The Secker Society

 

ON THE TRADITION OF COMMON PRAYER:
READING LOCAL LITURGIES THROUGH THE FORMULARIES

By V. Francis Knight

It is through the liturgy of the Church that the individual Christian and the local community participate in the common prayer of the saints. That being true, as the church grows, so must its liturgy along with it.

Through the last three centuries the Anglican Church has grown tremendously throughout the world, and along with this growth has come the development of a wealth of liturgical innovations. In addition to the historic prayers of the Church being translated into many languages, they have also been adapted to local and contemporary customs, circumstances, and manners of speech, and, have also experienced the engrafting of entirely new elements. Today, though there are times when Anglicans around the world come together to recite the common, historic, prayers of the Church, in the liturgies in which they participate day by day they are no longer divided merely by speech, but also by differences in both form and content.

There can be little doubt that the lives of Christians have been enriched by the various localized liturgical resource books now commonly used in the place of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer throughout the Anglican world. There is however one important point which must not be overlooked: though the church itself is subject to change, from place to place, and from time to time, the truth of the Church itself is without change, neither arising from the passage of time, nor with the move from one nation to another. The truths of our Christian faith are immutable and can be neither localized nor contemporized.

Christians do not regard their liturgies by themselves to be a sufficient rule from which the essential truths of the Christian faith can be deduced, but rather look to an external authority to find these truths and to provide proper meaning and understanding to their liturgical worship. For Anglicans, historically, that authority is the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted by the Church, in accordance with the collective testimony of a group of secondary formularies: the Articles of Religion 1571, the Prayer Book and Ordinal of 1662, and the Books of Homilies of 1547 and 1571. These secondary formularies are sometimes termed "Anglican Standards" because they provide form and boundaries to the Anglican expression of the Universal Church. Every liturgy requires that it be approached with faith, that is, a set of beliefs, in order for it to have a significant meaning to those who participate in it. In recent years there has been a trend in many parts of the world to set aside Anglican standards, and to treat localized liturgical books as though they exist in a vacuum independent from the doctrines of the Church. The results of this are two-fold: people recite that which they do not believe, or, they bring to their day to day experience of the liturgy a non-Anglican, and often less than Christian, understanding.

It was never the intention of those who first began to produce local adaptations of liturgies from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that this would result; to the contrary, the first local liturgical books that appeared were accompanied by clear statements that they were intended to be understood in all accordance with Anglican standards as relating to all essential matters of doctrine, and were consciously designed not to depart from these in any particulars. As independent and pioneering as the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States was from its inception, even it fell short of offering a set of local adaptations as fixed doctrinal standards to replace the historic Anglican formularies, though it did flirt with the possibility. Though it cannot be denied that in many places local liturgies have grown in directions that make their reconciliation to Holy Scripture a more strenuous endeavor, we must remember that none of our liturgies are perfect.

The efforts of some to weigh various adaptations of liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer against one another in an effort to declare some to be sufficiently "Anglican" and others not to be, appears to reflect a poor understanding on both of these points: firstly, that liturgies do require an external component of interpretation; and secondly, that none of the local liturgies are intended to be a substitute for the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 among the formularies which provide a definition to the Anglican practice and understanding of the Christian faith. The historic formularies of the Church of England have always been the instruments which unite Anglicans together into a distinct Christian community. The position of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is unique; it is the only liturgy which Anglicans around the globe possess in common with one another, and nothing can or will ever replace it in that regard.

Local and contemporary liturgies are not a thing to be treated with suspicion, fear, or contempt, but must, nonetheless, be comprehended in a manner subservient to the authority of Holy Scripture, as articulated by Anglican standards, in order for those who participate in them to fully benefit from the Christian truths which they contain. A given liturgy, even that of the English Church in 1662, is Anglican only in so far as it is read and understood in a manner consistent with these principles.

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