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Rediscover the gospel

By Gavin Dunbar

Editor’s note: This piece appears in the April 9 issue of The Living Church, as part of the Necessary or Expedient teaching series on prayer book revision. Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 prayer book?” is the well-known first piece in the series. Further essays in the series will appear here in the future. Click here to find and then bookmark the series.

What is Anglican Christianity? It is an ever-changing thing, no doubt, but if it does nothing but change, then it is nothing, nothing but an endless series of unrelated events and atomized experiences. There must also be continuity, which in the self is memory, and in the community is tradition. Without continuity, both the self and the community fall into debilitating and ultimately destructive amnesia, lacking any grounds for discernment in the present or expectation of the future. The stability of the prayer book tradition, its slowness to change (the conservatism that some criticize as archaic and petrified) made it the primary locus for Anglicans of the church’s memory, its self-understanding and identity.

Of course, liturgies must change. We now pray for those who travel by air as well as land and water. We will soon have to pray for civil rulers who are not Christians. But if a liturgy changes too rapidly, if it conforms too closely to the way we think now, then it makes us prisoners of the latest fad and fashion, and it gives us no perspective on ourselves. Liturgy serves not just to reinforce our self-understanding as Episcopalians or Anglicans — which, let us not forget, is the self-understanding of a tiny, self-selected denomination within the North American church — but to set it in a much larger context, a much larger historical community. It is there to root us in the common Christian heritage of Scripture, creeds, ministry, and sacraments, as these have been received in the Anglican tradition of doctrine and worship. The very features of this tradition of worship that may seem alien, irrelevant, perplexing, or even jarring are evidence that it is not just a mirror of our preoccupations, but a window into a larger world than the one we have defined for ourselves.

Cranmer changed the liturgy, a good bit. Though he did not scrap the ancient liturgical tradition of Latin Christianity, he brought it out of the semi-Pelagianism of the late Middle Ages and into the anti-Pelagian reformation of an English-speaking church. The wrenching character of that transformation has been noted by many, not least because we have lived through wrenching liturgical changes ourselves. Given the reformers’ zeal to scrape away all that obscured the gospel, however, we may now appreciate just how successful he was in preserving the substance of the ancient liturgical tradition within the worship of a reformed church. We may also thank the providence that put a stop to further liturgical revision by the early death of Edward VI, and the long reign of Elizabeth, who was so obdurately set against any further reformation.

Cranmer’s liturgy, nudged in a slightly more conservative direction under Elizabeth and her Stuart successors, came to be cherished in popular memory, and acquired the mellow patina of venerable age and dignity. Abolished and revived more than once, conservatively revised from time to time, conservatively adapted to the new national churches of the Anglican Communion, it provided Anglicanism with anchors not only in the tradition of Protestant orthodoxy, but also, along with it, in the tradition of catholic antiquity and in the witness of Scripture.

Precisely by their success, Cranmer’s wide-ranging revisions set a dangerous precedent for the liturgical revisers of the late 20th and early 21st century in North American Anglicanism. He made the high-wire work of liturgical modernization look easy! In some respects, they sought to replicate Cranmer’s work in order to undo it. They sought to detach the Anglican tradition of worship from its 16th-century theological roots and bring it into accord with ideas of a liberal Protestant denomination with a liberal Catholic aesthetic in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As a result, one can see the influence of the Liturgy of Hippolytus or the Liturgy of St. Basil. But outside Rite One there are only faint shadows and fragments of the Anglican — that is to say, in large part, the Cranmerian — tradition of worship.

This change first affects the Nicene faith of Catholic antiquity, retained by the reformers. Barely hinted at in the 1979 Prayer Book but openly embraced as the governing principle of the supplementary texts in Enriching Our Worship, the insistence on inclusive language for God and mankind (e.g., “It is right to give him thanks and praise” becomes “It is right to give our thanks and praise”) makes us strangers to the language of Scripture and the creeds, which by contemporary standards is not inclusive.

The erasure of the Anglican tradition is most obvious in those matters closer to the core doctrinal issues of the Reformation. In the 1979 prayer book there are confessions of sin, though they may be omitted “on occasion,” and very often are. The language does not hint at the gravity of sin (“there is no health in us” did not make the cut even in Rite I). In accord with the protests of liberal theologians, the language of propitiation has disappeared, even from Rite I. Ideas of sin and grace, atonement and reconciliation, are present in the liturgy, though vaguely and timidly expressed: but when an echo of the Cranmerian liturgy on these matters might be expected, it is conspicuous by its absence. For example, Eucharistic Prayer A, based on Hippolytus, allows that Christ was sent “to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all”; and on the cross he “offered himself … a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” — but not, it seems, as Anglican ears and memories would expect, “for the sins of the whole world” (after “perfect sacrifice”). The liturgists may argue that this omission is designed to expand Cranmer’s narrow focus on atonement for sin — but the effect is one of dilution rather than enrichment, vagueness rather than clarity, and the deliberate elimination of historic memory. By comparison, consider the eucharistic rites of the Church of England’s Common Worship, in which the Cranmerian texts and themes are freely but more respectfully appropriated; for example, Prayer B: “And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross, his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world; rejoicing in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, and looking for his coming in glory, we celebrate this memorial of our redemption.”

The loss of liturgical memory and tradition brings with it a kind of spiritual amnesia, with consequences for the Church’s unity and mission.

Liturgy and unity

One could hardly ask for a better short description of Anglican self-understanding than that provided in the preamble of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church:

The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America … is a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, a Fellowship within the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces, and regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, upholding and propagating the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

Here is Anglican polity as we once knew it: self-governing national churches in a genuine global fellowship of national churches, in communion with the See of Canterbury, united not by governmental structures, or even “bonds of affection,” but a sacramental communion with the See of Canterbury, grounded in a common commitment to “the historic Faith and Order as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.”

[alert type=white ]Cranmer’s wide-ranging revisions set a dangerous precedent for the liturgical revisers of the late 20th and early 21st century in North American Anglicanism. In some respects, they sought to replicate Cranmer’s work in order to undo it. [/alert]

A common liturgy performs for Anglicans something of what the creeds do for Christians in general: it provides them a concrete point of mutual recognition as belonging to the same community of faith, and it assures them of a certain shared perspective on what this faith is and how it is practiced. Within that common liturgy, there is space indeed for considerable diversity — yet the common liturgy sets boundaries that allow the diversity to be non-destructive. And because, in virtue of our origins in the 16th-century Reformation, we already have a common liturgical heritage in the English prayer books of 1549 through 1662 and their local adaptations, we have not only a community in space but also a community in time.

It was consequential when the American church applied the familiar title of the Book of Common Prayer to a liturgy that was deliberately distanced from the commonly recognized and objective substance of the Anglican liturgical tradition. Constitutionally it was a bit of legislative legerdemain, allowing the American church to alter the substance of its doctrine and worship while maintaining formal continuity. But precisely as such, by its erasure of the common heritage of prayer, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is fundamentally flawed as an instrument of Anglican unity. It has contributed to the fragmentation of the Anglican community within the United States and in the world as a whole.

Liturgy and mission

Like other churches of the old Protestant mainline, the Episcopal Church has endured decades of demographic decline, and the end is not in sight. Congregational growth and development is a priority, and much energy is being invested in the exploration of techniques, practices, and processes that might reverse the decline. Perhaps not coincidentally, leaders from the presiding bishop on down have been tapping into the language of the old prayer books. Words like gospel, Jesus, grace, and sin have enjoyed a return to favor, though it is not always clear what they mean. Will the use of evangelical language, catholic aesthetics, and congregational building techniques be sufficient to reverse the decline of a liberal Protestant denomination? There are grounds for doubt.

The paradox of theological liberalism is that it is failing ecclesiastically even as it is triumphing culturally. Precisely as secular culture takes possession of its emphasis on the authority of human spiritual experience over that of divine revelation, there is no need for it to be expressed religiously and ecclesiastically. Accordingly, in the hour of their triumph, the churches of the old Protestant mainline are hollowing out. Theological liberalism does not look like the future of the Church.

The future may lie instead in the forgotten, neglected, and abandoned legacy of Reformed and Catholic doctrine embedded in the historic prayer books. In its clear teaching about guilt, grace, and gratitude, expressed in language of conviction, clarity, and weight, in forms that draw from Scripture and ancient tradition, this legacy supports a strong proclamation of the gospel. This legacy delivers the resources for the Church’s mission, with power to motivate conversion and congregational adhesion. Of course, liturgy alone cannot bear the whole weight of mission. If that were so, then all old prayer book parishes would be bustling with evangelistic energy. If we are going to pray the gospel in the prayer book, we must also believe, understand, preach, teach, and practice the gospel. For the sake of the Church’s mission, we need to rediscover the prayer book. Even more, we need to rediscover the gospel it empowers us to pray.

The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is the rector of St. John’s Church, Savannah, and president of the Prayer Book Society, USA.


  1. This is a very helpful reflection Fr. Dunbar; many, many thanks. Among your good points, I certainly think that the 1979 book stands as something of an outlier in the broader communion.

    I wonder, though, about two items. It seems to me that you take “the historic prayer books” in a rather monolithic way, that is to say, as if 1549, 1552, 1559, the variations by injunctions of 1559, 1662, the Non-Juror liturgies, and the Scots-American tradition as one “Cranmerian” whole. And, in your narrative, “theological liberalism” enters in the 1970s, at which point we loose the genuine “Cranmerian” tradition. While I fully agree (without judgment, though) that the liturgical movement (eg Prosper Gueranger to Vat II) was a greater change than any preceding moment of liturgical change, I think it is very difficult to amass the theological variations within prayer book history into one Cranmerian whole. To put the matter differently, the 1662 book is certainly not the 1552 book; and neither are the American 1928 book. Folks who advocate for 1662 would have a different narrative about when the Cranmerian tradition was lost. I learned recently that brothers and sisters at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama are using the 1662 as their normative liturgy. Dean Pearson wrote a piece for Covenant last Fall on this subject, but he pinpoints when the Cranmerian tradition was lost differently.

    Second, I’m wondering about the practical goal here. Given the kinds of liturgical change that could be in the offing in the Episcopal Church in the near future, I find myself increasingly advocating for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. While this is not entirely political, I do find a growing coalition of folks on the left, middle, and right (these are relative terms of course) advocating against changes and keeping the 1979 book. And, to underline the point, we could end up with non-Trinitarian liturgies (cf Fr. Matthew Olver’s fine analysis of Enriching Our Worship in ATR Fall 2016). Perhaps my question is, what are some salutary ways to present the gifts of the older prayer books without coming across as simply advocating a return to older editions (but which one)? I think, from a practical perspective, advocacy of returning to older books would likely come off to General Convention for example as a dead letter and they would tune out. Advocacy for some of the goods of older editions may be quite helpful, though.

    I’m really grateful for your bringing to the fore much of the emphases of older prayer books, but I’m left wondering about (1) the historical narrative in your post / a monolithic perspective of the prayers books and (2) practical strategies as we face the real possibility of liturgical revision.


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