Classical Anglicanism 4: The Classical Book(s) of Common Prayer

Classical Anglicanism 4: The Classical Book(s) of Common Prayer

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Looking back on our blog archives, it has been about six months since I last wrote in our Classical Anglicanism: Being Bible Catholics series. A new installment has been long overdue!

In our first post we outlined some essential elements of classical Anglicanism. In our previous two posts we discussed the first and most important element, the supremacy of Holy Scripture. Today we will look at the second element: the Book of Common Prayer in its classical forms. If our blog were to include "trigger warnings," this post would have one. This is admittedly a controversial issue among orthodox Anglicans, and I fully expect some of our readers to disagree with what follows. Nevertheless, I firmly believe restoration of the classic Book(s) of Common Prayer is essential to being Bible Catholics in the English/Anglican tradition.

Defining the Classic Book(s) of Common Prayer

While it is common to see wide liturgical variation among today's Anglicans, even within a single province, this was not the case from the early days of the English Reformation until the middle of the Twentieth Century. Rather, liturgical conformity was the norm, enforced by ecclesiastical law, civil law, or both. In the Preface to the original Book of Common Prayer of 1549, Abp. Thomas Cranmer explains that the purpose for such conformity was to simplify the services into a single volume, and to provide godly order in the Realm, so that the people could be edified and grounded in the Scriptures. When revisions to the Prayer Book were necessary, they were made for the whole (national) church, and were made in such a way that the basic theology and structure remained intact and consistent.

As such, for the purposes of this discussion, to meet the criteria to be a "classical" Book of Common Prayer, a prayer book must meet two criteria:

  1. It must be consistent with the historic patterns
  2. It must be officially approved by a province

In England, there have been five versions of the Book of Common Prayer culminating in the current official version of 1662. In the United States, there have been three books in the classical pattern, the most recent of which is the 1928 edition. Canada has had two, the second of which from 1962 is still the official Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in Canada. Other provinces and jurisdictions have also had their own, including the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC), which is a member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

The importance of the first of the above criteria is that it establishes theological and liturgical continuity among Anglicans, at least at the official level. While this does not prevent variety, it provides a recognizable "family resemblance" between editions and provinces. For example, the first Prayer Book of 1549 seems much more traditional or "Catholic" in comparison to the more Reformed leanings of the second of 1552. Nevertheless, the sisterhood of these texts is undeniable both in form and theology. By contrast, despite being approved by the province and bearing the title "Book of Common Prayer," the American 1979 edition significantly changed the classical forms by including multiple rites to the main services, by adding rites that have not been in the historic books, and by significantly changing the catechism and other texts. Similarly, the theology of the 1979 book was made much more generic, allowing for both orthodox and heterodox interpretations and beliefs to exist side-by-side. Much of this criticism can also be levied at the various official alternate liturgies that clutter the Anglican landscape. Indeed, in England, Canada, and other provinces, these alternate liturgies dominate despite the official standing of historic editions of the Book of Common Prayer.

The importance of the second criteria is that it curbs the tendency of individual dioceses, parishes, or clergy from editing the Prayer Book on a whim. In recent years there have been numerous proposed texts with no official standing floating around North American Anglicanism. Rather than building unity, these unofficial texts have tended to further divide otherwise orthodox Anglicans and add to the liturgical cacophony. This includes some well-beloved and well-used alternative texts such as the Anglican Missal or adaptions of Roman or Eastern rites.

While reliance on texts that are either unofficial or outside the historic pattern does not necessarily make one "un-Anglican," it does indicate that one is not practicing classical Anglicanism, but is rather operating within the hyper-variety that has become all-to-common in recent decades. I would argue that such hyper-variety has been a hindrance to Anglicanism rather than the help that our recent ecclesiastical ancestors expected.

Why does this Even Matter?

When I first published the list of criteria for classical Anglicanism, several people wrote to me wondering why I put the Book of Common Prayer second only to the Scriptures on the list. After all, the Prayer Book is not essential to catholicity, nor was it in existence in the first 1,500 or so years of the Ecclesia Anglicana. Does liturgical continuity and conformity really matter that much? I would argue that it matters deeply. The Book of Common Prayer tradition has been the most important distinctive of Anglicanism since the Reformation. It is what sets us apart as Anglicans viz. the rest of Christianity. This is widely acknowledged even among other denominations. During the liturgical reforms of the 1960s and 1970s, the Protestant world looked to the Episcopal Church for liturgical leadership, because we Anglicans had been doing Reformed Catholic worship for over 400 years. In making room for an "Anglican Patrimony," the Roman Catholic Church knew that an adaptation of the Prayer Book would be of top priority in Rome's Anglican Ordinariate. When Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions have considered a "Western Rite" in their midst, adaptations of the traditional  Anglican Prayer Book are among  the first steps. The Book of Common Prayer is arguably the most important contribution Anglicanism has made to the wider Church.

Furthermore, the classical editions of the Book of Common Prayer have provided the main lens through which Anglicans interpret Scripture and apply tradition. Rome has a magisterium, Protestants have Confessions, and Anglicans have the Prayer Book. Not only does it serve as our most important formulary, but it provides the framework for our spiritual formation through the spiritual disciplines. If we really believe in the "lex orandi, lex credendi" principle, it behooves us to insure that our prayers and beliefs are in sync and consistent with our history and tradition. In 2005, Bp. Robert Duncan, the future first archbishop of the ACNA, gave a speech at Nashotah House in which he identified a correlation between the liturgical anarchy since the 1960's and the advance of heterodox and heretical positions in the Anglican Communion. A return to the classical Prayer Book would be a bulwark against both the anarchy and the doctrinal aberrations about which then-Bishop Duncan spoke.

ACNA and Common Prayer

When I began the brainstorming that eventually became this blog series, and when I began the series itself, the ACNA proposed liturgies had the potential to meet the two criteria listed above, despite being modern-English texts. Since then, additional services of the ACNA proposed texts have been released, in addition to a third rite for Holy Communion. While the final form of the ACNA texts are still to be determined (such is the nature of proposed texts), the current trajectory seems to be more in line with that of the official "alternative texts" in the Communion (such a s England's Common Worship series) than with that of the classical Prayer Books. That is, the current trial-use texts are are more diverse than is permitted in the historic pattern, largely due to multiple rites for Holy Communion, some of which are outside of the classical Prayer Book tradition. While I do not find the proposed texts to be objectionable from a theological or aesthetic perspective, I believe it is a mistake to further the departure from our liturgical heritage. Rather, the ACNA should have followed the example of the REC in having a revised and updated classical Prayer Book. The REC 2003 edition is firmly within the historic patterns, even as it includes some modern updates, like the option for an Old Testament lesson and a Psalm in Holy Communion. Better yet, the ACNA could have simply adapted one of our historic Prayer Books wholesale.

Fortunately, there will always be pockets of North American Anglicanism that use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer or other historic Prayer Books. All Saints will be one such pocket.

For further reading, I would direct readers to the Prayer Book Society, USA's website, especially the New Scriptorum section, which includes many articles on the classic Book(s) of Common Prayer, including some excellent essays by the later Peter Toon on reclaiming the Prayer Book heritage.

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