Praying for the Church (Part 5):
The welfare of the Church, and its freedom to pursue its mission, depends greatly on the good order of the state, and so the Church prays for civil rulers. Yet even (as in England), where the church is by law established and the Head of State is the Church’s supreme governor, even there authority to administer Word and Sacrament is reserved to the ministry established by the apostles.
At the center of the Prayer for the Church, we pray for “all Bishops and other Ministers” (originally “all bishops, pastors, and curates”) “that they may, both by their life and doctrine, set forth thy true and lively Word, and rightly and duly administer thy holy Sacraments”. We pray first for what is to be done – the proclamation of the Gospel in word and sacrament, according to the Faith of the Church. We also pray for those by whom it is to be done – the ministers who proclaim the Gospel, according to the Order of the Church. Historic Faith and Order, the Word truly preached, the sacraments duly administered, these are the “notae ecclesiae”, the marks of the true church, marks indicative of a church where Christ in present in the gospel.
What is this Faith that is to be “set forth”? “Thy true and lively Word”. Lively means “full of life”, energetic, active, outgoing, sparkling. Stephen the first martyr speaks of the “lively oracles” received by Moses (Acts 7:38); but Jesus says, “the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Peter speaks for the disciples when he says to Jesus, “thou hast the words of eternal life” (6:68). What is this life-giving “word of truth”? it is “the gospel of our salvation” (Ephesians 1:13), “which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (1 Thess. 2:13). “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16).
The word of the gospel gives life and salvation, because it is the word of truth, and therefore the purity of that word is not to be taken for granted. “I marvel” says Paul to the Galatians, “that you are so soon removed from him that called you unto the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:6, 7). The language of the gospel, like any other language, is malleable: the idols of human imagination can be clothed in Christian language, even if the substance is delusion and deceit. Therefore it is necessary, to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). A good part of that earnest contention is the work of theological reflection on the testimony of the Scriptures, immersing ourselves in the Bible, and learning to read it under the tutelage of the saints. When you are praying this prayer, pray that your priests and bishops, your ordinands and their teachers, are engaged in this deep reading of the Scripture. And pray that your ears may be open to hear the word of God speaking through the words of those mere men who are set apart for its preaching and teaching.
We pray that they may set forth God’s Word “both by their life and doctrine”. Some of you will recall Chaucer’s Parson: “But Cristes lore, and Hise apostles twelve/ He taught, but first he folwed it hymselve”. And others may recall another poet, himself a parson, George Herbert:
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
This glorious and transcendent place,
To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
Making thy life to shine within
The holy preacher’s; then the light and glory
More reverend grows, and more doth win;
Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
And in the ear, not conscience, ring.