The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Community: Fellowship, bread and prayers

One of the earliest, though somewhat idealized, images of the church from our scriptural tradition is found in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, written no later than 85 C.E. Note: “C.E.” means, “of the common era” in deference to our Jewish roots. The old designations of “A.D.” (anno domini, Latin for “year of our Lord”) and “B.C.” (“before Christ”) are inaccurate not only as to the Jewish calendar but also the Muslim, let alone many other religious calendars of the world’s numerous religions. C.E. and B.C.E. (“before the common era”) aren’t perfect designations, but they have the merit of being accurate as to the world’s three historically-linked monotheistic religions. In Acts, after the miracle of Pentecost, the church is said to have gathered in Jerusalem and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It was said to be a community in which material goods were held in common such that no one had any need. It was said to be a community in which people were healed, made whole by the love of God in and through the community of faith gathered around the apostles.

This image of the church is significant to our practice of Christian initiation, as it forms one of the promises we make when we become members of the Body of Christ. “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers?” we’re asked, and to which we answer, “I will, with God’s help.”

We continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship by embracing the tradition of the church, whether that’s understood from an Anglican perspective or some other Christian perspective. Anglicans embrace what we believe is an unbroken succession of pastoral authority from the first generation of Christians down to the present day, authority passed on symbolically, as scripture teaches, by the “laying on of hands.” With that “apostolic succession” comes the development of Christian theology as we understand it from the very dawn of church history, and even though much of it seems irrelevant or impertinent to us nowadays, we still honor it as being along that unbroken path of traditional teaching that has accompanied our bishops’ pastoral authority from the beginning.

Christian initiation by baptism/confirmation – and in the early church it was a unified rite for adults and, perhaps but only incidentally, their children – brings one into the fellowship of the apostles. Through much of church history, this concept of fellowship was exclusive; i.e., if one wasn’t initiated into the “right” church, one wasn’t a “true Christian.” That distinction has been virtually lost in the contemporary world, because it’s clear that there are many ways to be a Christian. We Anglicans are ecumenical in outlook – any baptized person, for example, can receive communion in our churches – but we’re fond of our roots and confident of our symbolic connection with the apostles who walked with Jesus from his baptism “until the day he was taken up from us.” (See Acts 1.21-22.) It doesn’t make us better than any other way of Christianity, and it doesn’t make our fellowship any more authentic, but apostolic succession is something we do value and affirm.

Honoring that apostolic tradition, however, doesn’t mean Anglicans are slavishly tied to the past; quite the contrary, we understand the tradition as informing and inspiring our present, which is continually refreshed by the living and active Word of God, empowered by the Spirit that breathes life into our tradition as we constantly evolve in the present. For example, Anglican elders (“presbyters,” from the Greek for “white-haired ones”; “priests” in English) customarily wear special clothing, or vestments, when leading community worship and prayer. These have evolved from what was common dress 2,000 years ago but now have become significant to us in other ways simply because they are traditional. Vestments, moreover, have evolved in form over the centuries and so bear the marks of many generations of reflection and development on their appearance and use; so, it’s not as through we’re “aping our ancestors” in the vain hope of keeping hold of the past. Anglicans understand this continuation as being an outward and visible sign of our inward, spiritual and continuing connection with the apostles’ teaching and fellowship.

Not all but most scholars tend to agree that in this passage of Acts the phrase “breaking of bread” is a reference to Eucharistic worship, which Anglicans regard as a bedrock assumption of our liturgical life. Becoming a member of the Body of Christ, then, means sharing in the community’s bread-breaking, its Eucharist (from the Greek for “thanksgiving”) for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who promised his special presence with the church that remembers him in the breaking of bread and blessing of the cup. We know from some of the earliest Christian scripture – the letters of Paul – that the community regarded the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the body and blood of the Jesus in a very real sense that we now call “sacramental.” The Eucharist, then as now, is a sharing, a communion, of the body and blood of the Lord – outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace of his presence here and now and always with those who call him Lord and savior. All baptized Christians are invited to partake of the body and blood of the Lord in our Eucharistic worship, regardless of church “membership.” It is the birthright of all Christians to be in holy communion with God in this way; and that birthright is obtained, as it were, by Christian initiation; i.e. baptism/confirmation, by which we promise to share regularly in this communion for the rest of our lives. It is the chief reason the church gathers on Sunday, the day of resurrection – to be sacramentally in communion with God and to acclaim by our worship “the mystery of our faith” that “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (See the Book of Common Prayer, p. 363.)

Scripture and tradition agree that Christians prayed daily as a community more than once a day, with special emphasis on Wednesdays and Fridays as days of special devotion. Christian liturgical prayer developed out of Jewish synagogue worship with which Jesus and his disciples certainly were familiar. Synagogues were ubiquitous in Palestine (about 400 in Jerusalem alone) and throughout the Roman Empire. They were houses of study and worship, and the shape of the liturgy was simple: praise, probably from the psalms; scripture read aloud (as Jesus does in Luke 4:14-20) and a lesson taught; prayers of intercession, especially for those who have died. To this day, there are four daily prayer times in traditional synagogues – so it’s easy to see how Christians, most of them Jews in the beginning, were familiar with the concept of a community at prayer. Anglican tradition embraces daily prayer as it has come through the Benedictine monastic tradition, although this rigorous schedule has been modified considerably. Still, in the 1979 prayer book of the Episcopal Church, there are four times of daily prayer for those who wish to pray in this way: Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer and Compline at bedtime. The prayer book provides numerous options for adapting these liturgical prayers to private use and for use by families. The basic outline pertains, but almost any type of spiritual practice can be poured into the outline. Christian tradition commends regular daily “hours of prayer” more than once a day, but Anglicanism more than any other provides the formal means by which to develop personal and corporate rules of daily prayer adapted to particular situations in life.

In specific ways, then, Anglican tradition invites Christians to become part of a model for Christian community said by scripture to have been established from the beginning – fellowship with the apostles by dint of pastoral authority passed through a succession of bishops, priests and deacons to the present day; Eucharistic worship and daily prayer as these are embodied in the Book of Common Prayer. All of which establishes a firm foundation upon which to build one’s own life “in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, to the greater glory of God” as a member of the Body of Christ.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12.12-13)

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