If I had the authority to require each and every Episcopal/Anglican clergyperson and seminarian in America to read one specific chapter of one specific book – apart from Holy Scripture – I am clear as to what it would be.
It would be Chapter Two of The Oxford History of Christian Worship (OUP, 2005, ed’s G. Wainwright & K.B. Westerfield Tucker), a massive book with 34 chapters and as many contributors. My choice is not based on the fact that this is the best or the most erudite or the most easily readable chapter, for many of the other chapters are very good, filled with useful information and easy to read. No, it is based on the simple fact that for too long Anglicans/Episcopalians have been taught that the liturgies produced to replace the traditional Book of Common Prayer (1662-1928) and found in the Prayer Book of 1979 (Canada 1985) are based on sure and trusted “facts” concerning the actual worship and texts of worship in the Early Church of the first three. Anyone who challenged this approach was dismissed as foolish and unlearned, even if he were truly wise and learned – as was the case with some of the founding fathers of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer (incorporated 1971).
In 2006, looking back, we can see that this foundation built and claimed by liturgists (e.g., those on the Standing Liturgical Commission of the ECUSA from the late 1960s onwards) was made of sand and has now fallen apart, so that virtually all the major claims made on behalf of the new liturgies of the 1970s have no solid foundation. Of course, modern bishops and liturgists who have pushed so hard for the adoption of the liturgies of the 1970s and 1980s are not rushing forward to apologize. But, happily, there are those who do present us with the consensus of scholarship concerning the nature and content of worship in the Church in the Early Church.
Maxwell E. Johnson is the writer of “The Apostolic Tradition” which is chapter two of the book. He is professor of liturgy at Notre Dame University and a Lutheran clergyman. In his opening paragraph he has this to say about “The Apostolic Tradition” a document highly favored and much used in the creation of the new Rites in the 1970s and attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c.215) and thus claimed as being of early third century provenance.
“This influential document has been long thought to be, if not exactly what its title claims [i.e., directly from the Apostles], an authentic, authoritative, and dependable witness to the early third century Roman liturgical practice…and reflecting what the tradition of liturgy in Rome had been up to and include his [Hippolytus’] time. Today, however, the emerging scholarly view is that this Apostolic Tradition probably was not authored by Hippolytus, not even necessarily Roman in content, and probably not early third century in date, at least not as it exists in the various extant manuscripts in which it has come down to us [earliest being fifth century but majority medieval]. Hence the “Tradition” of this so-called Apostolic Tradition may well reflect a synthesis or composite text of various and diverse liturgical patterns and practices, some quite early and some not added until the time of its final redaction.”
Here Johnson writes cautiously, but to express the position minimally, we may say that no wise liturgist would today base the whole revision of liturgy for a whole Church on the claim that Hippolytus wrote the Apostolic Tradition and that it is to be dated around A.D. 200! What the 1970s liturgists believed was that there was a unified origin of Christian liturgy which space and time (after the arrival of Constantine the Great) varied. What is now generally accepted is that there were multiple origins and varieties of forms of worship and that these then converged at various points in the fourth century. In other words the basic thesis favored by Gregory Dix and his many disciples has been reversed!
The theoretical basis for the creation of the 1979 liturgies in imitation of what were seen as sure early-church models is explained by one of the chief innovatory liturgists of the Episcopal Church, Massey H. Shepherd – see his essay, “The Patristic Heritage of the BCP of 1979” in The Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Volume 53, pp.221ff. We now know he was probably wrong on many counts.
Combined with this search for shapes and models from the Early Church were a commitment to the new theology, emphasis on human rights and therapeutic descriptions of humankind, which had emerged from the revolutionary 1960s – see further, Urban T. Holmes, “Education for Liturgy” in Worship Points the Way (ed. Malcolm C. Burson) New York 1991.
Of course, these powerful influences do not make the 1979 ECUSA Book to lack merit or to be unusable, but they do raise serious questions as to its real value and its continued use by those who wish to be “orthodox.”
So I return to where I begin. My desire is for every Episcopal/Anglican clergyperson and seminarian to read at least chapter two of The Oxford History of Christian Worship. Of course, chapter three on worship from the fourth to the seventh centuries is also worth reading, as are many others, even if in some of them about modern times there is too much of a dose of liberationism, inclusivism and feminism.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon June 2, 2006