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Sue Careless: Discovering the BCP Vol. 3

Discovering the BCP: A Hands-On Approach
Vol. 3: Special Occasions
By Sue Careless
PBSC & St Peter Publ. 2009, Softcover
349 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay

OUR OLDEST child arrived in one of those easily-could-have-lost-him deliveries – monitors beeping, specialists hovering, husband looking stunned. The following morning, our rector arrived at my hospital room. He lowered his 6’5” frame down to his knees, laid open a small red prayer book on my hospital bed, and together we responsively read the liturgy of the “Thanksgiving after Child-birth.” I wept amidst one of those painfully clear epiphanies of how fragile our lives really are. Never have I been so grateful for a particular liturgy, for a means to express both the depth of my gratitude and my confession of disregarding this fragility as often as I possibly can.

If you have ever cherished one of these “special” services in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), or desperately needed wisdom about which prayers to read aloud when a friend or family member was sick, or are new to the Prayer Book in general, Sue Careless’ latest volume Special Occasions, in her practical guides to the BCP, will be a welcome addition to your bookshelf. Here she reviews the components of the BCP pertaining to marriage, sickness, death, ordination, consecrating spaces and life’s occasional events. Careless entitles these times “Stations Along the Way,” a helpful way to categorize them, both in our minds and in the book.

Careless’ first book in the series Discovering the Book of Common Prayer: A Hands-On Approach, Volume I (2003) focuses on Daily Prayer, providing a guide to Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline, the Litany and an excellent chapter on prayer in general. Volume II Our Life in the Church (2006) looks at the services of Baptism, Confirmation and Communion. This third and final volume, Special Occasions, could be considered the “everything else” book, covering that which has not been addressed in earlier volumes. The trilogy unearths the strength and wisdom of the Prayer Book, explaining why we say what we do, how it is grounded in Scripture and the thinking behind how the choice and sequence of words originated. Careless’ books are an exploration of our Anglican treasures.

At several points Careless describes these three volumes as a “tour” of the BCP. It’s a perfect description. These books show you around, provide history, explain vocabulary, connect to Scripture and offer clarification. These are didactic, user-friendly guides that give you all sorts of practical information. The layout, with frequent subtitles and sidebars, makes the text easy to follow. Readers can use the detailed Table of Contents if they want to find a quick answer, or they can read at a more leisurely pace, absorbing the answers to queries such as “Why have Ordained Clergy?” There are clear diagrams and descriptions of Anglican governance. All these explanations are sufficiently well explained for beginners and are sufficiently in-depth for pastors.

One of the things I appreciate about this third volume is that it focuses a great deal on vows. Vows are out of favour these days. Certainly commitments are cumbersome and very hard to keep. Yet vows are exceedingly meaningful, and surprisingly nourishing to those who witness them. You become part of something bigger, something that endures. Careless’ section on the marriage ceremony is useful and thought-provoking (any chapter on marriage that begins with “If you are hoping for the perfect wedding, I’m afraid it’s not going to happen” endears itself to me instantly). She covers the origins of the ceremony and expounds on topics such as “Where to Hold the Wedding Service?” and “Why the Single Person has a Special Place in the Church.” For those participating in or attending an ordination, Careless gives all the background necessary to understand the intentions of these vows and ceremonies.

Another unusual strength of this volume is the chapters on Ministry to the Sick and Burial of the Dead. At a time when most of us are desperately in need of answers and a sense of “what to say,” Careless offers concise sections on “Heaven,” Hell” and “What Happens After We Die?” She provides Scripture verses, not just to explain the Prayer Book’s wording, but to share with others in such awkward times, and better yet, she explains why they are appropriate.

If there are weaknesses in these books, they are also their strengths. Some will feel they are too simple, too straightforward, too much like friendly textbooks. The format doesn’t entice you to read them straight through – you are inclined to “dip in and out.” You tend to pick up pieces of information more than an overarching theological or liturgical framework. A second concern is the book’s illustrations. My kids would call some of them “hokey” deducing from the drawings’ old-fashioned style (which I bet appeals to some) that this book is not intended for them – an entirely false assumption. But a number of the drawings are surprisingly effective – they stick with you, enabling you to remember something you wouldn’t have otherwise. One drawing I particularly liked was in the section on “Blessing Sacred Spaces” – a signpost hanging outside the Temple, placing the circle with the diagonal slash through a “Shortcut” sign.

Regardless, the usefulness, thoughtfulness and clarity of Discovering the Book of Common Prayer: Special Occasions, are unprecedented. Bridging the junctions between the Book of Common Prayer, Scripture and our daily lives is no easy task. Sue Careless offers us just that.

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