Use the Book

For everyone who may feel that they have lost or lost interest in the way, these personal stories are vehicles for the Holy Spirit to gather her own together; they certainly were for me.

Pan Conrad, clergy-in-charge at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Glen Burnie, MD and a scientific co-investigator to the NASA Mars Science Laboratory and Mars 2020 missions.

Common Prayer Reflection/Discussion Guide

We’ve put together questions and quotes for 8 topics addressed by the writers of Common Prayer: Reflections on Episcopal Worship as well as some general questions that can be used for reflection or discussion.  Feel free to use or adapt any of these that you find helpful or interesting. We would love to hear from you with other topics and questions that we can share with others.

Topic: Coming to the Episcopal Church

Several writers talk about coming, or coming back, to the Episcopal Church as adults.  (See essays by Rhonda Mawhood Lee, Melissa Deckman Fallon, Cameron Dezen Hammon, BJ Heyboer, Ian Markham, Kim Edwards, Amy Peterson, Rachel Marie Stone, Duane Miller, Luisa Bonillas).

Describe the role liturgy played in their journeys.

Describe your own journey in the church. Have you always been a part of the Episcopal Church or the church to which you now belong? Did you come from a different faith tradition? No particular tradition?  How did you come to be part of the church to which you now belong?  

Did the liturgy play a role in your becoming a church member? 

What keeps you in the church?

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

I was baptized, but was I a Christian? What were the criteria?

Maybe the Book of Common Prayer could help. Flipping to page 299, “Holy Baptism,” my eye fell on the notes “Concerning the Service.” The first two lines settled my internal debate: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” 

Indissoluble. It didn’t matter that my parents and godparents hadn’t brought me up in the church. It didn’t matter how long it had taken me to return to the Eucharist, or that Jesus had had to appear beside me on a Greek island to get my attention. God himself had made me a member of Christ’s Body, and no one could amputate me from it. 

                                                                          —Rhonda Mahwood Lee, “Indissoluble”

That night [Good Friday] I experienced a powerful sense of being re-membered in the drama of worship. With the exception of three people, I did not know anyone in that sacred space. But I felt like I belonged to God with them in a profound way. 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. I had found my home in the Episcopal Church.

                                                       —BJ Heyboer, “Being Remembered in the Liturgy”

I learned the service inside out. It became a frame of reference where I could pray, cry, and think in the presence of God. The tradition was always front and center. I knew the Bible; and I loved the fact that Scripture was central. The sermon was not doing the heavy lifting of the service; for the Office, it was the canticles; for the Eucharist, it was The Great Thanksgiving. It became a perfectly fitting shoe. I also knew where I was in the liturgy, even if a word or phrase had triggered a “zoned out” moment where I offered some agony deep inside of me to God. The liturgy was providing God with some space to work on my fragile mind and life. God was bringing some healing to the vulnerable twenty-two-year-old.    

                      —Ian S. Markham, “How the Book of Common Prayer Kept Me in the Family of Faith”

Topic: Preparing for Worship

Several writers describe how they prepare for worship. (See the essays by Spencer Reece, Amy Peterson, Sophfronia Scott, Paul Fromberg, and Rodney Clapp).  

Are there any things their preparations have in common? Anything similar to how you prepare? What seems most helpful to them and to you as you prepare for worship? 

Some of them mention putting on particular garments. Is clothing part of your preparation? Is that helpful to you? If so, why? If not, why not? 

Imagine it’s your perfect day. There’s no rushing, no last minute scrambling, no distractions. What would your preparation for worship look like if you had time and energy to prepare the way you would like to?

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

On this Sunday morning I’ve already changed shirts three times. I can’t figure out what would be comfortable in church on a hot summer day. At least one top I discard because I’ve remembered I’m serving as a chalice minister and the shirt’s collar would interfere with fastening the top button of the long black cassock I’ll wear underneath a white cotta. It takes me a few more minutes to figure out it doesn’t matter what I wear because I will be sweltering in the cassock and cotta. A t-shirt will suffice. 

Nothing about this morning is going well.                                     

  —Sophfronia Scott, “A Taste of Grace”

I enter the sacristy. I don my full-length cassock. I fasten the black buttons at the top. I cinch the black fabric belt around my waist with the fringe ends. I look quickly in the spotted mirror next to the cheap broken plastic clock where time is always stopped. I pull on my giant white surplice that billows like a parachute, then a tippet, a black scarf for morning prayer, which I kiss in the center as I was taught to do before it goes around my neck. Something about the idea of wearing a uniform appeals to me. A uniform for a profession that George Herbert said was characterized by love: he wrote in The Country Parson that “love was the business and the aim” for parsons. The uniform advertises that. What a magical thing to have a uniform that signals love.                         .           

  —Spencer Reece, “The Little Entrance”

Topic: Blessing

Four authors directly address the subject of blessing in their essays. (See the essays by Amy Peterson, C.K. Robertson, Duane A. Miller, and Rachel Marie Stone). 

Rachel Marie Stone writes, “What does the blessing mean? I find myself wondering, not just this blessing but every blessing.”  

How would you answer her question based on those essays? On your own experience?

Do other essays address the subject of blessing in some way? 

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

We are called to be a blessing to others, but always because we are assured that God is already at work blessing us, strengthening us, helping us through the Spirit to put one foot in front of the other and, as the Apostle Paul put it, to “press on.”               

 —C. K. Robertson, “Blessed Heroes”

As we chanted the prayers, I wondered what the Christians from my childhood would think of this ritual. I grew up with low-church traditions: we popcorn-ed our prayers and we did not believe in symbols. We were gnostics, in many ways, and it wouldn’t have occurred to us to pray a blessing over rag rugs and faux-wooden floors and smudged windows; if we’d heard that people in some other church prayed such prayers, we’d have thought them silly and superstitious.                                                                               

—Amy Peterson, “A Beautiful Inheritance”

Topic: Eucharist

Several authors address the Eucharist. (See, for example, the essays by BJ Heyboer, Duane A. Miller, J. Neil Alexander, Fred Bahnson, Lauren Winner, Sophfronia Scott, Amy Richter, and Paul Fromberg). Lauren Winner, Sophfronia Scott, and J. Neil Alexander also address the eucharistic host/bread in particular.

Choose some essays to focus on. What is it they say is important about the Eucharist? What happens in the Eucharist? 

Of those who talk about the bread specifically, what is it they say about the particular form (e.g., wafer or bread)? Do you have a form you prefer? Why? What does it convey about the meaning of the Eucharist?

Is there something in one of the essays that opens something up for you about the Eucharist? Rings especially true or names something for you?

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

If I went to a church that had holy communion only on rare occasions and did so only because they had not figured out a way around “do this,” I would starve to death. I require a regular diet of the Risen One, especially on Sundays.                         

—J. Neil Alexander “Of Sacraments and Sundays”

[T]his is when I realize: what feeds me best won’t always be simple and easy, like a pressed wafer. It will be messy and different. It will not be the same as it was months before because the Lord will have moved on to other things. I have to figure out how to follow. In this imperfection and brokenness I have to taste the Lord and trust.                        

—Sophfonia Scott, “A Taste of Grace”

If I want to understand that Jesus-in-the-Eucharist is real food, wouldn’t the better ritual object be a baguette or a stottie, rather than a wafer that feels and tastes like Kleenex stiffened with glue? At church, we sing “Bread of Heaven, on thee we feed, for thou art our food indeed,” and I find myself daydreaming about a parish bread guild; I imagine us baking ciabatta and Irish soda bread; I imagine Moravian love feasts.                                       

—Lauren Winner, “The Image Turns Back”

Topic: Childhood

Several writers reflect on childhood experiences in their essays. (See essays by Rhonda Mawhood Lee, J. Neil Alexander, C.K. Robertson, Cameron Dezen Hammon, Amy Peterson, Rachel Marie Stone, Ian Markham, Luisa Bonillas, Rodney Clapp, and Kathryn Greene-McCreight).  

Why do you think that is? Why does the subject of liturgy or worship lend itself to remembering childhood experiences?

Do any of these essays remind you of experiences, thoughts, or feelings from your own childhood?

Some quotes form Common Prayer to consider:

There are not many living creatures that are as helpless at the time of their birth as a human infant. As every parent knows all too well, a newborn requires everything, absolutely everything to be done for it! It has to be fed at the mother’s breast. It has to be changed by a loving father. It has to be entertained by an older sibling. Whatever the shape of the family that welcomes the child, and there are many, everyone is going to get into the act. Everything it needs must be provided by someone else. What’s more, the child has no capacity to earn any of this care and attention. 

The child also has to be carried to the font. What happens in the sacrament of baptism is something that this helpless hunk of flesh cannot ask for, prepare for, or earn in any way. It comes to the child as a totally free, unencumbered, unmerited, unfettered gift of love and grace.

                                                                                      —J. Neil Alexander, “Of Sacraments and Sundays”

Children play for no purpose. They simply have an abundance of energy and wonder, with which they engage one another and their world. They dance, skip rope, tussle with dogs, sing, build mud pies and dig holes, strut like their father or sashay like their mother, pretend in the garb of a parent or superhero, hide from and chase one another, bat and throw balls—all to no end and never as a means of production. If play produces anything, it is only more play. Children play to be, or, more precisely, simply as they be. They play without plans or rotas or to-do lists.

                                                                                                      —Rodney Clapp, “The Play of the People”

Topic: Baptism

Rhonda Mawhood Lee, J. Neil Alexander, Cameron Dezen Hammon, and Paul Fromberg reflect on the meaning of baptism in their essays.

Read through the liturgy for Baptism (starting on page 299 in the Book of Common Prayer).

What aspects of the meaning of baptism stand out for you in light of reading through the liturgy and these essays? What questions, if any, are raised for you? If you are baptized, what do you know about your own baptism? If you are a parent or sponsor, is there anything you would like to make sure the child you parent or godparent knows about their baptism and its meaning?

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

I was baptized on the beach at Coney Island. I’d finally found my community.  

                                                    —Cameron Dezen Hammon, “Let Light Perpetual Shine Upon Them”

I was baptized as an infant at a Lutheran church in Montana, but my parents rarely took me to church. I didn’t know anything about Christianity. Didn’t know who Jesus was, didn’t know that Christmas was about his birth or Easter about his resurrection. It wasn’t until I was a teen living in Mexico that I really started to learn about Christianity after a friend from school invited me to a Bible church where his father was pastor.  

—Duane A. Miller, “Spreading Blessing to Those Who Don’t Work for It: Reflections of a Cross-Cultural Missionary”

Topic: Music

Music or hymns play a role in several essays. (See those by BJ Heyboer, Lauren Winner, Amy Richter, Joseph Pagano, Steve Fowl, Cameron Dezen Hammon, Luisa Bonillas, Melissa Deckman Fallon, Paul Fromberg). 

Choose an essay that especially spoke to you or your own experience. What role does music play in the experience of the writer? What does music do within the liturgy? What does it accomplish in the person? 

How would you describe the role of music in your experience of worship?

Some quotes from common prayer to consider:

I realized as a young child that music, perhaps as much as anything else, carries the faith and shapes the soul.                                                              

—J. Neil Alexander, “Of Sacraments and Sundays”

What happens on Sunday is always an adventure in grace. Sometimes the music shines even when rehearsal has not gone well. Sometimes we bungle a piece nailed in rehearsal. Sometimes we are in over our heads and we simply survive to sing another day. God takes what we offer and uses it to touch someone. Of course, many times the hard work of rehearsal combines with hearts tuned to the Spirit and the result is a glorious offering to God. Even such successes, however, are the working out of grace.                                       

—Stephen Fowl, “Singing in the Choir”

I appreciate the inevitable howling of some of the dogs during the congregational singing. Yes, canine friends: some of us are more tuneless than a blender, and we are not deterred in making our joyful noise unto the Lord. . . it seems that much of the howling is rather an attempt at joining in song, and when one dog starts, others join in. I love the variety of their howls—some deep, some high, some resonant, others thin—and it is so like (human) congregational singing that I can hardly keep it together: the way one starts and the rest chime in, with varying degrees of musicality. I like the frankness with which the dogs howl and their utter lack of decorum. . . I wonder what congregational worship would be like if we were all a little less self-conscious. I like how dogs and children are unafraid to sing themselves, as Walt Whitman might have said, and I like to see the owners’ amused embarrassment at their dogs’ ‘singing.’ I wish we all sang as bravely as our dogs do.                             

—Rachel Marie Stone, “God Bless Rocket and Bobo and Tigger”

Topic: Non-human Creation

Two contributors talked about liturgies involving non-human creation.  (See “God Bless Rocket and Bobo and Tigger,” by Rachel Marie Stone and “The Priest in the Trees,” by Fred Bahnson.)

Why do you think the authors think liturgies of the blessing of the animals and celebrating the eucharist in an outdoor worship space is important? Do you agree? 

Both essays also address the topic of sacred space. What do you think makes space sacred?  How does it affect our view of a place if we believe it to be sacred, or not?

Some quotes from Common Prayer to consider:

Minimally, then, the Blessing of the Animals indulges my childish longing to bring a pet with me everywhere, even church. I feel relaxed and happier with my cat on my lap or my dog at my feet, and I suspect that’s how lots of pet owners feel, and if that partly explains the swelled attendance at the Blessing of the Animals. I wonder how many more people would attend morning worship regularly if they could bring their dog with them every time.       

                                                               —Rachel Marie Stone, “God Bless Rocket and Bobo and Tigger”

If Christianity is going to confront climate change, perhaps it needs to rewild itself, go feral. What the faith has to offer first is not protest or activism, people like Blackmer show us, though it may lead there. It is leitourgia. The work of the people. And the work of the people now is this: Keep the land holy.                                                                                 

—Fred Bahnson, “The Priest in the Trees”

General Questions:

Share a favorite quote from the book. Why did this quote stand out?

Describe the character of God as you see God being described in the essays of this book.

What feelings or memories did this book evoke for you?

What do you think of the book’s title? How does it relate to the book’s contents?

What other title might you choose?

What do you think the editors’ purpose was in putting this book together? 

If you were illustrating this book, what kinds of illustrations would you include?

What did you already know about worship in the Episcopal Church before you read this book?

What new things did you learn?

What questions did the book leave you with?

Which essay could you most relate to and why?

Do you think any of the essays could be expanded into a full-length book?

If you would like to receive a pdf or word doc version of these topics, send us an email and we will be happy to send you one. Don’t worry, we won’t share your email with anyone.

Students at the College of Transfiguration in Makhanda/Grahamstown, South Africa