Friday, March 22, 2002

Interpreting the classic BCP of 1662 - continued

I return to a topic which has caused some discussion as well as a little distress amongst my readers on various continents!

TOPIC: On interpreting the BCP 1662 as though it were the BCP 1552 and as though only Cranmer's known theology from 1549-1552 is the key to its meaning.

Comment: In one thing it appears extreme anglo-catholics and very protestant evangelicals agree. They tend to, or actually, interpret the meaning of the text of the 1662 BCP as though it were the text of 1552 and as though the 1552 text were published in the name of Thomas Cranmer. [And further, they tend to regard the 1549 BCP as being genuinely Catholic or unreformed!]

In a recent article circulated by e mail I suggested that the BCP 1552 is to be regarded as a public book, the possession of the Church of England, and that as such it was edited [thus modifying its meaning] in the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and Charles II. The fact of its being a publicly used book in prayer and worship and its editing, along with its exposition and defence (e.g., by Hooker & Bramhall), means that its range of meaning is far wider and deeper than that in the mind and intention of Cranmer, although it includes his. At the same time there are definite restrictions upon its meaning for it exists under the authority of Scripture and along with the other formularies, the Ordinal, the Articles and the 1604 Canon Law. Thus it cannot be taken to support Presbyterian Puritanism or Roman Catholicism or German Lutheranism; but, it can be used faithfully by those whom we may call Calvinist Churchmen and Laudian Churchmen, the low and the high church people of the 17th century.

As the Church of England used the BCP after 1559 a growing conviction arose in an every increasing number that it was both catholic and reformed and thus could be used with varying ceremonial and by a wide range of Christians of varying convictions.

In reponse to my initial piece, a learned friend commented by e mail:

"It is wrong to interpret a document in the light of, or to damn its contents because of, the supposed motives or beliefs of the reputed or actual authors.

It is in many ways like the interpretation of an Act of Parliament [in the Biritsh system]. What the draughtsman thought he was doing, what his personal beliefs and motives were, are irrelevant. And ditto for the Attorney General who carried the Bill, and all the individual legislators who spoke on the Bill or sought to or did amend it, or voted on it. What is important is what the thing says. Many an Attorney general has had to echo the little phrase: 'It does not appear to me now, as it appears to have appeared to me then.'

I get rather tired of those people who condemn the historic BCP because of their view of what they think Cranmer's theological positions were. In any event his positions do seem to have been a bit fluid. The critical thing is whether or not the book reflects a position which is both Catholic and Reformed, and whether the wording is such that a reasonably comprehensive range of opinions can be subsumed within it.

The manic desire to have everything perfectly in accord with one's own particular, not to say peculiar, beliefs, is absolutely sectarian, and is the bane of much of the continuing Anglican movement, and not just in the States. The idea that jumped up nobodies of clergymen know better and set themselves up in judgment, and moral judgment also, on Cranmer and his co-workers makes my blood boil."

The above was not intended for publication, but it does make the point very clearly that the BCP is the Prayer Book of the Church and that its meaning is established within the Church by its being prayed, being explained and defended, by discussion of its weaknesses if any, by changes being made in its content to text or rubrics by authority, and by its place under the Bible but with the other formularies of the Church.

When an excessive or exaggerated interpretation arises ( as with J H Newman in the 1840s) there is discussion and debate wherein some or part of the new way of reading the text may become part of the general comprehensiveness of the Church in the use of the Liturgy and the rest if set aside.

When devout persons feel that the classic BCP cannot be stretched to contain their doctrine and practice then they have tended to supplement it from such sources as the Roman Missal or they turn to the new services in "contemporary language" whose imprecision in doctrine allow for diversity. In both cases Anglican identity is diminished if not lost in some cases.

If we take the American 1928 BCP then we see that it contains important editing especially of the text of the Communion Service of 1662 and it cannot possibly be interpreted in 1552 BCP terms. It contains a form of Consecration Prayer that was developed by the English and Scottish High Churchmen of the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time it can be used by Evangelicals for it is genuinely Reformed Catholic in intention and content. Much the same applies to the Canadian 1962 edition of the 1662 BCP. In terms of the BCP these have gone as far as it is possible to go without changing its reformed catholic character.

The Revd Dr. Peter Toon March 22, 2002

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