Editor’s note: This post touches on the issue of common prayer and liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church. The pages of The Living Church are currently hosting regular submissions on the same topics, in the series Necessary or Expedient? The first post of that series was Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 Prayer Book?” Other essays in the series will appear online in due course.
By Andrew Pearson
Two essays have recently appeared at Covenant, both dealing with the idea of “common prayer” and the role of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in the life of the Episcopal Church: Bishop Dan Martins, “Eschew liturgical idiosyncrasy,” and Dean Neal Michell, “A call to common prayer.” Both caught my attention because this is the very question my congregation, the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, is engaging.
Bishop Martins and Dean Michell’s insistence upon the exclusive use of those rites approved by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, and strict adherence to the rubrics, is baffling to me. In the 1870s, there was an attempt by the Protestant establishment to stave off Tractarianism in the church; it didn’t work. The House of Bishops’ 1871 pastoral letter made little to no impact on the growth of Anglo-Catholicism. The latter would ultimately triumph with the adoption of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. The historical practice of our church has been to conform to the innovators. Like it or not, our modus operandi is to begin a practice, promising to come up with a theology later, but we never do.
I am not advocating a free for all when it comes to liturgical practice in the church, but I am dead set against conformity, if the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the standard. Thankfully, the most recent General Convention has allowed local congregations “to create worship that is meaningful to their context,” allowing the use of the guidelines of “Rite III” for Sunday morning worship, with the approval of the diocesan bishop (see Resolution 2015 D050).
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.
To be sure, some in our diocese expressed worry that a change in our Sunday liturgy would create disunity. (It should be noted that we are a Morning Prayer parish in the first place, already differentiating ourselves from nearly every other Episcopal church in the United States.) Both Bishop Martins and Dean Michell express a similar sentiment. My response is that if our unity is primarily expressed through using the same, or similar, liturgy at all Episcopal churches, it is a thin unity. Such unity is only a projection that denies that we are, in fact, a divided church.
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.
Rather than advocating liturgical conformity to a “Book of Common Prayer,” I wonder if we don’t apply the Gamaliel test to this. The Episcopal Church does not have the stomach to police individual congregations, and diocesan officials may not need to. We continue to atrophy as a church, and it seems to me that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
As I said to my bishop, “You have allowed many in our diocese to pursue an unbiblical direction; I want the freedom to pursue a biblical one.” Why not allow them what they want? A bishop in the church who often spoke up for the orthodox side in the House of Bishops one day decided to no longer stand up. When asked why, he replied, “I’m tired of interposing myself between the Episcopal Church and the wrath of God.”
I’m afraid that any dream of common prayer may be just that, a dream. The notion of common prayer died in the United States in 1928 (with the introduction of prayers for the dead, among other things), if not before then (with the introduction of the Scottish non-jurors’ prayer of consecration — a political consideration at best, unbiblical at worst).
If common prayer has not been a reality for much of our history, why should we expect it now?
This concern also demonstrates a misunderstanding of our culture. People don’t care what the shingle says out front; institutional loyalty is a thing of the past. What they care about is what happens inside the building during corporate worship and how that manifests itself the rest of the week. When parishioners move away from my church, almost none of them attend an Episcopal church in their new town.
Is Anglicanism primarily an aesthetic consideration or a theological identity that manifests itself in its liturgy? Can we find our unity in something deeper than outward conformity to a Book of Common Prayer that is on its way out?
I have the deepest respect for both Dean Michell and Bishop Martins and find myself in agreement with them on many of the prevailing issues in our church, but I would caution them not to repeat the mistakes of our forbears. We may find ourselves on the other side of liturgical tyranny when our church gets its new Book of (not so) Common Prayer in the coming years.
The Very Rev. Andrew Pearson is dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent, Birmingham, Alabama.
 The phrase “to create worship that is meaningful to their context” was part of the explanation provided in resolution D050.
 With few exceptions (Scotland, Canada, and the United States), no Anglican prayer book contained an epiclesis after the anamnesis until the 20th century. See Ron Dowling, “Text, Shape, and Communion: What Unites Us When Nothing’s the Same Anymore?,” Anglican Theological Review 95:3, pp. 435-46. Available online here.
 Acts 5:33-39.
 A169, 2015 General Convention, calls for a comprehensive revision of the 1979 BCP, with the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to present a plan for this revision at the 2018 General Convention.