For those of you who follow Theology Forum, you know that we have a deep interest in the relationship between theology and spirituality. In light of this interest, this post concerns a book entitled Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer by David A. deSilva. For those of you who recognize the author, you might be surprised by the book title. deSilva is a New Testament scholar and a Methodist, neither of which (one would think) orients him towards this topic! My friends at IVP told me that this was a labor of love for deSilva, coming out of his background in the Anglican church and the rich spirituality he found in the Book of Common Prayer (special thanks to IVP for sending me the volume for review). In his own words,
I am a person of faith today precisely because the liturgies of the Book of Common Prayer gave me a language and a context for encountering God in my youth that continue to be essential vehicles for my own spiritual formation.”
There are many things I really liked about this book, and I will highlight a few of them here. First, deSilva does an unusually good job of communicating well and concisely. This, coupled with the equally unusual feat of suggesting helpful practices at the end of each chapter makes this volume a great book to use in a small group or individual setting (my wife and were reading it together, which is a great use as well). The chapters are short, which make it a great daily read, and with 45 chapters, it is a great discipline for about a month and a half.
deSilva breaks down the spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer into four major sections: Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Christian Marriage and Christian Burial. So why these four? deSilva admits that he should probably have stopped at the first two if he was writing on sacraments as such, but he isn’t. “It is a book about living the sacramental life, that is, living in line with the model of discipleship that the sacramental liturgies articulate and seek to shape within us, and availing ourselves more fully and more often of the resources God sets before us through these sacraments.” Therefore the first two focus on the principle “rites” of the church, while the latter two “flesh out” the former in particular life contexts.
Many evangelicals, I would imagine, would find this statement odd. How do you “flesh out” baptism or communion? Aren’t they events in our life? Here, I think deSilva has done a great service to the broader evangelical church. He focuses, through Book of Common Prayer, on the life forming realities of both baptism and Eucharist. deSilva explains,
Baptism has a dual nature. On the one hand, it is performed once and considered thereafter to be an accomplished fact. On the other hand, baptism provides an orientation to our selves, our world and our God that must be appropriated day after day. Martin Luther wrote that ‘in Baptism, every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what baptism promises and brings – victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.’ We are both baptized and initiated into a baptismal life. We are taken into a baptismal covenant in which we are called to walk each day.”
Likewise then, “If baptism charts the course for our journey, the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, provides our nourishment for the journey. In the Eucharist, God provides spiritual refreshment and empowerment to sustain us in our exodus from sin and from the corrupting powers of this world, even as God sustained the Hebrews throughout their wilderness wanderings in their own exodus from Egypt.”
All in all I really enjoyed the volume. If you know people who are curious about the Book of Common Prayer but altogether unfamiliar with it, this would be a decent place for them to start. I did think it could have been shorter, but after working through through it a chapter a day, I really came to enjoy the format. As readers of TF, I would be curious to hear how many of you use a prayer book? Likewise, does anyone attend a non-liturgical church which focuses on the baptismal and eucharistic pattern of the Christian life? This seems like a neglected element in much of evangelicalism.