RB and BCP  

Posted by Joe Rawls in ,

Martin Thornton (1915-1986) was a priest of the Church of England and a prominent writer on the contemplative life. His English Spirituality (Cowley 1986; out of print but check Amazon for used copies) is a masterful introduction to the subject, covering both its pre- and post-Reformation aspects. Chapter 20 deals with the role of the Book of Common Prayer in spirituality and its relationship to the Rule of St Benedict .

The Prayer Book and the Rule of St Benedict

At first sight, the 1662 Prayer Book might appear to be even more than its thousand years apart from the Regula. The ages and circumstances are as different as they can be: Monte Cassino seems an entirely different world from the parish of St Mary, Manchester. But that is only the judgement of social history. From the point of view of ascetical theology, these two documents have a remarkable amount in common, and in a very real sense Caroline and modern England remains "the land of the Benedictines". There are five points of practical interest.

1. The basis of both the Prayer Book and the Regula is the fundamental, and biblical, threefold Rule of the Catholic Church: Office-Eucharist-personal devotion. The Prayer Book Office is two-fold instead of seven-fold, and is more elaborate, but both sets of Offices are based on the Psalter, both constitute corporate worship, the main emphasis of which is objective praise. Both presuppose a weekly celebration of the Eucharist although provision is made for more frequent services as required.

2. Both documents point to the ideal of a life of contemplative recollection, with private prayer as but a support to this. Jeremy Taylor [17th century English bishop] writes, "I would rather your prayer be often than long", St Benedict says prayer should be "short and frequent": neither provides much direct teaching on formal prayer and neither gives any semblance of a "method". Recollection is not just a religious exercise but that whic controls and colours practical daily life: to the Carolines all the duties of one's station, to the Benedictine, manual labour. The 57th "Instrument of Good Works" is simply "to apply oneself frequently to prayer"; the 48th and 49th are "to keep guard at all times over the actions of one's life' and "to know for certain that God sees one everywhere". Those are "Caroline" phrases if ever there were any. In fac the whole of this fourth chapter of the Regula is of recollective significance, moral rather than affective, and could be almost a skeleton syllabus for Caroline moral and ascetical theology.

Both Regula and Prayer Book couple recollection with repentance and progress towards perfection, and both extend daily recollection into the setting of the liturgical year.

3. Both systems are designed for an integrated and united community, predominantly lay. Ch 62 of the Regula makes it clear that there is no distinction between priest and lay-brother "except with regard to his office at the altar". The Rule is for everyone within the united community, while the priest is exhorted to set a good example of obedience to it to encourage the others.

4. Both books breathe a sane "domestic" spirit, and are noted for prudence, especially over physical discipline like fasting and mortification. St Benedict's Prologue speaks of "a school for the Lord's service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous". The Regula is "a little rule for beginners" aimed at the needs of the less gifted. The Whole Duty of Man, arranged as a companion to the Prayer Book, is "laid down in a plain and familiar way for the use of all, but especially the meanest reader". Simon Patrick's A Book for Beginners, or A help to Young Communicants, another Prayer Book guide, goes even further with "directions for such as cannot read"; it is requested that "their masters and mistresses, or some good neighbor or relation, to be so charitable as to read them their duty about the matter". Like the Christian faith itself, both St benedict and the Prayer Book are capable of nurturing saintly doctors and saintly illiterates.

5. Liturgical revisers and pastoral planners do not always realise that the Prayer Book, no less than the Regula, presupposes a comparatively compact and very stable community. Whatever the difficulties we face to-day, and whatever reorganization may be necessary, the geographical parish is as much as part of the Prayer Book ascetic as the monastery was to the Benedictine Rule. The Common Office, empirical guidance within the "family" unit, as well as rubrics relating to Baptism and the residential qualifications for marriage and burial, all presuppose "Benedictine" stability. Whatever the answers to our practical problems, we should realise that huge parishes, group-ministries, industrial chaplaincies, eclectic congregations, and so on, are basically ascetical matters which are opposed to the Prayer Book system of spirituality.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 1, 2009 at Friday, May 01, 2009 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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