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The Book of Common Prayer as Constitutional Document

By John C. Bauerschmidt

“All the whole realm shall have but one use”: with this phrase the preface of the first Book of Common Prayer marked the end of the old liturgical regime that had prevailed in England in the Middle Ages, with various liturgical “uses” prevailing in different dioceses, religious orders, and cathedral churches, and the establishment of one use throughout England, authorized by Parliament and enforced by the power of the Crown. The liturgical rites and ceremonies in medieval England were all variants of the liturgy of the Church in Rome, as were most of the liturgies of the Church throughout Western Europe. Though different bishops on occasion would set liturgical use within their dioceses, or archbishops within their provinces, or even monarchs within their realms, Dom Gregory Dix argues that the principal authorizing force behind the liturgy was custom, with variation depending on the gravitational force exerted by the liturgical uses of the principal sees and the major cathedral and monastic churches (The Shape of the Liturgy, 2nd edn., p. 716).

The Act of Uniformity of 1549 established something new, what Dix called “the statutory liturgy,” public worship with the force of law. Implementation of the Book of Common Prayer not only abolished the different uses of the English Church but also brought in a new order. The old liturgy had rested on the sanction of custom, but now the new statutory liturgy became first a revolutionary force in the reign of Edward VI before settling down under Elizabeth I as part of the comprehensive Anglican “settlement.” Clergy were required from the first to use it and no other; and though Dix is merciless in exposing the inadequacies of any liturgy that is promulgated and enforced by statute either civil or ecclesiastical, it is hard not to acknowledge that this liturgy came over time (through its very statutory nature) to have the ancient authorizing force of custom as well.

The Episcopal Church has inherited this pattern of liturgical life, with a liturgy authorized by General Convention for use in all dioceses of the church (Constitution, Article X). The prayer book’s presence here makes it a “constitutional document,” one of those usages that help to define the way in which this church not only prays but is governed. A large part of Title II of the canons is devoted to ensuring that copies of the prayer book used in this church conform to the Standard Book of Common Prayer, to the role of the Custodian of the Standard Book, and to the extensive process required for revision of the book. Training in the use of the prayer book and other authorized liturgies is also required for those preparing for ordination. Conformity to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer is part of the “standards of conduct” for all clergy, who are also to refrain from neglect of public worship and Holy Communion “according to the order and use of the Church” (Title IV, Canon 4, sections 1a and h).

All clergy at ordination vow “to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church,” including use of the prayer book that stands as a constitutional document of the church (BCP, p. 513, etc.). Supplemental liturgies find their place in our Constitution and Canons, but only those “authorized by this Church” as an extension of prayer book worship. Bishops, according to the Constitution and Canons and the prayer book itself, may only “set forth” other liturgies for very specific short-term purposes (BCP, p.13), and the clergy have no authority to use any other liturgy not authorized by General Convention.

Much has been written about the history of the Book of Common Prayer, including commentaries on the texts and rubrics of the various editions of the prayer book and even ceremonial guides to its use, but not much is made of its constitutional status. In having an authorized and authoritative pattern of worship historic Anglicanism shares a characteristic with Roman Catholicism, though not one with a common root in an earlier period (unlike many of our other shared traditions). In the face of the new opportunities posed by the invention of printing, and with a common need to reform and regulate liturgical practice, both the Church of Rome and the Church of England established liturgical texts with the force of law, either civil or ecclesiastical or both. The Episcopal Church has retained this discipline as part of its constitutional ordering. For Anglicanism, with a less developed dogmatic and canonical tradition than Roman Catholicism, a good deal of weight has been borne by a tradition of authoritative liturgical texts.

The Book of Common Prayer in its various incarnations has served as a unifying force within the Episcopal Church. Of course, there has never been complete uniformity in practice, even within the bounds of a single edition, but this does not undercut the force of its unifying tendency. Now, in the changed circumstances of a digital age, there are pressures on this unifying order. Some of these pressures are technical: we can now do things more easily to order our liturgy, to change it and adapt it, which do not require printing more books. But logically speaking, these technical abilities could just as easily lead to greater uniformity rather than less. Imagine a “liturgy of the day” dispatched on Monday morning from the denominational central office to all congregations, camera and projector ready! I don’t think this is likely (or desirable) in the Episcopal Church.

The real pressure on our unifying liturgical order relates not to the changed circumstances of the digital age but to changes in our own understanding of the church that diminish it. We no longer understand the constitutional role of our own authorized liturgy, nor honor it (in many places) in practice. Bishops may have an idea that they can authorize some other liturgy than the one that is authorized by their own church. Clergy or worship committees may download a liturgy they like from an online resource and use it, or even write their own liturgy. None of these practices rises to the level of historic Anglican practice nor conforms to the constitutional pattern of the Episcopal Church. In the meantime, and as a result, the knowledge that the only liturgy appointed for use in the church is an authorized one has faded from the minds of many parishioners.

Prayer book worship, in text and rubric, guards against the idiosyncrasies of individual clergy and congregations. It was intended to do so. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has generous provision for variety without endangering the principle of common prayer. This liturgy and its supplements have been authorized by all of us through the church’s own constitutional and canonical procedures. It is our liturgy, in the collective sense: the common possession of every member of the church, and not the possession of bishops, clergy, or worship committees.

Perhaps the fading of this sense of common prayer is only the result of adaptive solutions to new circumstances that will in the end enrich the church’s way of praying. That may very well be. But it is also arguable that continued misunderstanding of the Book of Common Prayer’s constitutional role will damage our way of taking counsel together about the bonds of our common life — not to mention the damage done by idiosyncratic liturgies to our tradition of praying and believing. Rather than enriching our way of praying, the neglect of the Book of Common Prayer is at least as likely to diminish our sense of what the Church is and what it does when it prays. As Episcopalians we join together in common prayer. The practice of authorizing a liturgy for use throughout the Episcopal Church remains a demonstrable sign of unity that ought not to be abandoned lightly, either in theory or in practice.

The Rt. Rev. John C. Bauerschmidt is Bishop of Tennessee.

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