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Overcoming alienation: Inculturation, Christology, and prayer book revision

“The incarnation is God’s self-inculturation in this world.” —The 1989 York Statement, “Down to Earth: Liturgical Inculturation and the Anglican Communion”[1]

“Anglicanism can thus be seen as the embrace and celebration of apostolic catholicity within vernacular moments.” —Ian Douglas[2]

What is the healthy way for the gospel to move into a new culture? How does the Church rightly enter new lands and extend its embrace of new peoples? Especially, how do we answer these questions if by gospel and Church we don’t mean a text, an idea, or an impersonal institution, but the life of the body of Christ, as it finds its center in Jesus?

Some thoughts from the Fathers might come to mind: Justin Martyr’s conviction that what Christians do and believe is intelligible to pagans; Tertullian’s memorable line that we share a common humanity but not a common idolatry. Or we might head over to Niebuhr’s classic schema in Christ and Culture (1951) or to the seemingly neuralgic fascination with Rod Dreher’s summons to an alt-culture (pro, con, and maybe).

But what about Anglicanism? How has this global family translated the gospel and expanded the Catholic body of Christ rightly? I can say, with measured confidence, that a critical part of the emergence of Anglicanism involved shaking off state management. While the “godly magistrate” was indispensable to Cranmer’s vision for the Reformed Church of England in the 16th century, something new and exciting came into view during the interregnum in the 1650s. Both underground in England as well as openly in Virginia, patterns of prayer book religion flourished not only without the godly magistrate, but in spite of hearty government opposition (Cromwell’s protectorate). The same is true for the disappearance of colonialism in the past century. This is an all too brief and incomplete precis on an important concept with which leaders of our global family — and especially the theologians among them focused on ecclesiology and liturgy — have had to wrestle in the past few decades: inculturation.

Here I want to follow the lead of others in seeing this process through a christological lens: What is involved in translating the life of the body of Christ across space, time, and culture? And, if it is no longer meaningful to think of “giving” and “receiving” churches (as missiologists have rightly proclaimed since the 1960s), then I hope to turn the tables and apply this healthy model to those of us in the West, especially the Episcopal Church, and specifically in relation to prayer-book revision.

Bishop Victor Atta-Bafoe of Ghana and the Oxford theologian Phillip Tovey once described inculturation as overcoming alienation, and further asserted that inculturation happens principally but not exclusively in worship. Inculturation is not simply the syncretic, uncritical introduction of non-Christian elements into Christian liturgy, nor is it merely translating a foreign rite into a native language while retaining its alien culture. Instead, inculturation is the formation of legitimately Christian (dare I say, Catholic) worship patterns that are appropriate to a vernacular, particular culture.[3] The parallel drawn by the Jesuit theologian Fr. Pedro Arrupe, among others, is the Incarnation: Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man.[4] Jesus is not mostly God and partially man. He is not simply a man God adopted. He is not, to borrow from G.W. Bromiley, “a monstrous tertium quid” able to relate neither to God nor humanity.

Thus, when a people encounters the message of Christ — and let’s be completely clear: that happens through the Spirit-empowered work of women and men who are part of the existing body of Christ as it grows and expands — a process of translation begins. When done rightly, it’s inculturation — an embrace. The parallel is the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Word, taking on flesh (cf. Phil. 2:7; John 1). In the Incarnation, God embraces human nature, and human nature embraces God. And there is no great leap from healthy Christology to ecclesiology and missiology, since the Church is not simply an association of like-minded folk, but folk who have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), folk who are the body of Christ. In Christ’s Incarnation, God overcomes alienation; in the spread of the gospel, God likewise overcomes alienation.

What about when the process goes sideways? The christological metaphor holds true. There are instances in which the Church has so identified with the culture that it no longer has a legitimately Christian critique of that culture. This is not inculturation but acculturation. We might see a parallel with an Ebionite Christology: Jesus is a man in some way adopted by God. Examples could include open syncretism or the much-lamented mainline Protestant capitulation to Enlightenment liberalism. Cue readers of Dreher to nod their heads.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are instances in which the Church may not truly speak to a culture, and persists within that culture primarily as an alien enterprise. The remaining vestiges of colonialism may be a helpful example. Inculturation is not limited to liturgy, but liturgical theologians in particular have wondered about the bifurcated life that has emerged in many places. That is, people seem to live in two different cultures simultaneously: Sunday morning culture with worship according to a 17th-century British liturgy and the rest of the week in their own culture. The parallel perhaps is a Docetic Christology (with all its subvariants), or at best a Nestorian one in which God and man come very close but never join, like people lingering in the liminal state of a Gothic narthex in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1988, the Lambeth Conference suspected that no liturgical norm was available to unite the Anglican Communion, but rested instead on the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, an organic development of liturgy, and relationships (i.e., communion). A generation has passed and one can rightly ask if this has been the right approach to hold our global family together (cf., to be sure, the perceived need by many, including this author, for the Anglican Communion Covenant). At the following Lambeth Conference, in 1998, the bishops called for the appointment of a Liturgical Coordinator for the Communion and called for the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) to serve as a liturgical advisory body building bridges between provinces.[5] What liturgical theologians and ecclesiologists have noted is the need for a joining of the particular with the universal, the vernacular with the catholic. This is not a new challenge.

In the 16th century, Article 34 of the Thirty-nine Articles observed the need to adapt forms of worship to communicate the gospel and form disciples in different parts of the world. Cranmer said as much also in the preface to the first prayer book. In other words, Tudor reformers advocated for national or provincial diversity. Fair enough, but let’s return to the christological paradigm.

When the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was exported, it was often simply translated into the native language without real inculturation. Today, though, the prayer-book tradition is being exchanged for provincial diversity, largely influenced by the liturgical movement of the 20th century. The challenge remains: how to hold together the particular and the universal, the vernacular and the catholic. While the authority of the galaxy of iterations and revisions of the Book of Common Prayer is fading, perhaps there are ecumenical opportunities as well. Perhaps we may cultivate organic relationships not only within a diverse global Anglican family widely inspired by the liturgical movement, but organic relationships in a diverse global and truly catholic Church equally shaped by the liturgical movement. In any event, the christological challenge stands: to join the universal and the particular. On a broad level, for example, Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked that for all the diversity of liturgical expression within the Christian tradition in space and time, Christians have always taken bread and wine and said This is my Body and This is my Blood.

What about the Episcopal Church? Inculturation is not simply about people far away. How are we holding up the paradox? Brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church — as members of local communities and dioceses, a regional province, a worldwide family, and ultimately the one ecclesia of Jesus Christ — are faced with the possibility of revising our manner of worship in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Various options have been voiced in our province. (See, for example, The Living Church’s series here.) If inculturation is the healthy model of gospel transmission not simply for post-colonial churches but for all provinces of the Anglican Communion, then the Episcopal Church likewise has to live up to that incarnational paradox of living and praying in a way both catholic and vernacular. I suspect, though, that a revised prayer book would leave us with something so vernacular and particular, with a distrust of the universal and the catholic (a very American sensibility), that it would disconnect us from the global, rather than draw us into deeper relationships across space and time.

Could it be, however, that the 1979 BCP is already a rather ingenious vehicle for healthy inculturation, a book that speaks to our particular culture while drawing us into the universal?


[1] “The York Statement, Down to Earth: Liturgical Inculturation and the Anglican Communion” in David Holeton, ed., Inculturation and the Anglican Communion (Grove, 1990), pp. 8-11.

[2] Ian Douglas, “The Exigency of Times and Occasions: Power and Identity in the Anglican Communion Today,” in Ian Douglas and Kwok Pui-Lan, eds., Beyond Colonial Anglicanism: The Anglican Communion in the Twenty-First Century (Church Publishing, 2001), pp. 25-46.

[3] Victor Atta-Bafoe and Phillip Tovey, “What does inculturation mean?” in David Holeton, ed., Inculturation and the Anglican Communion, pp. 14-22. See also Phillip Tovey, Inculturation of Christian Worship: Exploring the Eucharist (Ashgate, 2004); Phillip Tovey, Inculturation: The Eucharist in Africa (Grove, 1988).

[4] Aylward Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation (Chapman, 1988), p. 11.

[5] Bruce Kaye, Introduction to World Anglicanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 79-85; Colin Buchanan, “Liturgical Uniformity,” Journal of Anglican Studies 2.2 (2004), pp. 41-57.


  1. There is a different angle we can take when thinking about culture, a view Andy Crouch puts forward in *Culture Making*: culture is not something apart from God’s purpose, but is rather central to what God is about. “Culture” is at the heart of “Creation.” It is no accident that the story begins in a garden and ends in a “garden city.” Both of these images are steeped in culture.

    So it is not surprising, and a good thing that we make “Prayer Book Culture.” we _make_ culture that is congruent with our primordial human vocation of “created ones” created to watch over the Creation, but in need of redemption.

    The point that we must live in a tension between particular and general, vernacular and catholic is key.Is not the question one or many; one or many “congruent” cultures? Does a doctrine of “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” (OHCA) compel us toward only one “Christian culture” or can there be many?

    At the end of the day, the question of prayer book revision is not one of if. We must make culture, and we will make a new prayer book culture (by making a new prayer book). The question is if that culture will be true to the general (OHCA) while celebrating the diversity that God seems to rejoice in.


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