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“Sweet Incense Beaten Small”— A Commendation of Prayer Book Piety
Common Faith, Comely Worship
And Aaron shall burn thereon sweet incense every morning: when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn incense upon it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at even, he shall burn incense upon it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations (Exodus 30:7-8).
And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the LORD, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not (Leviticus 16:13-14).
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints (Revelation 5:8).
The Book of Common Prayer is, above all else, a confession of faith. We pray what we believe in order to believe that which we pray. A chief strength of Anglicanism is that our theology is most clearly embodied in our liturgy. “Embodied,” quite literally, as we unite around the altar at which Christ is presented.
The liturgy is dramatic dogma—Apostolic doctrine enacted, prayed, believed, and lived. The liturgy is a corporate (and corporeal) expression of the faith once delivered to the saints.
The 39 Articles should have a greater place in our minds than they usually do, but the axis of our theological life really lies at the heart of our common worship. Indeed, “lex orandi, lex credendi. Common Prayer is the article on which the Anglican Communion stands or falls. Following the Pauline injunction, “let us all speak the same thing.”
However, a disclaimer of sorts is in order. Praying the content of the liturgy without feigning belief in its words is assumed. No creed or confession, regardless how carefully and faithfully it might be worded, is a bulwark against hearts bent on deception. My comments assume the presence of both wheat and chaff growing up together until the harvest, but doesn’t seek to overcorrect by setting the field on fire.
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One of the regular complaints leveled against "liturgical" worship is that it stifles "worship from the heart." This is because there is a tendency to think that spontaneity is synonymous with spirituality.
Most people think that "from the heart" roughly equates to "off the cuff." However, when I approach the Holy Majesty the last thing I want is to saunter into the Gates of Zion flying by the seat of my britches.
This is not to say that God is inaccessible, but it is to say that the Throne of Grace is not a celestial Easy Chair. Our Sovereign receives all who come, provided they make their approach with reverence and godly fear. No one struts into the presence of the Most High.
Does this rule out any extemporaneous prayer? No! But neither does it rule out prayers that have been tried in the furnace of affliction, purified through centuries of continuous use, and proven to be as devotionally comforting as they are theologically rich. After all, in answer to the petition of his disciples to teach them to pray, Jesus famously replied, "Pray this way..."
Praying from the heart really means praying in obedience and faith. It doesn't mean uttering every emotive syllable that may form a froth on top of our scattered brains. It doesn't mean "umm-ing" and "hmm-ing" our way into the holiest. The Book of Common Prayer spares us the indignity of muttering incessantly in the ear of the Almighty—yet saying nothing; teaching us how to let our words be few since our God is in the heavens and we are not. The Prayer Book helps us to take our unwieldy, outsized thoughts and turn them into “sweet incense beaten small” which rises from our hearts as a pleasant aroma before the face of God.
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Some dislike the lofty language found in our Prayer Books because they think that its use distances us from God in the linguistic register. But I would encourage a proper sense of distance as a pious sensibility.
God dwells in light unapproachable, and whatever else that may mean, it means that full approach is a fool’s errand. He is high and lifted up, invisible, “wholly other,” and faithful language will reflect this.
The Gospel is good news precisely 𝑏𝑒𝑐𝑎𝑢𝑠𝑒 its God is holy. Through the man Christ Jesus, we are brought into union with God—not some teetering heavenly senility. We remain creatures; He remains Transcendent even in our presence.
The Gospel fits us for heavenly discourse. The Evangel becomes seraphic fire as angelic tongs pluck coals from Calvary’s altar. Holiness kisses our lips; the Spirit of Burning purges the dross. Mouths so touched may stammer, but they don’t prattle before God.
Even so, devotional life is richer when God is perceived as He is in truth—mysterium tremendum. Prayer becomes worship because the Object of Address is august, terrible, strange.
There is a false piety which regards “holyspeak” as sacred because it sounds reverential; there is also a false piety which regards casual language as sincere because it doesn’t sound overly religious. True piety speaks as a son whose Father is King.
The Psalter provides for us a vocabulary, as well as an example of sanctified rhetoric that should inform our manner of speaking Godward: honest, simple, clear, humble, bold, elevated.
The Book of Common Prayer has sought to follow this pattern. By using Scripture’s own idiom, it gives us a tongue that is not foreign to the ear of Heaven. Its language is as accessible as it needs to be, understanding that every sour grape of Babel shouldn’t be turned to wine.
*If you are new to Anglicanism, or are otherwise curious about the Book of Common Prayer, I recommend getting a copy of the 1662 International Edition. The 1662 is the “gold standard” and liturgical cornerstone of our tradition.
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