Tuesday, March 05, 2002

"The Liturgy is more than a text."

Episcopalians, Lutherans & the 1979 prayer book of the ECUSA.

Looking back to the 1979 ECUSA prayer book, it is now possible to claim that the key to understanding its liturgy (as well as the liturgies that have been produced in its spirit from 1979 to 2001) is found on pages 400-401.

In a lecture at Virginia Seminary to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Anglican Common Prayer, the Lutheran scholar, Gordon W. Lathrop, stated: "American Episcopalians are in the forefront of those who know and teach that liturgy is more than text." And then he pointed to the book, Shaped by Images (1995), by William Seth Adams for illustration of this point.

He proceeded to claim that: "One way to understand the remarkable pages 400-401 at the center of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer -- the text-less 'Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist' -- is that they are the very hermeneutical key to the entire book." That is, these pages provide " a way to understand how the other texts of all the rites have their meaning as they are used in a shaped communal action." Further, "they are not an after-thought for 'informal services,' but they are an opening of the book towards its future, an awareness that the book of the church is always in process." (See Virginia Seminary Journal, January 2000, for the text of the lecture).

What Professor Lathrop asserts is not new. We have been hearing for several decades from liturgists and bishops in the ECUSA and in the C. of E. about "the shape of the liturgy" and that common prayer is to be seen not as a common text but as a common structure with common elements, allowing a variety of forms of words.

So what is on pages 400-401? The barebones structure of the Eucharist as envisaged by those who produced the 1979 prayer book. Parishes are free to insert material of their choice under the eight headings -- Gather, Proclaim, Pray, Exchange the Peace, Prepare the Table, Make Eucharist, Break the Bread & Share the Gifts of God.

In 1979 it was assumed that the material to fill in the spaces would be taken from the 1979 book itself, but now with the creation of more official Rites as Supplementary Texts (e.g., Enriching Our Worship, 1998) by the ECUSA, and with the existence of ecumenical web-sites containing all kinds of suggestions, the possibilities for experiment and novelty are immense. Further, with the pressure from the feminist lobby for "gender-neutral" or "feminine" names for God and forms of address to God, this possibility of novelty increases all the time, as congregations dare to move further away from traditional "God-language" and moral discourse. The worship committee meeting on Wednesday has great opportunity using the scissor and paste method to produce a liturgy to suit the most recent taste and preference (whether God be glorified or not!).

Thus what is claimed to be "Common Prayer" in the Episcopal Church is now effectively a minimal common structure wherein can be inserted anything from texts of historical orthodoxy in traditional or modern language to texts celebrating the goddess, Sophia. For some people, the structure is the most important thing for that is what makes it authentic!

It is important to note that this common structure for the Eucharist is not the same structure as found in the classic Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1662, 1928 etc.) and that it is not possible to fit the content of the historic BCP into the modern structure proposed by the 1979 book without changing its doctrine thereby. (In the new Common Worship, 2001, of the C. of E., the editors apparently took great care to set out the structure of the services before the text of them was given.)

Why would a Lutheran professor be so happy about the new Episcopalian/Anglican sense of "common prayer"?

Here is a possible answer. Lutherans have never had the equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer as Text and Formulary. They have never had Liturgical Formularies (e.g., as are the classic Anglican Book of Common Prayer & the Ordinal) to unite them as a jurisdiction of the Church. Rather they have been a Confessional Church ("We believe, teach and confess.") based upon the Augsburg Confession, and the structure of their worship has been guided in principle not by a common text but by common structures. Their Liturgical Books are not primarily collections of texts but essays on how to lead liturgy and teach the Faith. This is not to say that many Lutheran parishes have not used common services, but it is to say that for them common prayer does not mean a common text but a common (and minimal) structure for Word and Sacrament.

Now that the ECUSA and the ELCA [Evangelical Lutheran Church of America] have joined together in a practical union from January 1, 2001, Lutherans such as Dr Lathrop rejoice because the ECUSA has moved to the position in terms of common prayer where the ELCA can truly be glad. In effect the ECUSA has come to the position adopted by the Lutheran leaders in the 16th century concerning Rites and Ceremonies (but not, we may add, with regard to doctrine). What matters for leaders of Episcopalians and Lutherans now is not a common text but a common structure for liturgy.

Thus it seems that there is room in the uniting Episcopal-Lutheran body for all types of Lutherans and Episcopalians to be united in a common worship because they have reduced common prayer to a common structure, wherein they can insert material of choice. So one parish will seek to be orthodox in doctrine and morality while another will knowingly be neo-pagan. This will be possible because on the one side the Augsburg Confession and on the other the Anglican Formularies will be merely "historical documents." And the Bible will be seen not as authoritative in all matters of faith and morality but as a collection of books describing the experiences of people in ancient times of God; therefore it is authoritative only in that it is first in order, rather than first because foundational.

Some of us prefer the older Anglican Way of using classical texts for Liturgy and finding in these texts the richness of doctrine and devotion that the saints over the centuries have poured into them and found through them.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon

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