By Phyllis Tickle
Doubleday, 651 pp.
The Prymer: The Prayer Book of the Medieval Era Adapted for Contemporary
By Robert E. Webber
Paraclete Press, 174 pp.
During one of his first visits to England, Billy Graham was confronted by an Anglican who told him: "Young man, I do not approve of your style of evangelism."
"I'm sure that what I'm doing isn't perfect," Graham told the priest. "But I like the evangelism that I'm doing better than the evangelism that you're not doing."
The anecdote applies just as well to prayer: A prayer book that is used is better than a prayer book that is not used, assuming that it doesn't offer twisted texts or a syncretistic brew of conflicting faiths. Believers who have the discipline to use either Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime," the second volume in her three-volume breviary, or Robert Webbers' "Prymer" will draw more joy and nurture from them than those who do not.
Both books aim to serve as bridges between modern readers and the medieval Book of Hours, familiar books of prayers and scriptures (also called prymers) that directed believers through the 24-hour and seasonal cycles of their lives. Both Tickle and Webber have long been leaders in what could be called the modern school of high-church Protestantism. This informal movement, rooted in the Episcopal Church, has spread into other folds, including evangelical Protestantism, where many are seeking ancient roots, beautiful worship, and relief from the relentless modernity of megachurch America. Think of this niche as National Public Radio at prayer.
Both Tickle and Webber are, in fact, Episcopalians' Episcopalians, and are seeking a via media in matters liturgical. Nevertheless, both would say "amen" to G.K. Chesterton's statement that: "Tradition is only democracy extended through time. ... Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."
That said, these books are not substitutes for The Book of Common Prayer. Rather, they are guides for modern seekers looking for a way to step into the larger ocean of ancient Christianity. The target audience consists of those who want The Book of Private Prayer. The authors want individuals to use these volumes in buzzing office complexes, as well as quiet sanctuaries.
Thus, Tickle has smoothly edited the BCP's plural pronouns of "us," "we," and "our" into the more private "me," "I," and "my." She places ancient prayers one page over from the work of Desmond Tutu. Comfortable with her roots, she lets a Southern hymn flow into a biblical psalm. It can be one cloth: "Yes, we'll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river; Gather with the saints at the river, that flows by the throne of God." does have a lot in common with Psalm 78, which proclaims, "That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. We will recount to generations to come the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord."
Meanwhile, Webber candidly argues that a prayerbook crafted for the individual makes a theological statement and is perfectly suited for our age. An updated translation of "The Prymer," he writes, "is particularly useful for the 21st century because we are undergoing a ... shift from the emphasis on objective truth to a desire for a more subjective experience of truth. ... People want to own the truth and have their personal subjective experience of truth."
For centuries, an ancient tradition shaped life in living, breathing church bodies that were built on common, shared prayers and doctrine. Then the individual cells, the believers, took those prayers home and made them part of their daily lives. This pattern of daily prayer sprang from a specific tradition, a living body. The prayers of the individuals brought the community home, age after age. Today we live in an age of cafeteria religion, with many options for sale.
What one communion, what ancient body, do you join when you purchase one of these beautiful books?