Not all Rubrics are Red

About 20 years ago, I was a young man looking for a spiritual home. The evangelical churches of my childhood and youth required intellectual and moralistic conformity as a prerequisite for belonging, while they purported to encourage a “personal relationship” with God and worshiped together in loose liturgical forms that often felt like freedom of expression.

When I found The Episcopal Church, my immediate impression was quite the opposite to prior experiences of church. I found a well-structured order of worship together, which initially seemed to minimize individual preferences; and throughout the community there was a generous freedom in terms of individual thought and expression of self. I remember feeling as though the liturgy and tradition were holding me steady in unsteady times, while that wonderful community encouraged and challenged me through my many questions, doubts, and ultimately what evolved into an extensive renovation of my epistemological frame.

I want to write a bit more today—following up on last week—about what I think is beautiful and powerful about our tradition’s embrace of common prayer and diversity of thought. While our worship together is rooted and structured, individual beliefs and piety are affirmed and blessed to evolve within a culture of openness and generosity. (At least, this is what happens when we are at our best.)

So today I want to get nerdy for a minute and talk about rubrics! Yes, rubrics. Because there is a tension—a historical one—that should be acknowledged and examined in our understanding of church within this particular tradition.

You may know that in The Book of Common Prayer there are instructions, scattered throughout all of the different services and devotions, that guide the way we do liturgy. Printed in italics, these are called “rubrics,” and they serve like stage directions for enacting worship and prayer. Some of the rubrics can be as mundane as suggesting when to stand or kneel or sit together; and others can be as significant as appointing particular changes from season to season or even stating what portions of the service may be included or omitted from time to time.

There is also something that our rubrics do not do, and it is significant: the rubrics in our Book of Common Prayer do not tell us what to think or feel—or even believe—as we are worshiping together.

This has actually been tried before, in England, first in 1552 with a last-minute insertion into the newly-revised prayer book. After only three years, the 1549 BCP was being updated to roll back some traditional aspects of the Mass from its Catholic roots and in the direction of the Protestant Reformation. But those changes did not go far enough to appease some powerful Calvinist reformers in the early years of Henry VIII’s English Reformation. So right before the new 1552 Book of Common Prayer went to press, a new paragraph was added, at the distribution of Holy Communion, instructing the people how they were to think about the bread and wine about to be received as they knelt at the altar. This “declaration on kneeling” stated that communicants were to hold gratitude in their hearts for Christ’s sacrifice being memorialized, and they were not to think of “any real and essential presence there being of Christ’s natural flesh and blood.” (Today there is a range of belief about what is happening with the bread and wine at Communion; and that is a topic for another article.)

This “declaration on kneeling” came to be known as the black rubric, because it was too late to print them in red (“ruby,” like “rubric”) like all the rest. Later removed from the 1559 BCP, an altered and slightly more open version of this declaration was reinserted in the 1662 English prayer book and remains there today.

In our American prayer book tradition, the rubrics have no history of prescribing individual piety and belief. All of our rubrics today are printed in black-and-white with the rest of the text, but there is no remnant of that black rubric seeking to dictate matters of the heart and mind as we worship. The rubrics can help us to pray together, but they do not require conformity of thought or discourage the individual course of belief.

I think this point is so important – because there are lots of opinions about what is included and not included in our worship together on Sundays. There are various aspects of the liturgy that hit differently among folks with different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and convictions. We are seeking common prayer, but not common mind. And the rubrics in our prayer book respect this distinction.

Please excuse my nerdiness this month as I write about our prayer book tradition and the ways in which we order worship together. I know from responses that these notes are stirring the waters a bit, and I think that is really healthy and exciting. I am hoping to hear from more of you this week – what are your questions, where would you push back, where do we go from here? Emails welcome!

Next week, let’s talk about Creeds. (Yikes!)

With you,
The Rev. Scott Painter, Rector