Saturday, August 21, 2004

An Anglican Innovation: Co-opting an ancient title for a modern creation

for distribution in order to create informed discussion and solid research

By the votes of its existing members a body [Board, Committee, Commission etc.] may co-opt another person to be in the body. When elected he is said to have been co-opted (Latin, optare, to choose + com, with).

In the Anglican Communion, its members are becoming familiar with the votes of synods, with their houses of bishops, clergy and laity, co-opting in a novel way. The practice of co-opting members for committees, commissions and boards is familiar; but, the new form of co-opting is of a title, rather than of a person. And it is the co-opting of one of the primary and basic titles from within the Anglican Way, as it has been known in its English form since the 1540s.

Titles such as The Church of England, The Archbishop of Canterbury and The Authorized Version of the Bible are known by all educated people. So also is The Book of Common Prayer, the title of the English prayer book created from the earlier Latin prayer books, which was first published in 1549 and then in a revised form in 1552. Its first title was The Book of the Common Prayer but this only lasted for one edition and from 1552 it was The Book of Common Prayer. This book with this specific title was reissued by Elizabeth I and James I and then reached its definitive edition in 1662.

It was translated into many languages as the British Empire expanded and as Anglican missionaries went into the whole world. Further, new editions of it were later produced by independent provinces (e.g., USA, Canada, South Africa, Scotland & Ireland) in order for this Prayer Book to fit into the system of government and public feasts and holidays of the countries and to allow for variations of churchmanship. But in all these translations the style, structure and character of The Book of Common Prayer remained the same - one service with no variations for each dominical Sacrament, one service with minor options for Morning and Evening Prayer, one service for confirmation, marriage and burial and one version of the Psalter, together with, in the attached Ordinal, one service for the consecration of a bishop, the ordination of a priest and the making of a deacon. And in the Order for Holy Communion there was one printed Eucharistic Lectionary of ancient vintage and together with collects, also of ancient lineage.

Common Prayer was understood by all everywhere as the use of one basic text by all in the public worship of God. Thus one could travel around the world and find basically the same service anywhere that an Anglican church was found, and this was true even with variety in ceremonial after the arrival of the advanced anglo-catholic movement. The Common Prayer was the glue that bound together Anglicans, wherever they lived and whatever language they spoke. And this state of affairs held good well into the 1960s when the beginnings of the “alternative service books” containing services of a different style and shape to those in The Book of Common Prayer began to appear (after encouragement from the Lambeth Conference of 1958 and 1968).

Then, gradually from the 1970s liturgists, as if to justify the new developments, began to use “Common Prayer” in a novel way – it was said to be the use of basic common elements within a common structure. Here there is a most definite move from basic common texts (which allow virtually no variation or options) and from simple uniformity to a loosely controlled variety and diversity. This is the first definite co-opting of the expression “Common Prayer” for a novelty which is in reality “forms of alternative, varied prayer.” Thus. in the last few decades, modern liturgy has been a loosely controlled variety in that certain basics have been required (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Sursum Corda) while creators of liturgy have been asked to keep to a basic structure or shape for services into which to introduce and place their modern options and variety.

The second phase of the co-opting of the title of “Common Prayer” belongs to the provincial Synods to which the liturgical commissions report. When the liturgical commissions had produced their collections of new services, with new shape and a variety of content, these collections obviously needed titles. One possibility was “A Book of Alternative Services” or “An Alternative Service Book” as used in Canada and England. Another was “A Prayer Book for Australia” while yet another was “An Anglican Prayer Book [for South Africa]”. However, certain national synods, using their autonomy to the full and disregarding Anglican tradition and definition of over four centuries, decide to co-opt the ancient title of “The Book of Common Prayer” for their new books which by any reasonable account are decidedly not such in terms of their structure, content, style and doctrine.

So the two phases of co-opting have not surprisingly led to the appearance of four books (with more to come). The leader in this co-opting was the General Convention of the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. which in 1976 and 1979 called its new prayer book, wherein are services of different kinds and in both traditional and contemporary English, by the title, “The Book of Common Prayer.” At the same time it set aside the received, traditional American edition [1928] of The Book of Common Prayer.

The Church in Wales followed the example of the ECUSA with its own new “Book of Common Prayer” in 1984. Here traditional language is retained but the content and style belongs to the new rather than the traditional.

The Church in Wales was followed by the Church in the West Indies (led by Archbishop Drexel Gomez who is now known as a conservative!) which had learned much from ECUSA and which took what ECUSA had done one further step! It removed all traditional language variations and options and made use only of contemporary texts in its own “Book of Common Prayer” in 1985.

Finally, the province of Archbishop Eames, the Church of Ireland, celebrated the publication and authorization of its own new “Book of Common Prayer” in early 2004. This has traditional and contemporary language options and is, as modern liturgy goes, generally conservative in doctrine and style ( as we would expect of a province that includes Northern Ireland).

Happily, thanks to the Queen and the Establishment, in England the Synod was unable to call its library of new prayer books by the ancient title of “The Book of Common Prayer”. However, it went as near as it dared to do – “Common Worship”.

In this essay I have used the verb “to co-opt” of the action of liturgists and synods but elsewhere I have a noun. The Prayer Book Society of the USA recently published my long essay as a booklet, An Act of Piracy. The Truth behind the Episcopal Liturgy of 1979, 2004 (available from or from 1 800 PBS[727] 1928). You may care to read this booklet to learn more of the difference between The BCP and Books of Alternative Services and the new type of “Book of Common Prayer”.

One great and disastrous effect of this co-opting by Synods and of this Piracy by legislators is that the provinces are losing not only the greatest ever liturgy in the English language as their primary liturgy, but also that which is basic formulary or doxological standard of doctrine of the Anglican Way. Regrettably, whether they intend it to be so or not they are introducing relativism, diversity and variety as the norms of the Anglican Way.

August 21, 2004 the Rev’d Dr Peter Toon

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