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Conformity, liturgy, and doctrine: 3 responses to Pearson’s ‘Anglican identity and common prayer’

These short pieces respond to Dean Andrew Pearson’s post “Anglican identity and common prayer”: given his themes, there is one from a bishop, one from a liturgist, and one from a member of the Church of England.

The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee

Dean Pearson asks a number of questions in “Anglican Identity and Common Prayer,” most of which resolve into a single question: Can a church containing diverse theological positions agree with integrity upon a common text for prayer, especially when the matter or form of the prayer is disputed? Unity that depends upon liturgical conformity is not robust enough, in Pearson’s estimation, in contrast to unity that is rooted in doctrine. Since the Episcopal Church is divided by doctrine, our disagreement should not be papered over by a mere form of words.

The short answer to this question is that Anglicans have from the very beginning contained different theological perspectives within a common form of prayer. The 1549 Prayer Book was a compromise between traditional Catholic liturgical practice and forms and the newer Protestant sensibility, even if we grant that Cranmer did not intend it to last for long, and acknowledge that it was soon replaced in 1552 by a more thoroughgoing Protestant book. But we see the instinct to find a formula of prayer acceptable to those with different theological loyalties in the Words of Administration at Holy Communion adopted in 1559, with their balanced marriage of the formulae of 1549 and 1552. Similarly, at other junctures in history Anglicans have (more or less successfully) sought acceptable ritual words and required their use.

Unity if solely a matter of liturgical conformity would be a weak unity, indeed, and not be very Anglican either. Dean Pearson is right about that. Even in these last days, however, when there are substantial disagreements on many fronts, our unity is not quite so thin, so simply dependent on words. Finding and articulating a text that is broadly acceptable to its members in matter and form is itself an expression of unity. In any case it is the proper work of the whole Church and not simply of a local congregation. Perhaps this exposes further divisions in the Church — this time, in our understanding of the Church — but Anglicans have generally made these matters subject to the “particular church” rather than any individual Sunday assembly on its own.

We should not lose sight of Dean Pearson’s assertion that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer represents an undesirable standard for conformity. It’s not just conformity he objects to, but this book in particular. It appears that doctrine and liturgy are in conflict in our church, he says, because the inclusion of an epiclesis in our Eucharistic Prayers (since 1789!) conflicts with right doctrine. The 1662 Prayer of Consecration (sans epiclesis) articulates Dean Pearson’s doctrine and that of his congregation more faithfully, and so they ought to be allowed to use it.

Dean Pearson does not advocate a “free for all” in matters of liturgy, thank God, but (with a nod to General Convention Resolution D050 in 2015) he does not give us much beyond the requirement that the Eucharistic Prayer be approved by the bishop. But of course D050 cannot and does not give carte blanche to bishops in determining what is permissible, since the Eucharistic Prayer in view must conform to the rubrics of “The Order of the Celebration,” with its stipulation of prayers which are acceptable (none of which is found in 1662).

A simple resolution cannot rewrite the text of the prayer book.


The Rev. Matthew Olver, Assistant Professor of Liturgics at Nashotah House Theological Seminary

I was asked to respond to the liturgical aspects of Dean Pearson’s piece. But all theology is by nature systematic — including liturgical theology. A tug here, a tweak there, and the effects move outwards, altering a complex structure.

His resigned proposition near the end is basically true: “any dream of common prayer may be just that, a dream.” Only by the 16th century was common, uniform liturgical celebration even possible, due to the advent of printing, and the arrival of a new eagerness to enforce conformity.  Given a host of positive and negative cultural shifts since then, it is not surprising that such common prayer has all but faded into the background.

Paul VI gave his so-called “eulogy to Latin” in 1969; there should be a similar eulogy to this particular marker of the Anglican spiritual tradition: the Book of Common Prayer composed and revised at the apex of the English prose tradition. This passing of common prayer is the tragic end of an era, not least linguistically. No longer will we “not presume to come to this thy table.” We will presume to speak as did Paleolithic man: “You God; we praise.”

But back to Dean Pearson: his liturgical proposals cannot be considered outside their embedded ecclesiology, a full-blown Protestant congregationalism. Pearson’s case appears based on pragmatic grounds, and maybe evangelistic ones. But we cannot forget his conviction that the American prayer book tradition is “a political consideration at best, unbiblical at worst;” similarly, he desires to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer precisely for its putatively Protestant, Cranmerian character.

He is correct when he points out that the Anglican liturgical heritage of Eucharistic praying in this country differs somewhat from the English prayer book tradition. Colin Buchanan declared it an “oddity” (Anglican Eucharistic Liturgies, 1985-2010, p. 27).

I would argue, however, that this tradition’s Eucharistic prayer is roundly scriptural and salutary, and retains the patristic theology of Eucharistic sacrifice exemplified most explicitly in the Roman Canon. The offending clause in Rite I, Prayer I reads as follows: “we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make … and we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” (1979 BCP p. 335).

Thus, despite what Dean Pearson says, the significant issue is not really the missing epiclesis in the 1662; the Roman Canon doesn’t have one either. The major issue is that the 1979 BCP, along with the rest of the Scottish-American tradition, an obligatory oblation (even all the “Rite III” options for Eucharistic prayers), while the 1662 BCP does not.

Another concern is Pearson’s personal proclivities. They may conform to what can rightly be called “historical Anglican praying.” But this branch of the Anglican family has always indicated its belief that one constitutive aspect of the Eucharist is the offering of gifts to God; and that when God receives those gifts, they are graciously made the Body and Blood of Christ and are given back to us as such. Furthermore, this way of praying is, in fact, objectively more reflective of the tradition of the Church catholic than the 1552/1662 tradition of Eucharistic praying, however venerable.

But even more to the point, the 1979 BCP and the tradition from which it stems is that to which Dean Pearson and all others who have been ordained in, or exercise ministry in, the Episcopal Church have “plighted our troth.” This way of celebrating Holy Communion is most certainly part of the “doctrine, discipline, and worship of Christ as this Church has received them” (1979 BCP, pp. 513, 526, 538). To them we are morally, legally, and spiritually bound.

Even more importantly, the authorized liturgies of Anglicans by necessity carry significant doctrinal freight. Especially in the United States — where canon law is only dogmatic by exception (e.g., “No unbaptized person shall be eligible to receive Holy Communion in this Church,” Title I.17.7), where the bishops do not issue doctrinal teaching documents, and where we have no authoritative statement of faith or catechism — the liturgy carries theological weight by default. The Articles of Religion never had authority for us like in the English Church, and they never did so at a Communion level.

Finally, Resolution 2015 D050, which Pearson uses and which presumed to authorize “Rite III” with the approval of the diocesan bishop, clearly violates the intention of the 1979 BCP’s rubrics, as Bishop Bauerschmidt notes above. Its passage represents another example of our General Convention approving a resolution that is unconstitutional, for the sake of political expediency. On top of the resolution’s dubious origin, Dean Pearson’s use of it is even more questionable, and represents yet another worrisome step in the direction of enshrining private or congregational preference.

Furthermore, this resolution (and Pearson’s proposal by extension) actually encourage the use of rites that contravene the doctrine, discipline, and worship as this Church has received it: not just the 1662 BCP, but all manner of other Eucharistic prayers.  Our vows do not give us the freedom to support the proliferation of theologically deficient liturgies: only to the doctrine, discipline, and worship that this church has received.

The question now has to be: What unites the Episcopal Church, when the operative principle of such a resolution allows every priest to nurture their particular theological and liturgical proclivities during “the principal act of worship on the Lord’s Day and other major feasts” (1979 BCP, p. 13)?

Pearson rightly notes our theological division, but allowing and encouraging liturgical division will hardly foster a greater unity. It will exacerbate current tendencies, to the detriment of the whole church.

Dr. Zachary Guiliano, associate editor of The Living Church

My “brief” is to respond to Dean Pearson’s essay with a perspective from within the Church of England, not least since he cites its wide-ranging liturgical diversity as a reality that differs from attempts at prayer book conformity in the Episcopal Church. Similarly, his argument concerning “theological identity” touches on numerous issues within the church.

We might address the issues of C of E liturgy and doctrine under the headings of “legal and canonical realities” and “empirical fact.” Allow me to sketch the situation out briefly.

Strictly speaking, the C of E’s primary “authorized” liturgies are contained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, which were given approval by Parliamentary statute. Along with the 39 Articles, these liturgies also form the substantive, identifiable core of the church’s doctrine, as defined by Canon A 5, the canon first asserts that

The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.

Clergy assent to these liturgies and doctrine during their ordination vows, although the form of their assent is less direct than in the past. (See the wording of Canon C 15.)

It was only in 1965 that the Church of England gained the statutory authority for its General Synod to propose and allow other forms of liturgy, under the “Prayer Book (Alternative and Other Services) Measure” and 1974’s “Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure.” The first measure kicked off 50 years of liturgical experimentation and revision, the major fruit of which is now Common Worship’s many volumes (14 and counting). These volumes are technically “commended” for use by the General Synod as “alternatives” or supplements that are deemed harmonious with the existing Church of England’s doctrine and liturgy. They allow for a great deal of liturgical diversity.

So much for the legal and canonical realities. What about the empirical facts?

Regarding doctrine: Many, if not most, C of E clergy and ordinands have little intention to hold to the legally defined doctrine of the church, would question the very idea that it has identifiable doctrine, and have received little to no formal instruction regarding the historic formularies of the church during their theological education. In other words, the C of E possesses a tightly defined theological identity, at least in relative contrast to the Episcopal Church, yet many of its pastors and teachers reject that identity.

Regarding liturgy: It occasionally seems that liturgical standards are observed primarily in their breach, despite canons and ordination vows (e.g. Canon B 1.1-3). Many could cite anecdotal evidence regarding priests who make up their own Eucharistic prayers, do not follow any authorized “form” (similar to the 1979 BCP’s “Rite III”), and, in general, have abandoned the whole concept of authorized liturgy. The advent of Fresh Expressions has exacerbated this tendency.

Even when the lines regarding authority and identity are more clearly drawn, it is still possible for a church to spiral into theological and doctrinal incoherence.

For my part, I agree with him that the Anglican Communion needs to regain some kind of doctrinal unity. At the moment many Western Anglican churches are lashed together by a common inheritance and by episcopal and synodical governance, but little else. How long such a situation can continue, especially in the absence of a renewal of our vision of authority, is anyone’s guess. But I tend to think that a new unity will only come about gradually, with a renewal first of the church’s teaching office.

But what to do in the meantime?


  1. What cries out for further notice is the fact that divisions in the Episcopal Church do not run just between so called “Conservatives” and “Progressives,” but also between fellow Conservatives. Fr Olver says, “… Dean Pearson: his liturgical proposals cannot be considered outside their embedded ecclesiology, a full-blown Protestant congregationalism,” where it clear that Fr Olver and Dean Parson have a different view. Added to that are significant divisions over theology as it pertains to the Eucharist.

    What is most tragic about this is that the Eucharist, having as its central point the saving death of Jesus, is a powerful “tool” (I am not reducing the Eucharist to a mere instrument, only saying it has secondary effects that are vital) for witness to the broader church of a point (The Atonement) that desperately needs to be heard.

    So these kind of discussions are crucial not only to understand the place of *common* prayer, but also in the quest to make *common* cause in the renewal of the Episcopal Church.

  2. These are helpful in keeping the conversation going and I am grateful for the responses.

    Bishop Bauerschmidt’s essay hits on a question that I dwelt upon this summer–What would have happened if Cranmer had not been burned? I do not think we can say that Cranmer was working for consensus, but was trying to move things along in a pastoral manner, which may include certain concessions. Even so, it is clear that Cranmer was moving on a trajectory that would have seen further revision of the 1552.

    In 1551, Peter Martyr Vermigil wrote to Bucer that on the issue of ceremonies, Cranmer was still be held back by conservative churchman during the 1552 revising process. (See MacCulloch, Cranmer, p. 512).

    In another letter, an English Protestant exile in Frankfurt wrote, Cranmer would have ‘drawn up a Book of Prayer a hundred times more perfect than this that we now have’ if he had lived. (See MacCulloch, Tudor Church Militant, pp. 176-7).

    I realize that this remains an open question, with even low churchman (like Roger Beckwith) arguing there would not have been another revision. Any such revision was not only thwarted by Queen Mary, but also the 1559 revision. Even so, the 1662 (the standard Book of Common Prayer for most of the Communion) descends from the 1552, not the 1549. Our American Prayer Book, of course, descending from the latter.

    I appreciate Bishop Bauerschmidt’s reminder of the inclusion of the epiclesis dates to 1789. I would remind him that for 182 years before 1789, the eucharistic prayer of the 1559 was used in America. To have a service in use for nearly two centuries is surely some kind of precedent.

    The proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1786 (inadequate as it may have been), continued to use the accepted eucharistic prayer of 1559. The change came, as I have noted before, as a bargaining chip in order to secure the consecration of Samuel Seabury by the non-juring Scottish bishops. (The issue of ‘qualified chapels’ in Scotland, apart from the Scottish Episcopal Church, may be a good example of how two integrities can live side by side, culminating in union.)

    Most important of all is Bishop Bauerschmidt’s final sentence: ‘A simple resolution cannot rewrite the text of the prayer book.’ I am in total agreement with the Bishop on this principle, but in our church, it can only be a minority stance against the prevailing method of shaping doctrine and liturgy–resolutions. By resolution we have redefined the biblical Prayer Book definition of marriage, we have allowed the inclusion of more vows in the ‘baptismal covenant,’ (I am referring here to the allowance of the environmental commitment), and we will, by resolution, change our current Book of Common Prayer. Historically, when it comes to Prayer Book revision, there wasn’t the piecemeal attempt that we have now, chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down, but we still did it by resolution.

    He is also right to say that D050 does not give carte blanche to bishops, but I disagree with his interpretation of what the 1979 Book of Common Prayer allows or forbids concerning ‘An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist.’ Marion Hatchett, in his ‘Commentary on the American Prayer Book’ explicitly states that this order was created with the intent (including others) that other liturgies from other Prayer Books from around the Communion might be used. The allowance of the previous General Convention allows us this use, while still maintaining the intent of the 1979 Book.

    The only other lingering question would be, ‘Would a bishop allow such an evangelical position to not only exist in their diocese, but encourage the ministry to flourish?’ I hope that our church can be marked by such generosity.

  3. Professor Olver states cleary the anglo-catholic (circa mid-eighteenth century) position that so many Anglican ‘converts’ have come to embrace. I find, in my own parish, those coming in from evangelical churches are the most distressed to learn that they have not joined the church painted for them by the Tractarians.

    A few years back, Robert Webber released a book called Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. What I note with interest is the number of these individuals who ultimately become Orthodox or Roman Catholic. Anglicanism for them, as Paul Zahl once noted, is a way station for swimming the Bosporus or Tiber. Cardinal Newman, so many years before, learned this lesson.

    Does the current tolerance of our church toward anglo-catholocism (less the women’s ordination issue) extend to those of us who readily identify as Protestant? Are the inheritors of the English Reformers to be told that we are just ‘full blown Protestant congregationalists’ as if that is not an Anglican position? (The Articles define ‘The Church’ in terms of a local congregation.)

    As I mentioned in my first essay, we at the Cathedral Church of the Advent do not see the service of Holy Commuion to be the principle act of worship on the Lord’s Day. This is why we are a Morning Prayer parish. We believe the word of God, read and preached to be the most important act in our services. The Sacrements of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper flow out of the word. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is right to disallow a service of Holy Commuion without a sermon. The word and Sacrament cannot be divorced and the word can stand on its own, the Sacrament cannot stand apart from the promise that it signifies.

    Prof. Olver also notes a disagreement that I did not voice in my first essay. I do object to the semi-Pelagian offering in the midst of the eucharistic prayer of the American Prayer Book. It begs the question, ‘Is the eucharist about what God has done for us or what we can do for him?’ It’s all well and good to make arguments about it being a representation of Christ’s death, a reminder to the Father, but I believe the book of Hebrews can deal with that point better than I.

    The inclusion of this petition works directly against what Cranmer and the English Reformation was trying to do, namely, convey the message of justification by grace through faith. In Cranmer’s liturgy, we bring nothing to the table. God is the only actor in the story; we simply come forward, assuming the posture of a beggar, empty handed, and receive. In joyful response to what the Lord Jesus has accomplished for us, ‘we present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee’ So, it might be said that I do not disagree with its content, merely its geography.

    I appreciate Professor Olver’s concern for unity, but it sounds like his sort of unity will come only at the expense of the historic Protestant position of Anglicanism. What would the response be if the shoe were on the other foot? Should individuals like myself, ordained and lay, leave the Episcopal Church?

    Knowing the anglo-catholic postion, I understand the concerns of Prof. Olver. What his comments do, however, is beg the question as to what the answer is regarding unity in the Episcopal Church beyond liturgical conformity?

    We might be better served to ask the question, ‘What is Anglicanism?’

  4. Dr. Guiliano makes good points regarding facts on the ground in England. It may be the particular identities of the theological colleges which contributes to the varying understanding of doctrine in the church. One can attribute this to the fact that they were founded to espouse a certain position, training up clergy in that tradition. Theological colleges in England, far better than Episcopal seminaries in United States (with few exceptions) have been able to maintain their respective theological/ecclesial integrities.

    In this light, the diversity in the Church of England is not so much individualistic as it is group-oriented. As one who trained for ordination in England, I could, at student events, almost immediately identify where students were from based on how they talked about theology and the Church. You could tell who was drinking from what well.

    Regarding what clergy are permitted to do liturgically, more than anecdotal evidence, many in the Church of England exercise their liturgical changes under Canon B5, which reads, “The minister who is to conduct the service may in his discretion make and use variations which are not of substantial importance in any form of service authorized by Canon B 1 according to particular circumstances.” Some of my responders may see this as a Pandora’s Box. I will admit that this has led to firmer lines being drawn in the Church of England. Because St. Ebbe’s, Oxford believes and worships the way it does, only clergy who are reformed and evangelical need apply. In the same way, if you’re not charismatic, don’t count on serving at St. Aldate’s, Oxford.

    We are already seeing this happen in the Episcopal Church with the local option of whether or not to permit clergy officiating at a same-sex marriage. In my diocese, in order to be able to host such a service, and for clergy to be granted permission to officiate, both the rector and the vestry must be in agreement about allowing such. When a church goes on record saying, ‘we are a church who celebrates same-sex marriages,’ no clergy who would be against will be considered for a position there. For ‘conservative Episcopalians’ this has been an issue for a long time. There are no-go areas in our church for those who hold traditional beliefs.

    At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, an African bishop stood at the microphone and asked the body, ‘What holds our Communion together?’ The bishops leaned forward to hear his answer. He responded, ‘Wippells!’ It gained a laugh, but what made it funny was that there was some truth to it. In the same way, it may be that a uniform liturgical practice is the last thing that we have going for us that displays unity. It’s no wonder that people argue so forcefully for it. We’ve lost most everything else we’ve held in common. One could say that prior to the 21st Century, there was a sort of consensus in the Communion that was beyond Canterbury and liturgical inheritance.

    Dr. Guiliano conclusion is spot on; the Church’s teaching office is at ebb. In our tradition, bishops have a particular role in this and may be a source of renewal in our church. That would turn our conversation to the nature of the office of bishop. By that I mean whether or not we can change the denominational administrator understanding we’ve come to know? This would be real leadership that could effect a culture change in our church. How are our bishops a focus of unity in our church?


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