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And Who Are Our Betters? A Sticking Point From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

Most frequent visitors to this site know that I was raised on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and in general am a fan of same. But it has issues, and a Twitter post pointed out one of them, which comes from the Catechism, in theory given to all those which seek to be confirmed. For those of you who know my opinion on playing up to our “betters,” this definitely got my attention.

As is the case with most things in the 1928 BCP, this relates to scripture. Let’s start with this:

Just then a Student of the Law came forward to test Jesus further. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do if I am to ‘gain Immortal Life’?” “What is said in the Law?” answered Jesus. “What do you read there?” His reply was–“‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thou dost thyself.'” “You have answered right,” said Jesus; “do that, and you shall live.” (Luke 10:25-28 TCNT)

But then the Student came up with this:

But the man, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus: “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29 TCNT)

Both Our Lord and the catechism deal with this issue on two levels: who is my neighbour and what am I supposed to do? Concerning the former, those whom the catechism lists–parents, civil authorities, teachers, “spiritual pastors and masters,” and those infamous “betters”–are people we look up to in society. For the latter, the catechism deals with many things which are covered in the Ten Commandments, along with some which Our Lord included in his summation of the Law.

I’d like to concentrate on the former, because it is here that we see the greatest disconnect between what the catechism commanded us and what Our Lord himself had in mind to answer the student’s question:

To which Jesus replied: “A man was once going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him of everything, and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. As it chanced, a priest was going down by that road. He saw the man, but passed by on the opposite side. A Levite, too, did the same; he came up to the spot, but, when he saw the man, passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan, traveling that way, came upon the man, and, when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, dressing them with oil and wine, and then put him on his own mule, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out four shillings and gave them to the inn-keeper. ‘Take care of him,’ he said, ‘and whatever more you may spend I will myself repay you on my way back.’ Now which, do you think, of these three men,” asked Jesus, “proved himself a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” “The one that took pity on him,” was the answer; on which Jesus said: “Go and do the same yourself.” (Luke 10:30-37 TCNT)

While the catechism had in mind for us to look upward to view our neighbors, Our Lord has us to look outward and downward.

The problem with that is that the Episcopal Church, then and now, is the church of the economically privileged, filled with people who have little contact with those who are not (and who are as unprepared to deal with them as the priests and the Levites of the parable.) This simple fact has eluded the church’s social justice warriors for the last half century, and things have only gotten worse now that class is banished from the conversation. The catechism, in addition to Anglicanism’s obsession with authority civil and ecclesiastical, reflects the common experience of many Episcopalians: look upward for contact and inspiration.

The student of the law asked Jesus the question: who is my neighbour? The catechism begs the question: who are our betters? Today we’re supposed to be living in a flattened, egalitarian world. And yet people purport themselves as our “betters” to be given a deference which would make the catechists of yore blush. They have their PhD’s (and EdD’s, such as Jill Biden,) they have their positions, they virtue signal the right things, etc. We should order ourselves lowly and reverently to them, just like it says above. That’s the message we’re constantly fed, and anything contrary is scorned and, just to make sure, blocked.

Unfortunately that kind of deference isn’t restricted to either a certain part of the political spectrum or even the Anglican/Episcopal world. In the Evangelical world, after a half century of separation from the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy and (in the South at least) a deep distrust for those “above” them, we have the volte face of the “big bucks” lording over our churches, their grip only ending with death (and in churches with endowments, not even then.) We have opportunists who bear the name of Christ using their high position in the government to influence the church’s response to COVID, and getting a fawning following. We see an entire movement turning itself into a “success method” when its institutions and basic theology are singularly unsuited for the task.

The 1979 BCP completely rewrote the instruction of the Christian faith, but its left-leaning leadership expected the same deference and obedience from its parishioners as the catechism of old demanded. When they didn’t get it, they decried the renegades as schismatics with litigation following, and do the former up until this day.

The day we put God’s authority first and that of our “betters” down the line is the day we will truly be able to reach out to our neighbours–all of them.


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