Monday, June 8, 2015

"A Devout, Learned, and Useful Clergy"

Of all the currently reigning monarchs of Europe (including the Pope), only one - Elizabeth II - enjoyed the benefits of a traditional coronation service. Her coronation - 62 years ago this month - employed a ritual more than one thousand years old, which has experienced some major and many minor modifications since Saint Dunstan first adapted an even older Frankish service for the coronation of the Anglo Saxon King Edgar in 973. Thanks to the Protestant Reformation, it was translated into English in 1603, and since 1689 has been set within a Book of Common Prayer Communion service. As a classic Anglican service, it contains some priceless prayers. Among them, one of my personal favorites is the "Prayer of Benediction," which comes shortly after the actual crowning. In it, the Archbishop of Canterbury prays God to bless the newly crowned sovereign with the sorts of people and things we would want God to bless a sovereign (and his or her country) with, but which may at times seem to be in limited supply: 

The Lord give you faithful Parliaments and quiet Realms; sure defence against all enemies; fruitful lands and a prosperous industry; wise counsellors and upright magistrates; leaders of integrity in learning and labour; a devout, learned and useful clergy; honest peaceable and dutiful citizens.

All of these are important, of course, and much to be desired. Within this this lovely little list, however, it is inevitably the petition for a devout, learned, and useful clergy, which immediately invites my further attention. (Actually, from 1760 until 1937, the text prayed for a pious and learned and useful clergy. But, for the 1953 coronation, pious was, for whatever reason, replaced by devout, a distinction without much of a difference in this context, at least as far as I can sense. So here at least I will treat the two words as effectively interchangeable.)

How edifying to consider that for centuries successive Archbishops of Canterbury have asked God to bless their sovereigns with a devout, learned, and useful clergyGiven the increasingly perilous present state of the Church of England (and of religion in contemporary Western societies in general), one might be tempted to repeat that prayer perhaps even more earnestly today, well before any anticipated next coronation.

Needless to say, as a clergyman myself, I should certainly aspire to be devout, learned, and useful. But what precisely is meant by being devout, learned, and useful? And useful to whom, or for what? And how does one become such, or more so, or at least sufficiently so?

As I look ahead to summer's somewhat more contemplative pace, to my upcoming retreat with my community, and to some alternative time with friends and family, I plan to think more about the meaning of those words and expect to return to consider some of those questions both for myself at my stage in life and in terms of the broader needs of today's Church in this time of traumatic change.

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