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Praying for the Church (Part 1):

A lively, not dead faith, is fruitful in good works, especially charity; and the gospel, truly preached, truly believed, creates and sustains the Church, “which is the blessed company of all faithful people”, united in holy fellowship with God and each other. Where the gospel is proclaimed, and the faith confessed, therefore, it is fitting that we exercise this faith in works of charity – in the offering of alms and oblations, for the relief of need and the support of the ministry – and in prayers “for the whole [entire] state of Christ’s Church”. In the early Church, the ministry of the Word was followed by a prayer for the Church, and the Prayer Book restored this venerable practice.

On the exercise of charity, a 17th century divine (Comber) observes, that we add these prayers to the offering of alms and oblations, “to show that our charity extendeth further than our alms can reach; for the benefit of these is received only by a few of our neighbours, but we ought to love all the world, especially our Christian brethren, even those who do not need or cannot have profit by our gifts: and how can we express this better, than by recommending them all to the mercies of God, who is able to relieve them all, and of whose bounty all have need….”

We may also consider the appropriateness of this prayer from the point of view of the Sacrament for which it prepares us. Christ’s Body is not only that which he received in the womb of the Virgin Mary, offered on the cross, raised from the dead, and exalted to heaven – it is also the Church, for which he died: “as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Romans 12:4,5). And therefore, the sacrament of the Body of Christ signifies both the Body that was given for us on the cross, and the Body mystical of which we are “very members incorporate”, as the Prayer Book says. That is why, Augustine says, the sacrament was instituted in elements which from plurality (many grains, many grapes) were reduced to unity (one loaf of bread, one cup of wine): in them is figured forth the unity and peace that Christians have in belonging to Christ. Augustine exhorts his listeners: “Be what you see [placed on the altar], and receive what you are”. “He willed that we belong to him. He consecrated the mystery [or sacrament, and so throughout] of our peace and unity upon his table. He who receives the mystery of unity and does not hold fast to the bond of peace, receives not a mystery for himself, but testimony against himself”.

It’s a teaching taken up in the prayer to be said at the offering of the elements of bread and wine, on Corpus Christi (the feast of Christ’s Body): “In thy mercy, O Lord, we beseech thee, grant to thy Church the gifts of unity and peace, which are mystically shown forth in the offerings we make unto thee”. And in substance it is the first thing we ask God for in the Prayer for the Church: “to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord: And grant that all those who do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love”. “Be what you see, and receive what you are”.

Father Gavin Dunbar, rector of St. John’s Church since 2006

To read all nine essays in this series, visit http://stjohnssav.org/author/ggdunbar/