We probably haven’t had common prayer in Anglicanism for over one hundred years. For all their contributions to our spiritual and theological life, the Tractarians — or, to be precise, their first disciples — put paid to all that when they began to enrich the Prayer Book text and certainly its form by adding bits and pieces of the Roman Rite or even adopting it more or less verbatim.
I suppose, to be fair, one notes that their predecessors, the Evangelicals, introduced Gospel songs, and, to the consternation of the bishops, non-liturgical services, but these were add-ons, rather than replacements for the set round of Mattins, Litany and Ante-Communion, and Holy Communion perhaps four times a year.
However, the liturgical chaos of those days looks strangely uniform in comparison to modern times in the Church of England, where even the alternative services, entitled Common Worship, seem hardly common at all. American Episcopalians may well pride themselves that, on the whole, they have resisted the confusion of liturgical practices, at least since the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a manual of worship in part designed to bring back order and conformity. For the most part, one may still visit an Episcopal church and expect to find oneself at home and comfortable with the shape and form of the service and the words employed.
Given that reality — alright, the liturgical boffins have showered us with alternative versions of the Greater Thanksgiving and unisex texts, or manuals of rumperty tumperty songs and music — the latest post by Bishop Dan Edwards of Nevada may seem rather odd. The Bishop puts in an impassioned plea for Common Prayer and gives as one of his reasons the following:
But here’s where the situation goes from troubling to deeply disturbing. It is highly unlikely in our era of Romantic Individualism that we can come to a common theological opinion. People today, even in doctrinally defined churches, do not personally identify with their theological beliefs. They identify instead with their political ideologies. In fact, we live in a society that is increasingly unable to address the issues that confront us — environmental issues; immigration policy; income inequality; the influence of money in elections and the consequences for government, etc.—because we are so identified with our political opinions that we cannot reason with each other or reach compromises without fear of losing our souls, which we have come to think of as fused with our politics.
The case made here is simple. Since the 60s, American culture has become progressively more individualistic and this embrace of individualism has been aided by consumerism and accompanied by the fragmentation of our social life into factions, united by personal choices about almost every subject one may imagine, factions contained in the encompassing folds of the two main political parties.
There’s an irony here. At the beginning of this century it was assumed that globalization would erode nationalism and create global harmony and homogenization. Fourteen years in, the opposite seems to be happening. Nationalism thrives, whether in Scotland, the Ukraine, the Middle East, or the US. Indeed nationalism seems to be a rather wide concept when compared with the regional and social groupings encountered daily, and our identifying groups within groups as our choice of “home,” a home to be lauded and defended passionately.
How then does the church resist the temptation to express itself as belonging to groupings of people who find they have enough in common to make common cause? Has common cause replaced common prayer?
In a sense this is all something American Christianity has tackled since the foundation of the nation. Not for nothing was the Episcopal Church once dubbed “The Conservative Party at Prayer.” Underneath the doctrinal conflicts of the moment, the formation of the Reformed Episcopal Church one hundred and sixty years ago was a class and social dysfunction. However it did seem possible for the Episcopal Church to encompass people of different classes and political attachments. It is also true that General Convention, until the 60s, sought to avoid addressing contentious political and social issues, with some notable exceptions.
Faced with dwindling numbers and finances, some Episcopalians are seeking to find a way to bring the church out of years of contention, enabling it to comprehend a national rather than a factional constituency. Few Episcopalians are prepared to jettison the causes the church has embraced over the last fifty years. However such causes more often than not have an expiration date written into them, if not about their core principals, at least as reflected in the intensity of passion in their espousal. Times change perceptions.
The question remains, is it possible for a people used now to the heady experience of individualistic choice, to fragmentation and self-identification with this or that faction, to find it possible to worship together in a more or less uniform manner and to allow the words framed in the shape and form of liturgy to create space for the Gospel to shape, amend and unite the passions and choruses of factional causes into the unity that the church seeks to provide by its very nature? Can Babel be reversed?
Setting aside other issues, the divisions within Anglicanism in North America do seem to be reflections of what the Bishop of Nevada terms souls fused with politics. Read the Facebook posts created by traditionalist and progressive Episcopalians/Anglicans and one swiftly encounters raw social and political opinions proclaimed as truth, truth driven by the rhetoric one hears on the news channels rather than from the Propers for that week contained in the Book of Common Prayer. A stranger might be forgiven by concluding that we choose our religious affiliation on the basis of how well a church conforms to our pre-formed and espoused social beliefs and identities. If this is indeed true the process of the American ecclesiastical journey from a large number of entities formed by historical doctrinal conflicts into groups identifying with popular social and political causes will only continue. If this is the trend, then the Bishop of Nevada’s plea for a common rite will merely be a reframing of our old conceit that people join the Episcopal Church primarily because of its worship forms and ceremonies.
Is boutique religion a lasting trend? Shall each congregation seek to fashion itself to cater to the delights of a significant number of local people to keep the doors open? Certainly our claim to be a national Christian church—even an international one — requires not only common prayer, but common faith, a faith capable of countering individualism and judging our social and political opinions. I’m not yet convinced that we don’t possess a common doctrinal core dramatized in our liturgical rites and ceremonies. If church leaders and teachers were as fervent in proposing the core of Christian belief as they often are in echoing the political opinions of those in the pew, we might have a chance to rediscover a unity deeper than agreeing to use Rite 2 next Sunday. Given its head, Christian faith has a propensity for challenging our most cherished opinions whatever their origins. If indeed the Episcopal Church is a church that allows people to think, it is high time we allowed them to think about the Gospel and the Catholic faith.
The image above is a detailed zoom of Bruegel’s “Little” Tower of Babel (c. 1563) and is licensed under Creative Commons.