My Canterbury Tale, Part Two

My ultimate safety net during my seminary dysphoria was my church. Upon moving to Louisville, I visited and almost immediately joined Sojourn Community Church. At the time, it stood out like a sore thumb amongst the other Southern Baptist-affiliated churches in the city. It had a thriving arts community, was deeply involved in benevolence efforts in its neighborhood, and its worship gatherings were surprisingly liturgical. As it turned out, they used a modified Presbyterian liturgy, one that carefully moved from confession to assurance to the sermon to Communion, then a praise response. The intentionality was beautiful. So was the weekly observance of Communion, which I had always thought should happen, based on the scriptures, but had been rare in my previous churches.

Less than a month into my time in seminary, I also met my friend Marty. We soon became roommates. From his undergrad experience, he exposed me to more of the older church traditions and theologians I didn’t encounter as much, even in my seminary classes. He had also previously been a youth pastor, his gig at a Congregationalist church that oddly used the 1979 Book of Common Prayer as the basis of its liturgy. From Marty, I began to appreciate the Prayer Book. Through him and an Episcopalian friend, I began to resonate with how much the liturgy itself preached the gospel. “Even when the sermon sucks,” Marty’s friend once said, “I still get the gospel through the liturgy.”

Finally, not long after I began seminary, I learned that the school had started a Theology & Arts concentration, unbeknownst to me. With my background in art and literature, this was a natural program with which to involve myself. There were two remarkable things about that program. The first was that the students, being fellow creatives, were also fellow black sheep by nature within the seminary culture. The second was that our fantastic professor assigned us reading material from the broad Christian spectrum, not only—and not even mostly—from the Reformed Evangelical sphere. We read Karl Barth and Hans Kung on Mozart, Henri Nouwen on Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, and learned about how much the Church had shaped art history and how art had shaped the Church. I became a more “little-c” catholic—that is to say, universal—Christian because of those classes, primed for traditions with a long history of incorporating art and beauty.

Then, the world fell apart. The Great Recession hit, and the school canceled my beloved degree track. I had just enough hours within it to graduate with my M.A. in Theology & Arts, but I became bitterly upset with the school. The last year of my studies, I fell into a whirlpool of deconstruction with that bitterness as icing on my mounting theological disconnect. It sounds like a great time to start a church internship, right? Because that’s what I did.

I began my internship at Sojourn and spent most of it feeling I was doing a lot of good, but I struggled inwardly with my faith’s changing shape, not knowing where it would end up. Then, as I was about halfway through the experience, a friend invited me to a gathering of an Anglican house church that had been meeting for a few months. It was my first experience participating in the Anglican liturgy, and I loved it. I was profoundly moved by the experience of the ancient prayers in practice. Unfortunately, the house church was short-lived, and I continued with my internship still as a somewhat black-sheep Baptist.

After my internship ended at Sojourn, I wound up as the nighttime front desk associate at my seminary’s hotel. It was odd to be full-time staff at a place where I had such mixed feelings. Complicating matters, the lack of daylight, especially during my first winter in the job, threw me into a depression I never would have expected. I gained almost twenty pounds and felt utterly lost in a mental fog. This depression, combined with the questions of faith and theology I was already wrestling with, resulted in a problem that sent fear into my heart: I couldn’t pray.

In desperation, I turned to the Book of Common Prayer. From my conversations with Marty to my experience with the Anglican house church to recommendations from a church history professor, the Prayer Book was consistently lauded as a steady, biblically-sound guide. Now, with my mind failing, it became my my life-preserver.

The Prayer Book became like home to me. The Daily Office prayer times of Morning, Midday, Evening, and Compline oriented my day. Only Morning and Evening existed in the original 1549, 1552, and 1662 Prayer Books, but Midday and Compline were added to later, regional revisions and are now standard. Cranmer skillfully adapted Morning and Evening Prayer from the eight prayer times in Benedictine practice.

There’s a solace in joining with the saints of old in prayer when you feel your world failing. In The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs says, “For many who have felt themselves at the mercy of chaotic forces from within or without, the style of the prayer book has healing powers. It provides equitable balance when we ourselves have none.” By being immersed in the psalms, scripture readings, and ancient prayers of the Church, I found a connection to the saints of the past and, finally, found my voice to pray again. However, it would take one more element: beauty, to ultimately cause me to identify as Anglican.

(To be continued…)

(Photo: Book of Common Prayer [2019] with Bible. © Jacob A. Davis)

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