The Prayer Book & Evangelism

by The Rev. Gavin G. Dunbar[1]

August 4, 2010


Is the historic Prayer Book an Evangelistic Liturgy?


Is the historic Prayer Book an evangelistic liturgy? Can a church that uses one of the classical Prayer Books (England 1662, USA 1928, Canada 1962) fulfill the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations”? It is a mark of our time that many Anglican and Episcopalian Christians would answer these questions in the negative. The Prayer Book may be good for some things – but not evangelism. So runs the current wisdom. So prevalent is this view, that even many Prayer Book Episcopalians share it!


Two intersecting influences are responsible for this negative view of the Prayer Book – first, the influence of revivalistic evangelicalism and its 20th century charismatic development, and second, the influence of the “church growth” movement, with its use of modern marketing techniques to boost church membership. The first perceives the genuine movement of the Spirit, and genuine faith, in worship which is emotionally exciting and open to spontaneous self-expression. In Anglican or Episcopalian churches, this is often expressed in a resistance to “worship styles” that seem old or dated, and an expectation that corporate worship will be varied – thus demonstrating, it is thought, a willingness to be flexible and responsive to the Spirit’s leading. Where these presuppositions exist, the ancient, predictable objectivity of Prayer Book worship appears unspiritual, rigid, and dead.


The second influence, the church growth movement, uses worship services as evangelistic outreach events. Thus services are carefully designed to attract and hold worshippers, who are treated as religious consumers. In this approach, what happens during a service should be immediately understandable and accessible both to the unconverted and to Christians coming from non-liturgical backgrounds. Such “seeker-sensitive” services are deliberately unchurchy and undemanding, providing upbeat contemporary music, and upbeat “messages” that aim at “relevance”. The “churchiness” of the Prayer Book, its preoccupation with the administration of Word and Sacrament, the demands it makes of the worshippers, these are thought to be useless for church growth.


This paper is written in the conviction that the evangelistic character of the Prayer Book liturgy has for too long been dismissed, even by those who love it. This is not just a matter of nostalgia. There is a real loss to Anglican Christianity, when the evangelistic strategy embodied in the reformed and catholic tradition of the Prayer Book is abandoned for the sake of ideas drawn from revivalistic-charismatic Christianity, or from the marketing approach of the Church growth movement. Though these are not without certain strengths, they are at best only part of the Christian and Biblical tradition, and do not represent historic Anglican Christianity. For the sake of Christ, and the Church’s witness to him, Anglican Christians need to rediscover in understanding and practice the Prayer Book as an evangelistic liturgy. I should also note that this paper is an attempt to rediscover and re-assert the evangelistic character of the Prayer Book. As such it is doubtless in need of correction, clarification, and further exploration, by those who agree with its thesis and those who do not. I welcome response from both groups!


In this essay we shall consider:

(1) The HISTORICAL RECORD on the Prayer Book as an evangelistic liturgy;

(2) The BIBLICAL TEACHING about evangelism;

(3) The PRAYER BOOK’S CONFORMITY to the Biblical teaching; and

(4) The PRACTICAL USE OF THE PRAYER BOOK for evangelism.


The Historical Record


The historic record does not support this assessment of the Prayer Book as a liturgy unsuited to evangelism. The Prayer Book emerged from the sixteenth century rediscovery of the Gospel (the “evangel” of evangelism) and is itself a primary witness of the degree to which the gospel mandate to “make disciples of all nations” was embraced as a normative characteristic of all faithful Christian ministry. At no other time in church history – certainly not the hey-day of twentieth century liturgical revision – was there a comparable clarity of conviction about the Gospel. Although not all Protestants considered the English Prayer Book to be the best expression of the gospel, Lutheran and Reformed liturgies had more in common with it than they do the liturgies of contemporary charismatic revival or the modern church growth movement.


As an instrument of evangelism, moreover, the Prayer Book has been effective for more than four centuries, from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, not only in England but around the world. For wherever English traders, explorers, navies, armies, settlers, government officials, and missionaries went, they went with the English Bible and the English Prayer Book. Missionaries expended enormous energy not only in translating the Bible into local languages, but also the Prayer Book. The present-day Anglican Communion was a result of that Prayer Book Christianity.


To suggest, therefore, that the Prayer Book is something less than adequate as an evangelistic liturgy, therefore, flies in the face of the historic evidence.



The Bible’s Teaching about Evangelism


History suggests that the Prayer Book is in fact an effective evangelistic liturgy. At a time when the witness of history is dismissed even by conservative Episcopalians (those who count themselves committed to historic Anglicanism), it is necessary to consider the Prayer Book in the light of Biblical teaching about evangelism.


It is in Saint Matthew’s Gospel that we find the best-known expression of the Church’s evangelistic mission, in the “Great Commission”, given by the risen Christ to the apostles: “All authority is given unto me in heaven and in earth: Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20).


St. Matthew’s Gospel is not the only account of the Great Commission. There is another version of it in the ending of St. Mark’s Gospel, also given to the apostles: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15, 16).


Likewise St. Luke, though here it is given to other disciples as well as the apostles: “Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations: and ye are witnesses of these things” (24:46-48).


In St. John’s Gospel Jesus tells the disciples, “As the Father hath sent me, even so send I you … Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (20:21-23).


In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus tells the apostles, “ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).


Finally, there is the witness of Paul: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that wemight be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 4:17-21).


One could vastly expand this catena with ancillary texts. These six allow us to identify flesh out the four primary aspects of this mission, namely its goal, agency, means, and duration.


First, the goal of the mission: the mission consists in the making of disciples of all nations. The word “disciples” means literally “learners”, by which it understands not only the instruction of the intellect but also the training of the will in subjection to the authority of Christ’s teaching and example, and by participation in the fellowship of his Church. The sketch of the Church in Jerusalem after Pentecost in Acts 2:41-47 illustrates the ecclesial form of discipleship. The reference to “all nations” bespeaks the catholicity of the church’s evangelistic mission, because Christ died “not for that nation only”, that is, the Jews, “but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 12:52 cf. Ephesians 1:10), without respect to any distinction of nature – sex, age, race, language, culture, economic or social status, and religious background (see Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22).


Second, the agency of the mission: authority to evangelize is granted primarily to the apostolic ministry (thus Matthew, Mark and Acts) ordained of Christ and empowered by the gift of his Spirit. This authority should not be understood as excluding other Christians (the other disciples mentioned in John and Luke), for the mission belongs to the whole Church. (Remember the Israelite slave girl, whose testimony sent Naaman the Syrian to be healed and converted by Elisha the prophet.) Rather, this authority to make disciples is vested in the apostolic ministry, as their special office and responsibility, to ensure that is a priority of the Church as a whole.


Third, the means by which the mission is carried out: the preaching of the gospel, the administration of baptism, together with the teaching and learning of Christ’s commandments. The first two (preaching and baptism) not essentially different activities, but complementary aspects of Word and Sacrament, both of which require repentance, authoritatively proclaim remission of sins in his name, thus bringing about reconciliation with God. Moreover, what Word and Sacrament proclaim (as signs) they also effect: those who receive the Gospel and Baptism in repentance and faith are indeed saved; those who do not are, by their own choice, damned. “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”.


As for the teaching and learning of Christ’s commandments: although disciple-making has a beginning point (baptism and faith in response to the preaching of the gospel), the Bible presents it not as a “one-time” event (a conversion experience), but rather as an ongoing process of growing to maturity in the knowledge of God (see Ephesians 1:15-18; 4:8-16), and learning to obey his commandments (e.g. Matthew 5-7 esp. &;24-27, John 13:17, 34-35, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29). Of necessity this will include growth in doctrinal, moral, spiritual, ecclesiastical and sacramental knowledge and practice. If the preaching of the gospel and the administration of baptism, corresponds to justifying faith, the teaching of Christ’s commandments corresponds to the sanctifying good works of charity in which lively faith is expressed. This pattern corresponds to the pattern of disciple-making set forth in the Great Commission, and the pattern of Christian conversion and spiritual growth envisioned by the Prayer Book in its pattern of initiation through Baptism, Catechesis, Confirmation, admission to Holy Communion, and perseverance in the fellowship of good works. Thus neither preaching for conversion by itself (the “altar call”), nor baptism by itself, nor both together, are sufficient for disciple-making: ongoing theological, moral, and spiritual formation, by catechesis and common prayer, is also necessary.


When the whole scope of Biblical teaching is taken into account, the calling of the Church cannot be restricted simply to the mandate to turn unbelievers into believers (evangelism, narrowly construed). If this were the sum of the Church’s calling, it would make sense for her corporate gatherings to be oriented primarily to the “outsider” whose adherence she is seeking to woo. (Though one wonders then what the Church triumphant would do in heaven.) But when all the implications of the Great Commission are allowed to shape our understanding of Christian duty and calling, evangelism in this narrow sense must be seen as but part of the whole. Evangelism must be understood as terms of discipleship – learning to know, love, worship and obey the Lord. Therefore, the making of a disciple cannot be regarded as simply making converts to the Faith. It is rather a transformative process which embraces the whole of a disciple’s life, and begins with his conversion. A Christian is always a learner in the school of Christ, and the Church’s calling is to embrace and manifest the fullness of Christ’s commandment to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”.



The Prayer Book’s Conformity to the Great Commission:


If one comes to the Prayer Book from the Bible’s teaching about evangelism, rather than from the point of view of conventional wisdom about church growth, one discovers how profoundly evangelistic the Prayer Book is, how deeply it conforms with the New Testament teaching about the Gospel and the Church. It says something about the blinders of the present age, that this should be so rarely perceived. Yet the most distinctive features of the Prayer Book conform to the Bible’s teaching about evangelism.


As we have seen, the New Testament teaches that the evangelistic mission of the Church – as set forth in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and related texts – is threefold. (1) It is centered in Christ, and in the remission of sins and reconciliation to God in his name (Luke 24:46-47, John 20:23 cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). (2) It is effected by means of the apostolic ministry of word and sacrament. (3) It awakens true repentance, justifying faith, and sanctifying obedience to Christ’s commandments.


That is a capsule description of the essence of the historic Prayer Book liturgy. Indeed, some of the very features for which it is deplored – such as its “medieval” penitential devotion, its “morbid” clarity about Christ’s atoning death, and its alleged “clericalism” – are elements required by the Great Commission. It is the contemporary expectation that evangelistic liturgy should be upbeat and positive, not penitential, an egalitarian celebration of community rather than a humble adoration of the crucified God, that looks out of step with the Great Commission.


Likewise, one might note the Prayer Book’s confidence that the primary means of this evangelization – the means God has ordained and which we consequently may and should expect him to bless – is nothing else than the ministry of his Word and Sacrament. Whatever else may be said about praise songs, guitars, drums, video, drama, liturgical dance, personal testimonies, ejaculations of private prayer, the exchange of the peace, “contemporary” language, upbeat messages shaped more by pragmatism than by doctrine, or what have you, it is not these, but the ministry of Word and Sacrament that Scripture regards as the primary and indispensable means of carrying out the Great Commission. Everything else is either legitimate but ancillary (in which I would include small groups for study, discussion, prayer, and encouragement in the faith) – or it is trivializing and distracting. Scripture-believing Christians with a heart for evangelism need to look first to the Scripture’s teaching on the means to be used, and not read it through the blinkered perspective of current conventional wisdom about spiritual revival and church growth.


This is not to vindicate do-nothing, dead-end fogeyism, or conservative complacency, that is suspicious of zeal for mission, nor is it to dismiss that which charismatic revival and the church growth movement seek to accomplish, and actually do sometimes accomplish. Nor is it to say that evangelism is merely a matter of “good liturgy”, however much good liturgy is the matrix of effective evangelism. It is rather to point out the dangerous assumption which is too often un-critically embraced by sincere and zealous Christians: that the church can grow evangelistically only if it discards and distances itself from the church’s own tradition. The blithe assumption that the pure core of the Gospel can be extracted from the Church and its tradition, and extracted easily and without impairment to its substance, is unfounded optimism. It is not like shucking a cob of corn. What we discard as irrelevant or alien to the Gospel is often precisely the tradition of faith and worship which over many centuries arose and developed in response to the Gospel, and which embodies and communicates the Gospel more fully than is recognized. As a result, what we discard often leaves behind a mutilated or diminished Gospel; and what we adopt in its place as means for church growth, often compromises it. Those who think that the Church can grow only by abandoning its own tradition and taking up the latest marketing techniques should give heed to the apostolic charge: “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). A church that grows by means of marketing techniques at the expense of the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacraments runs the risk of conforming itself not to the Holy Spirit but to the spirit of the world.



How To Practice Prayer Book Evangelism


What is required for the Prayer Book to be as evangelistically effective in the 21st century as it was in the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and, yes, 20th centuries? There is no magic technique: simply the implementation of the Great Commission: (1) an apostolic ministry ready and able to make disciples of all nations (2) by preaching the gospel and administering baptism for the remission of sins through repentance and justifying faith in Christ, and (3) by the teaching of Christ’s commandments for the sanctification of the faithful in good works.


Apostolic Ministry: By this I mean the ministry of clergy who are themselves grounded in the Faith of the Bible and the Church as set forth in the Prayer Book: who believe and practice it, who understand and pray it, and are consequently able and ready to teach and train other Christians in the same Faith and Worship. Churches in which the clergy both embrace and teach (with clarity, coherence, conviction, and confidence) that which the Prayer Book sets before us to believe, pray, and do, will equp those whom they serve to recognize the Prayer Book a powerful and effective way to believe, practice, understand, and pray the Christian Faith. Thus grounded in the Gospel by the Prayer Book, by their word and example they will be able to commend to their families and their circle of acquaintance, both the Gospel itself, and the Prayer Book as a tried and true framework for praying and living the Gospel.


Once again, it must said, there is nothing magical about what I am proposing. Rather, it is just the way Christian churches have always evangelized and disciple the people of God. Where the Prayer Book fails, it fails because clergy who are hostile to it, who do not understand its rationale and thus cannot communicate it, lack confidence in its ability to present the Gospel, or (tragically) do not believe the Gospel which the Prayer Book presents. In the absence of understanding, confidence, skill in communication, or faith itself, such clergy are unable to take their part in the Church’s evangelizing mission. Distressingly, such clergy are often regarded as “conservatives”.


Baptizing and Teaching. Central to the Prayer Book’s “evangelistic strategy” (which is simply the Great Commission) is the baptism of the newborn (the normative practice), or (exceptionally, in missionary settings among the unchurched) of those come “to riper years and able to answer for themselves”. Although the secularization of society and the demoralization of Christians have enlarged the missionary aspect of the Church’s mission in formerly Christian countries, even where the baptism of children is not normal, it remains normative. After the first generation of adult converts, the children of the Church cannot be treated as pagans outside the covenant. To do so is to deny the power of the Gospel, which of its own nature produces Christian families and societies.


What is critical is to recognize that the Great Commission pairs baptism with catechesis. By thorough catechesis, as well as participation in the Church’s common prayers, those who were baptized as infants grow up in the Gospel, and learn to repent, believe, and obey in accord with the promises of their Baptism. This enormous advantage conferred on the Christian church by infant baptism has historically been the primary way churches have grown. It made unnecessary the desperate expedients to which the churches are now being urged to resort.


That the formation of mature Christians by such catechesis was an integral aspect of Anglicanism is now forgotten. Its disappearance has had far-reaching consequences. Far too many adult Episcopalians have only the vaguest ideas about the Christian Faith. This vagueness, transmitted to the children of the Church, has trained them up in indifference and ignorance, as consumers rather than believers.


Until the 19th century, this was not the case. Anglicans and Episcopalians were first instructed in the Prayer Book Catechism, a kind of “shorter” catechism intended for little children. From there they went on to “middle” and “larger” catechisms of one kind or another: Nowell’s Catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Nelson’s Feasts and Fasts, as well as sermons and homilies. Traditional catechesis engages the memory, and rightly so. But the catechetical method is more dynamic and interactive than one might think. What begins with a foundation laid in the sponge-like memories of the young, is developed in terms of understanding and will. Much of learning the truth depends critically on learning to ask the right questions.


The Church too often throws away the enormous advantages conferred by infant baptism, and the opportunity for spiritual formation through common prayer and catechesis. Rediscovering and refocusing on this primary pastoral and evangelistic discipline is a key to growing churches – not least because many families are looking for it. Despite the secularization of society and failures of the church, there are many folk out there with some sense of themselves as Christians, who are seeking to put down roots in the Faith. Show them where to do so, and they will take root, and grow.




Prayer Book Anglicans and Episcopalians do not always commend the Prayer Book by the evangelistic weakness of their churches. In this weakness they betray a failure to grasp the evangelistic character of the liturgy, or a lack of confidence in its evangelistic power. Therefore we bear a share of the blame for the widespread assumption that historic Anglicanism must rely on approaches to evangelism that are not historically Anglican, or indeed entirely in accord with it. If the Prayer Book is to be recovered and rediscovered, its friends must not thus betray it. They must themselves take seriously what it teaches us to believe, do, and expect: and that means taking evangelism seriously.


[1] The author gratefully acknowledges the very helpful suggestions of the Rev’d Jason Patterson in preparing this paper. Any of its faults and inadequacies, however, are his own responsibility!