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Common prayer and diversity in the C of E

Editor’s note: This piece responds to Dean Andrew Pearson’s “Anglican identity and common prayer,” which argued for greater liturgical diversity in the Episcopal Church, no longer centered on the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Last Friday, we published “Conformity, liturgy, and doctrine: 3 responses to Pearson’s ‘Anglican identity and common prayer.’” These discussions form part of our conversations regarding liturgical revision, also published in The Living Church.

By Ian Paul

What do you do with a diverse church that is supposed to have common prayer? Is it better to change the forms of prayer to become as diverse as the reality on the ground, or should we try to police the reality on the ground 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. 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 in 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, which provide 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 that 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.

The Rev. Dr. Ian Paul is a member of General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England. He is also honorary associate professor at the University of Nottingham, and adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.


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