Friday, March 15, 2002

On Interpreting the BCP 1662 (in the light of the fact that it is very similar to the BCP 1552 and not to BCP 1549)

The piece below is written in part answer to various questions put to me about the meaning of the BCP (1662). It is a discussion starter not a definitive essay.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon

(Some thoughts offered to promote positive discussion in Prayer Book Users' Circles)

For those who only use modern - that is post 1960s - Anglican liturgy what I am going to discuss will seem remote and a waste of time. However, to those who use either the BCP 1662, or one of the editions of the BCP descended from it (e.g., the American 1928 or the Canadian 1962) I think it will have some meaning, and I hope relevance.

Because it is well known that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and several advisers were responsible for the final content of the BCP of 1552, and because the changes made to the 1552 BCP to produce that of 1662 are minimal, there is a tendency in some quarters to want to decide what this classic BCP (1662) teaches and stands for only in terms of what Cranmer (or say Bucer) wrote in their books and letters before1552. On the one side those of decided evangelical and anti-Roman persuasion want to interpret the Book through the very Protestant writings of its primary editor and his associates. On the other side those who wish to downgrade the 1662 BCP because it is not sufficiently "catholic" are happy to point out its very Protestant pedigree.

In both cases there is the use of the historical method which is familiar to us. The attempt to ascertain what an original author intended in what he wrote is of course important. And because we are interested in what an original author wanted to say, then we may be tempted to accept or reject the teaching of the BCP 1662 on whether or not Cranmer's doctrine (known to us from his books and letters) appeals to us.

However, we need to remember that the work that Cranmer and his colleagues produced the BCP (first of 1549 and then, more to their liking, that of 1552) for the Church and Nation. And when their work had been approved by King and Parliament its meaning was in principle larger than that of the editor (s) who put it together. It became the daily language and dialect of prayer of the English people to be used alongside the English Bible, and as such it had to have a greater meaning than that of the few men who had produced it.

And when some of those who used it daily for prayer explained the meaning of its prayers and teachings to their students and their parishioners they did not usually first consult Cranmer's writings before doing so. They offered explanations within the reformed Catholic tradition of understanding then present in the English Church.

What happened, for example, during the reigns of Elizabeth 1 and James 1 was that the contents were interpreted not in the context of mid-sixteenth century controversies of the Reformation (e.g., between Cranmer and Bishop Stephen Gardiner) but in the context of (a) the developed controversies of C. of E divines with Roman Catholic divines from Europe and Puritans/Presbyterians in Britain; and (b) the appeal made by Anglican divines to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Fathers, of the Church of the first five centuries or so. (ONE Canon of Scripture, TWO Testaments, THREE Creeds, FOUR Ecumenical Councils and FIVE Centuries.)

Thus the Sacramental doctrine assumed within or allowed by the wording of the Services of Baptism and Holy Communion of the BCP was not arrived at by a study of the writings of Cranmer but in terms of, for example, what it was known that the Fathers of the early centuries taught on the basis of Scripture and what errors of medieval Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent were to be avoided. The Book of Common Prayer was not a book of texts which were locked into the year 1552 but rather it was a living Liturgy with a controlled but expanding interpretation of it within the Church of England.

Of course, words do have meaning and the flexibility for development was limited. In no way, for example, could the text of the Lord's Supper be interpreted to mean that the consecrated bread and wine were really and truly changed totally into the body and blood of Christ so that no bread and wine remained.

Alongside the Formulary that is The Book of Common Prayer, there was that other Formulary known as The Articles of Religion. And the latter served as a kind of signpost as to what it means to be a Reformed Catholic Church, as did also that other Formulary, The Ordinal.

Thus when I want to know what the BCP (1662) as a living liturgy teaches I go to the major expositions of it that exist and in which there is collected what may be called the general mind of the Church in terms of the judgments of godly and wise writers, who include Cranmer and his colleagues. And I allow for the fact that the editors or authors of such books belong to one or another school of churchmanship.

When a Province of the Anglican Church decides to produce a new and revised edition of the BCP 1662 and in doing so deliberately and carefully makes changes in wording to reflect doctrinal change (e.g., inserting petitions for the faithful departed) then of course it is clear what is happening and expositions of it in later years will take note of such change.

Also when a Province creates a totally new Prayer Book in terms not merely of using so-called "contemporary language" but also of introducing new "shapes" of liturgy and new doctrines conveyed by liturgy, then again it is clear what is happening. Here the wording is often deliberately vague so as to allow a variety of opinions from the word go. The result which is probably intended is that people will make all kinds of claims as to what it means, and these may be at odds with each other.

To recap.The BCP (1662), having been a living liturgy for centuries and having been used in differing ways in varying circumstances, has taken into itself the possibility of a reasonably wide spectrum of usage and of meaning. Thus, for example, it could be used with great satisfaction for many decades in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the old style Evangelical and High Church clergy; and today it is used faithfully by those who call themselves "Prayer Book Catholics" as well as those who call themselves "Classic Evangelicals".

However, the fact that most Anglo-Catholic have felt the need to supplement its contents, especially the Prayer of Consecration, with material from the Roman Mass tells us very clearly that the 1662 text is reformed Catholic and not medieval or Roman Catholic in its doctrine of the Sacraments. And the fact that they have felt the need to do this with the American edition of 1928 serves to underline this point.

And the further fact that some Puritans in the mid seventeenth century and many Nonconformists since have felt that it should not be used for it is too near to what they regard as "Catholicism" also tells us that the 1662 text is reformed Catholic and not (in the modern Northern Ireland and Boston, Mass., meaning) Protestant.

Whether being reformed Catholic is a good or indifferent or bad thing I leave to my reader to judge!

The Revd Dr Peter Toon March 15, 2002

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