christ in the Ethics of Paul.JSNT Supp. 36 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990). Reprinted in Bloomsbury Academic Collections (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2015).