Uncommon Worship

Liturgy has always been radical. In 1549, Thomas Cranmer rocked ye olde reformation England by publishing his famous book of church liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, in vernacular English instead of Latin. And 461 years later, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Enuma Okoro have co-conspired to rock the church again with their new book: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

Like the books of liturgy used in many Christian traditions, Common Prayer is a cohesive body of prayers, songs, scripture readings, and spiritual writings arranged into a yearly cycle of morning and evening prayers.

Yet, while the 1549 Book of Common Prayer is praised for beautiful language that scholars accredit to Cranmer's "single powerful voice," the beauty of this new liturgy emerges from its patchwork sources and decidedly ecumenical flavor. Rooted in voices ranging from Frederick Buechner and Frederick Douglass to Dorothy Day and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, this liturgy has been harvested from both new and ancient branches of Christianity. "We want the fire of the Pentecostals, the imagination of the Mennonites, the Lutherans’ love of scripture," write the authors, "the Benedictines' discipline, the wonder of the Orthodox and Catholics.

Anticipating an audience as diverse as its sources, the authors have made Common Prayer accessible to liturgical newcomers and old-timers alike. In the not-to-be-missed introduction, liturgy is playfully redefined as "soul food ... kind of like family dinner with God," with an emphasis on practicing liturgy in community, including friends, neighbors, and family members, as well as the body of Christ around the world and those who have gone before. That's why it's called "common” prayer; it's communal, something meant to be shared -- and savored -- around God's table.

Historically, liturgy has been criticized for making Christians "so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good." Yet, in the tradition of Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s classic work, Seasons of Faith and Conscience (Orbis, 1991), Common Prayer not only reminds us "another world is possible," but also leads us to live into that new world here on earth. As the authors point out, liturgy teaches us to pray together, but also to become "the answer to our prayers." So, woven throughout Common Prayer are stories of people around the world (and throughout history) who are "taking liturgy to the streets" to stand up against the powers of injustice, and some suggestions for how to create a little "holy mischief" of your own.

Sidebars introduce the richness of traditional liturgical practices, including creating sacred spaces, the use of "smells and bells" in worship, and balancing order and spontaneity. And marking each new month of morning prayers, you’ll find woodblock prints paired with meditations on themes such as reconciliation, hospitality, creation care, and peacemaking, all with suggestions for further reading.

If you're familiar with Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove, you'll likely recognize that Common Prayer is a significant milestone for the new monastic movement. Taking its cues from old-school monasticism (we're talking seriously old-school -- circa 400 C.E.), new monasticism began in the 1990s with "relocation to the abandoned places of empire" -- inner-city neighborhoods -- by groups of young, mostly single evangelicals who lived among the poor and mapped out a new way of being church marked by simplicity and communal life. In 2004, new monastics from around the country gathered in Durham, North Carolina, to establish a Common Rule, or the essential practices that would govern their communities (see School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism, Wipf & Stock, 2005).

While the practices identified at Durham recognized a shared "commitment to a disciplined contemplative life," guidelines for public worship or liturgy were noticeably absent. With Common Prayer, the new monastic movement has taken another cue from traditional Christian monasticism: formation of its own liturgy.

Of course, as Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, and Okoro would likely remind you, it's not their liturgy. "We are praying prayers crafted not by our lonely piety," they write, "but by the entire body of Christ throughout her history." The tradition of praying with all the saints is not new, but Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals extends a fresh invitation to join in the celebration."“Now," invite the authors, "add your fingerprints."

Betsy Shirley is editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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