Friday, May 04, 2007

Why keep in print and in use the classic BCP? Responding to Bishop Colin Buchanan

In The Oxford Guide to THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER, A Worldwide Survey (NYC, 2006), there is a cleverly written essay by retired Bishop Colin Buchanan, the well known liturgical scholar and publicist, under the title, "Preserving the Classical Prayer Books." The plural "Books" is noteworthy for it is intended to make one think not in terms of one classical Book of Common Prayer in various editions with minor adaptations (something many books go through) but in terms of several different Books of Common Prayer in England, Scotland, Canada, and the USA. So one's mind is prepared for the notion of "variety is the spice of life."

Bishop Buchanan's Essay

The theme of the essay is that, despite the setting up and work of Prayer Book Societies in England, Canada, Australia and the USA, the days of "the classical prayer books" are over, or nearly over, and they have been permanently replaced by other books of public prayer. Within the essay there is a very interesting and partly persuasive analysis of the presuppositions underlying the use of "the classic prayer books" in the first half of the twentieth century, before the big cultural and social changes began to occur in the West in the second half of the same century.

Before we notice this analysis let me state that the basic reason for the setting up of "The Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer" in the U.S.A. by professors from Vanderbilt University and The University of the South, both in Tennessee, and as early as 1971 (five years before the General Convention approved the initial text of what was to be the 1979 Prayer Book) was that they saw in the proposed texts, being circulated in the 1970s, the undermining of much of the received doctrine and devotion of The Anglican Way as they had known it in The Protestant Episcopal Church. Bishop Colin does not refer to doctrinal changes as a cause for the creation of Prayer Book Societies at all in his analysis—although he has in private correspondence with me admitted that for many of us in the U.S.A. this matter is first and foremost doctrinal. (I have not been able yet to ask him whether he sees any link between the content of the innovative 1979 Book and the radical innovations of The Episcopal Church between 1979 and 2007, all based on the Latin tag, lex orandi lex credendi.)

Bishop Colin claims that there were three major presuppositions underlying the use of the traditional liturgy in the first half of the twentieth century. First of all, it functioned as an important preservative:

It is there to ensure the continuance into the future of that which the worshippers have known in the past—whether this means the past and future are seen in terms of whole lifetimes, or of the cycle of the liturgical year…,or the immediacy of knowing that next Sunday's worship is going to be similar to last Sunday's.

In the second place, its language functioned as unique "worshipful English," and it was believed that:

Liturgy has a hieratic character to its wording and ceremonial. From this it follows that a somewhat exalted level (or "register")of language, vesture, ornamentation and movement is not only desirable but actually integral to liturgy.

"Hieratic" is a word not much used today but means "priestly" in the sense here of not being the way the laity normally speak and act. And the third presupposition, which is closely related to the second, is the "emotionally withdrawn stance of the congregation" whose members chose to sit apart and have little real connection with others present. Bishop Colin describes it in these terms:

Such a stance may be compared to participating in a masked ball with carefully prescribed moves, since it is the wearing of such liturgical masks that saves the participants from having to recognize or relate to those in physical proximity to them.

And he also noted that "the combination of these three elements in practice gave enormous security to the participants.

From what I remember of the Church of England of my youth, I have to accept that there is much that is true in his analysis but, at the same time, there were parishes where there was real fellowship, real Gospel preaching and real commitment to the Reformed Catholic Faith embodied in The Book of Common Prayer, which was used as a "living text." No doubt the same can be said of other countries as well.

My observations

From what I can tell, the winds of change began to blow, and to blow at storm levels, from the 1960s and with the winds came new versions of the Bible; new ways of addressing God to replace the traditional "Thou/Thee;" new types of liturgy in a variety of forms; new forms of theology, doctrine, devotion and piety; new expressions of sexual and personal ethics, great emphasis upon human rights, expressed especially by the feminist, liberation and "Gay Pride" movements; and much more. In the theological colleges/seminaries the curriculum began to change and a large space was given to the behavioral and psychological sciences as tools for the clergy, who were now to be seen as managers and counselors, rather than ministers of word and sacraments and spiritual directors.

As these powerful winds blew, changes happened quickly and often without people comprehending what was going on in their diocese and parish. By some the wind was seen as "the Holy Ghost" bringing needed reform and renewal to the staid churches by incorporating the best of the Zeitgeist into the churches; by others, the winds were seen as bringing a mixed blessing, and by a sizeable minority, the winds were seen as destroying much that was good.

It is a matter of historical fact that when these winds subsided in the 1970s the Protestant Episcopal Church had lost at least one third of its membership (which was at a high in the mid-1960s before the storms really began). Further, in 2007 we can see that the result of the official provision of a variety of liturgies is that no one parish is like another in terms of the content of its services—and this is so even when the parishes compared are all evangelical or all anglo-catholic or all progressively liberal. What has occurred is not what the liturgists of the 1970s told us was to be the case--that the Law of Prayer would be the Law of Believing. Indeed the result of their, and the inevitable original sin of human hearts, have created not one Law of either public prayer or public doctrine but multiple laws, and so The Anglican Way in the West is thoroughly confused and continuing to decline. It is a veritable supermarket of different religious forms and ways!

But to go back a little, it is certainly the case, as Bishop Colin says, that The Episcopal Church replaced the 1928 BCP with the innovative 1979 Prayer Book and then sought to impose the latter universally in the dioceses. In Britain, Canada, South Africa and Australia, the classic Book of Common Prayer was not cast aside but rather the new liturgies were placed alongside it under a title intended to distinguish them from it ( e.g., Alternative Service Book 1980). However, there has been sustained pressure in these Provinces to persuade clergy and parishes to use the new, and leave the old behind. Amazingly, in The Episcopal Church of the USA, where the BCP edition of 1928 was banned in 1979, there are parishes all over the country in 2007 that still use it, and still more churches who use it outside, within the Continuing Anglican movement.

In all these countries the use of the classic BCP has continued and, contrary to what Bishop Colin suggests, there is a growing number of younger people, laity and clergy—especially in the USA--who are being attracted to it, and, chiefly because of the Reformed Catholic doctrine that is embodied in it. Certainly they appreciate the style of the so called Tudor English prose and find it easy to remember, but their primary reason for embracing it is its doctrinal content, its solidity and its ability to speak to their deepest needs and aspirations. This attraction and commitment are demonstrated by their further desire to see (especially the 1662 edition) rendered into an acceptable form of contemporary English so that they and others can use this form of the classic Book of Common Prayer both as an evangelistic tool. and also as a bridge. over and through which. people can pass from the vagueness and variety of contemporary worship expressions in the West into the fullness of the Reformed Catholic Faith of the historic Anglican Formularies.


Bishop Colin's enthusiasm for the new, in the creation of which he has been a major player, has caused him to undervalue the staying power of the classic BCP as more than a cultural artifact and icon. It is still used very widely in Africa by growing, vibrant and expressive congregations and, further, it is being increasingly used, not only as a formulary for the Anglican Way, but also as a vital, daily form of worship by slowly increasing numbers of people, usually under 40. May 4, 2007

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