Book Review: The Archbishop's Test by E. M. Green

Book Review: The Archbishop's Test by E. M. Green

edit: Fr. Steven Rindahl, who is one of the chaplains in our diocese, has provided me a PDF of the book with his own annotations and footnotes. They're very informative and add some excellent historic, liturgical, and theological background to the story. Fr. Rindahl blogs at StevenRindahl.com. Click the following link to download his annotated version of the book.

The_Archbishops_Test_Annotated.pdf

 

Green, E. M., The Archbishop's Test. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1915: 127pp.

Summary of Contents


The Archbishop's Test
is a short fictional book about a young, unnamed, hypothetical Archbishop of Canterbury early days of the 20th Century, and his seemingly revolutionary plan for dealing with modern church life.

The story opens with the Archbishop facing proposed Prayer Book revision, increasing calls for patronage by Church societies, and the various ways that modern Christian life seems to have become over-complicated. "Really all the activities of the religious world today are overwhelming," he remarks to Tom Crawford, his chaplain. "They killed my predecessor, for, after all, an archbishop is but human, and there are only twenty-four hours in a day." In the face of all of his responsibilities, the Archbishop decides not to approve the Prayer Book revision, and to suspend all Church societies for a period of two years, during which the bishops and priests of the Church are to scrupulously observe the rubrics and prayers in the Book of Common Prayer.

While Crawford and the bishops initially claim that no one is remiss in following the directives of the current Prayer Book (that is, the English 1662 version), the Archbishop kindly points out numerous ways that the directives are not being upheld. Examples include delaying Confirmation until the mid-to-late teenage years (rather than when a child is able to recite the Catechism), not offering the Daily Offices at the parishes, a lack of personal holiness in the faithful, and bishops acting as administrators rather than shepherds. The Archbishop's kindly manner convinces the bishops to go along with his "risky experiment" (in Crawford's words), though none of them expect that any good will come of such a seemingly impractical focus on the Prayer Book.

The next several chapters describe various people the Archbishop encounters over the course of the next two years who are impacted by his "test." The first of these is a lonely, hardworking country priest who had tried his best to follow the Prayer Book, but was overwhelmed by his parish's isolation from the bishop and other clergy and the dwindling population of his area. Lately, however, he was encouraged by the Archbishop's solidarity with his convictions. Another example was an old woman who was saved from committing suicide by hearing the Gospel at Evening Prayer. After the service, she  confessed her sins and was absolved by the priest, giving her the hope to carry on. A third example was an unconfirmed army general who was denied communion for the first time. Rather than become angry at his priest, when showed the rubrics and discipline in the Prayer Book, he came to respect the Church for it (after all, an army officer understands discipline) and soon was confirmed and became a faithful churchman. With these and several other little stories, the Archbishop's plan bears fruit and leads to a revival in the Church over the course of the two years, in which peace was the norm, and the people of England grow in piety and holiness.

Evaluation

It is unusual for a blog such as ours to review a work of fiction. However, I had recently run across several people in various Anglican social media groups who referred to it fondly in discussions related to the Prayer Book and efforts in taking it more seriously. This is certainly a "preaching to the choir" sort of story, and there were no surprises in it, though I was struck with how similar the problems of the Archbishop's fictitious time are to some of the problems in our own time. The idea that serious obedience to the Prayer Book would lead to a peaceful revival in holiness and piety greatly appeals to me and fits into my own experiences as an priest in the Anglican fellowship of the Church Catholic who loves and regularly uses the classical Book of Common Prayer. Of course, The Archbishop's Test is a work of fiction, and does not prove anything with respect to how such an experiment would actually work. Nonetheless, it is a story that gives me hope as I minister in the manner in which I believe God has called me.

As I wrote in my review of The Pastoral Use of the Prayer Book, I've found that simply using the Prayer Book as directed when ministering has yielded much fruit. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to hear the assertion that the classical Prayer Book is archaic and cannot adequately address the needs of today's Anglicans outside of fringe traditionalists. Indeed, I once heard an elderly priest who had spent a good portion of his ministry in the years prior to the Prayer Book Revisions of the 1970's say that the years when the 1928 BCP were in use were not "good old days," but that many parishes and priests delighted in finding "loopholes" in the rubrics that fostered laziness rather than piety. This reminds me of the claims I addressed in my blog post on the Catechism to the effect that catechesis has been tried and found wanting and it is time to find new strategies for teaching the faithful. My response to that claim was that catechesis had not been tried, but had been ignored for the decades that saw such a dearth of basic Christian education. Similarly, I do not believe that the answer to laziness and impiety is to abandon the classical Prayer Books (and indeed the whole concept of Common Prayer)  as outdated, but is rather to follow both the "spirit" and "letter" of the rubrics so as to allow the prayers, services, and sacraments to transform us for the better. After all, how does one expect that adopting a choose-your-own-adventure approach to liturgy with theologically watered-down prayers would yield discipline, holiness, and piety?

That said, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the Holy Ghost was rarely mentioned in the book. Other than references as part of a Trinitarian formula in prayer, the phrases "Holy Ghost" or "Holy Spirit" appear three times. Once, He was described as the real teacher in prayer. The second time, He was referred to has the One who awakens a realization of God's work in the land. A third time, He was referred to in a quote from the Acts of the Apostles about St. Barnabas, as the source for the saint's personal holiness and for that of all Christians. While these references make it clear that the Holy Ghost is the ultimate author of revival, a valid criticism of the story may be that Pentecost does not seem to be much of a factor. One would hope that that would not be the case of such a revival today.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I found The Archbishop's Test to be very enjoyable and expect to reread it often over the years. Due to its age, the story is in public domain and can be readily purchased or downloaded online. I read it via its entry at the Anglican History page over the course of a recent Saturday morning. One of the benefits of the version I read is that it was edited for American audiences, and includes footnotes that reference our 1928 Book of Common Prayer's services that correspond to the English 1662 BCP references made in the story. I would not hesitate to recommend the book, though I would again remind readers that as this is a work of fiction, it is for edification through entertainment rather than of scholarly or theological value.

 

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