Sunday, September 20, 2015

When Common Prayer Was Common

Earlier this month, we went to a 28 BCP congregation with our teen. My wife and I had been there a couple of times (it’s a long drive) but our daughter had not. I was amazed at how much she knew of the liturgy and service music: the original (vs. modified) Nicene Creed, the General Confession (vs. Confession Lite), the Scottish Gloria, the Merbecke Angus Dei and Sanctus. (None of us knew the Kyrie).

She has almost no exposure to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. She spent all of preschool in Rite I, and then in the next nine years split time between Lutheran, 28 BCP (perhaps three years) and then Rite I; for the last few years (until recently) she has been worshiping with the ACNA trial use liturgy. On the other hand, it was very familiar for my wife and I, who spent almost all of our first four decades (i.e the 20th century) with the 28 BCP and then Rite I.

To me, our experience was a powerful reminder of the brilliance of Cranmer’s vision: the Book of Common Prayer is a book of common prayer. At one point in history, you could walk into a church anywhere in the country (or perhaps the world) and fully participate in the service. The prayers you learned as a kid would be the ones you would say until you breath your last breath. Among creedal Protestants, the Anglican faith was more defined by common worship than a common confession because (as known to 5th century Christians) Lex orandi, Lex credendi.

Of course, this also applies to hymns and service music. Yes, churches need a variety of forms and setting — I'm now a fan of the penitential vs. ordinary time approach to service music — but continuity and familiarity are underappreciated virtues.

Books of Alternative Services Rather Than Common Prayer

The brilliance of Thomas Cranmer was to provide a new prayer book in the vernacular that both linked back to the Latin Sarum (i.e. Salisbury) Rite and standardized the liturgy across the entire church. From the 16th century until the latter half of the 20th century, this was the norm for the CoE and Anglicans worldwide.

In America,  the 1979 prayer book marked a break for ECUSA from a Book of Common Prayer to what Peter Toon correctly noted was an Alternative Services Book. It provides multiple services and multiple variants, and also started the process of ongoing prayer book revision. The 2015 TEC convention vowed to start a new round of prayer book revision, in part to offer a new “gender neutral” version of the 1928 BCP marriage rite for high church LGBT parishioners.

We would love to say that Mother England has avoided these liturgical and doctrinal errors, but they haven’t. Planning a future trip to London, I found that “prayer book” services listed on the CoE church locator website were a small fraction of those local parishes.

With liturgy — as with bible translations — the 21st century model seems to be that revision is an ongoing process of modernizing the language — and the theology — rather than maintaining continuity with previous generations.

Traditional Language and Process

It’s hard to tell what the ACNA will end up doing. It opted for a single unified prayer book — rather than variant services — but following the 1978 Rite II model of a radical break from Elizabethan English. (To be fair, this is exactly the model promoted by Toon himself). It’s hard to tell if this will be a one-time or ongoing process: the disadvantage of having a standing (rather than temporary) committee on liturgy or music is that they will feel a need to do (i.e. change) something.

Among ACNA member bodies, the Reformed Episcopal Church has had relatively infrequent revisions of its prayer book — in 1873 (when it broke from ECUSA), 1963 and 2003. My impression is that the latter is recommended but not universal among REC churches.

For those that left ECUSA in between REC and ACNA — i.e. those Continuing Anglicans who quit ECUSA over the 1979 prayer book — they have been defined by their use of the 1928 BCP. In retrospect, their 1977 concerns about theological and liturgical revision have proven remarkably prescient.

Despite their severe fragmentation, these Schism I jurisdictions share a single unchanging prayer book (However, their prayer book differs from 1928 in that the lectionary was revised in 1945). This is probably the only pocket of liturgical unity in all of North American Anglicanism, continuing to live out Cranmer’s vision.

Still, having a book doesn’t define a process: It is a good prayer book, but what will the process be if there is something that must be updated? How will these churches reject recent heresies of the post-Biblical church?

In the end, I was struck by how dramatically easy it was for our family to worship using the standardized rite. Our daughter had never set foot in either in this church or a church of its province (ACC); the 28 BCP parish we previously attended was APCK. In terms of liturgy or theology, there is more variance within the TEC (or ACNA) than there is between the various jurisdictions of the continuing church.

So this raises (once again) the obvious question: if it’s the same faith, same worship and same prayer book, why are there dozens of Continuing jurisdictions in the US — other than 30-year-old grievances and a desire to propagate (or retain) purple shirts?

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