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Structure, shape, and text

Continuity in prayer book worship

For hundreds of years after the Reformation, Anglicans looked to the texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer as a principal source of liturgical unity. When the preface of the 1549 Prayer Book declared that from then on “all the whole realm shall have but one use,” it canceled out a certain degree of medieval liturgical variety in a bid for uniformity. Though from the very beginning bishops, clergy, and congregations construed the text and rubrics differently, they were by and large sources of liturgical unity.

As their use became more familiar after the great vernacular watershed of the Reformation, the texts of the Book of Common Prayer became not only a source of unity but also of continuity. Liturgical texts bear meaning: not in a uniform sense but with a degree of nuance that allows them to carry freight of various sorts. In this they are like the texts of Holy Scripture. Different emphases and different interpretations coexist together. Over time, texts would continue to be extensively mined and new meanings discovered. This is true of any liturgical text in any tradition, but Anglicans have perhaps been uniquely conscious that their texts function in this way.

With the continued growth of the Anglican Communion after the Second World War and the further development of self-governing churches with their own liturgies, texts and rubrics became more diverse. In many parts of the former British Empire the 1662 Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England continued to be used, providing a measure of unity and continuity, but over time it was less influential as new churches found their way in ordering their liturgies.

Episcopalians in Scotland in the 18th century had already begun to develop liturgies that looked back beyond 1662 to earlier editions of the prayer book and even further back to the liturgies of the early Church, and this example was influential in the formation of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer of the newly organized Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. As the 20th century began and advanced, the influence of the Liturgical Movement was also felt in many churches, leading to a “return to the sources,” to the Holy Scriptures and the early liturgies, along with a new emphasis on the theological underpinning of the rites. These factors were increasingly coupled with a desire to reclaim the liturgy’s influence on and connection with daily life.

All of this has been significant in a new emphasis on the structure and shape of the liturgy. As texts and rubrics became more diverse across the Communion, theologians and church leaders naturally looked to the deeper patterns of structure that are present in the liturgy for evidence of both unity and continuity. Here Dom Gregory Dix’s 1945 book The Shape of the Liturgy was perhaps influential in suggesting the theme. As churches across the Anglican Communion introduced new liturgies or revised older ones, both bishops and liturgists looked to identify elements of existing structure for guidance in charting a course.

The 1958 Lambeth Conference was significant here, calling for the development of recommendations on the structure of the liturgy to help member churches in revising their rites for Holy Communion. After the 1963 Anglican Congress, a committee was appointed to act on this resolution, issuing a report in 1965 that identified five phases in the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy. The first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in 1970 also requested a study on the subject, and a report was prepared for its 1973 meeting that identified eight elements of the Eucharistic rite (Renewing the Anglican Eucharist: Findings of the Fifth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Dublin, Eire, 1995, David Holeton, ed., Grove Books, 1996, pp. 3-4).

When the Fifth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC) gathered in Dublin in 1995, it had been charged by its standing committee to work on the structure of the eucharistic rite and the eucharistic prayer, as well as on “the function of the structure in conserving the tradition and the extent to which that tradition may responsibly be stretched” (Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, p. 5). IALC had begun as an informal gathering of Anglican liturgists, but its important work over the years had attained a Communion-wide status and authority. In its report on the 1995 meeting it articulated this principle: “In the future, Anglican unity will find its expression not so much in uniform texts as in a common approach to eucharistic celebration and a structure which will ensure a balance of word, prayer, and sacrament, and which bears witness to the catholic calling of the Anglican communion” (Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, p. 7).

Included with the report was a statement from the group charged with discussing structure. Five parts of a common structure were distinguished: the gathering of God’s people, proclaiming and receiving the Word of God, the Prayers of the People, celebrating at the Lord’s Table, and going out as God’s people. Within this framework, the working group also marked out elements within each of the five parts, with some indication of importance and priority. Along with this emphasis on structure is a parallel understanding that liturgy is more than its structure. “These structures exist inter-dependently with the full range of the church’s prayer actions (i.e. the use of texts, music, movement, time, and space)” (Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, p. 22).

Bearing all the growing emphasis on structure and shape in mind, it’s important not to lose sight of the role of text and rubric in conserving the church’s tradition of prayer. The statement on structure mentions the role of texts, among other elements, in relation to structure. It’s hard to imagine a bare structure as the sole and sufficient conveyer of the church’s way of prayer without regard to the other elements, especially texts.

Texts like the Gloria in excelsis or the Sanctus within the Eucharist, as well as others, have resonance for Anglicans, connecting the worship of pre- and post-Reformation churches through a time of great transition in the liturgy. Both were conservative elements that in the 16th and 17th centuries rankled more progressive reformers. They and other texts and rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer were no doubt among those elements of the insufficiently reformed prayer book that were identified by the 1572 First Admonition to Parliament as “culled and picked out of that popish dunghill” the medieval breviary and missal. The nascent radical Puritan party in the Church of England knew that liturgical disruption was one of the keys to a church completely purged of traditional catholic elements.

At the same time, the rubrical requirement in the Second Prayer Book of 1552 that communicants receive the elements of bread and wine while kneeling was a practice felt to be so retrograde by some progressives that it could not pass without comment, if not immediate elimination. The King’s Council inserted a statement into the text of the prayer book on its own authority, pointing out that the practice implied no “real and essential presence” of “Christ’s natural flesh and blood.” By the time the prayer book of 1559 was introduced, the rubrical direction to kneel remained as an important link to the medieval Church that continued to mold Anglican piety and theology, but the “explanation” had been dropped. In the history of Anglicanism, both text and rubric have functioned as important preservers of continuity in the midst of change.

Less controversially, the cycle of traditional Collects of the Day largely retained in subsequent Books of Common Prayer (including 1979) have shaped and molded Anglican theology and piety across the centuries. Here the actual texts have been crucial, and the prayers have far outperformed their original role of gathering the congregation. The structure of the liturgy as outlined by IALC requires that we gather, and gathering normally includes prayer: an insight that in itself preserves our tradition of worship. This structure, however, does not require that the prayers be memorable or formative for the faith of the community. We are fortunate in the prayer book tradition that these prayers function in this way. Here we see the structural requirements of the church’s liturgy as particularly well-served by prayers that are more than functional but bearers of a continuous tradition.

There are some other examples in the 1979 prayer book. The inclusion of Rite I is a reminder that textual continuity is a value honored in the American prayer book tradition. Even within Rite II, the continued presence of the Collect for Purity, as well as a version of the Words of Administration from the 1552-1928 Prayer Book now repurposed as a Communion invitation, as well as other traditional features point toward the role that texts play in the Anglican tradition.

The modern emphasis on the deep structure and shape of the liturgy as a whole is a welcome one. The days of a textual or rubrical uniformity across the Anglican Communion are behind us. This does not mean, however, that the liturgical texts and directions for worship are things indifferent or insignificant as markers of continuity and faithfulness. Text and rubric are worthy of our attention, not least of all for their importance to the church’s tradition of prayer.


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