Over at Living Church, the US Episcopal Church website, they have been hosting a discussion about liturgy and unity prompted by the prospect of revision of the 1979 Prayer Book. Andrew Pearson, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama, questions whether doctrinal unity (such as it is) should be maintained through notional commitment to a common form of liturgy—of whether the diversity of the Church should be recognised in diverse use of different liturgies.
In our context, we have elected to use the eucharistic prayer from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which has no epiclesis. As a congregation that identifies itself as Protestant and evangelical, this was a welcome change, a change that places our congregation with the majority of Anglican Communion…
The issue is not one of liturgy, but doctrine. Because we do not have an agreed upon doctrine, we have varied liturgical practices in our church. The Articles of Religion relegated to “Historical Documents” still have a place in articulating Anglican doctrine. That being the case, it seems (in the words of Dean Michell) that nearly every Episcopal ordinand must have “their fingers crossed” when the word doctrine is uttered in the ordination service.
What if doctrine and liturgy are in conflict, as they are in our church? What is the authority that we appeal to? Bishops? Canons? Convention resolutions? The Bible?
Diversity in liturgy is the reality of our Anglican Communion. One need only look at the rest of the Communion to see that liturgical conformity emanates only from North America. The Church of England has a wide range of liturgical diversity on Sunday mornings. From Pusey House to All Souls, Langham Place, to Westminster Abbey to Southwark Cathedral, you will see it all. And, most likely, you will find the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion service being used only at 7:30 a.m., if at all.
I was invited to contribute a response from the perspective of the Church of England, and this is what I offered.
What do you do with a diverse church which is supposed to have Common Prayer? Is it better to change the Prayer to become as diverse as the reality on the ground, or should we try and police the reality in order to make it conform to the commonality of the forms of prayer? Or is there a third possibility?
Andrew Pearson is right to observe not only the diversity of liturgical practice in the Anglican Communion but also the diversity in the Church of England itself. I am quite convinced that the ecumenical challenge we face here is less to do with our relations with other churches, and more to do with our relationships with one another. There is, arguably, more diversity in the C of E than any other member of the Communion, with influences not only from both the Oxford Movement and radical liberalism from the past, but also from the New Calvinism and the Vineyard movement in more recent years. It would be impossible to enforce precise uniformity of practice across these theological traditions in the Church, but abandoning the idea of a form of common prayer would be even more disastrous. The different elements would spin off in their own direction without any hope of shared commitments.
And those shared commitments do exist and do indeed bear fruit. In examining one of the theological colleges, I have just read about a fresh expression of church, influenced by Vineyard, breathing new life into a struggling church from the Oxford Movement tradition. And low church student ministries are realising the attraction to young people of ritual and liturgy in providing stability and sanctuary in a changing world. Unless you have Common Prayer, you do not have a basis for conversation. Our liturgy (along with our canons) actually specifies what we believe, and forms the basis for discussion about both diversity and change. There is a common commitment even if this does not lead to uniformity of practice.
I am not convinced that Common Worship offered the best direction for this. We now have about a million different texts to which we are supposed to adhere without deviation; it would have been a better strategy to offer a smaller number of core texts which are used with acknowledged flexibility, which is what happens in practice. But without a common liturgical centre, we have no shared point of reference in discussing our points of difference.
There is, of course, a price to pay for this way of living together in the process of revision of common prayer. For us, it hijacked what was supposed to be a Decade of Evangelism and replaced it with a Decade of Liturgical Revision. Some of the conversation was painful as we engaged with a wide range of concerns. And we insisted on continuity, for the sake of both historical integrity and ecclesial unity: all modern liturgy is strictly an alternative to the 1662 BCP which remains our official liturgy. And it means that every tradition in the church has to take seriously the process of revision and be fully involved to be fully represented.
But despite the challenges, we think this has been a price worth paying to express our shared beliefs in common prayer.
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