It is absolutely essential to understand the great leading principle upon which the Prayer Book was first compiled. and on which it was always meant to be interpreted. It is a principle which runs right through, and much damage has been caused and false teaching given through lack of knowledge or neglect of it.
The principle of the Prayer Book is to suppose that all members of the Church are in reality what they claim to be in profession ; namely, true believers in Christ and sanctified by the Holy Ghost. The Prayer Book takes the highest standard of what a Christian ought to be, and is worded, right through, accordingly. The minister addresses those who come together for worship as believers. The people who use the words of the liturgy are supposed to be believers. But yet those who drew up the Prayer Book never meant to assert that all who are members of the Church of England are actually and really true Christians. In fact, in Article 26 it is stated “in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good”.
However, the compilers held that if forms of devotion were drawn up then they must be written on the supposition that those who used them were real Christians and not false ones. In fact, a liturgy cannot be compiled on any other basis. A liturgy for unbelievers or unconverted people would be absurd and practically useless. The people for whom it was meant would care nothing for any liturgy at all, while the converted part of the congregation would find its language entirely unsuitable for them.
a) The Baptismal Service.
This general principle applies to the baptismal service, for it supposes that those who bring their children to be baptised, bring them as believers. The infants are baptised as the seed of godly parents, and the godparents and parents are exhorted, as believers, to pray that the child may be born again and encouraged to lay hold on the promises made. And as the child of believers the infant, when baptised, is pronounced “Regenerate”, and thanks are given for it.
b) The Communion and Confirmation Services.
Surely no intelligent person would seriously maintain that all the communicants who say '' the remembrance of our sins is grievous and the burden of them is intolerable " do really feel and mean what they say ! An examination of the lives of many shows that they feel nothing of the kind. Equally, no commonsensed person really believes that all the young persons, when confirmed, really think that they are “bound to believe and do”, what they profess when they say in reply to the Bishop's question, “I do”. Too many never think at all ! But in both cases, the Prayer Book puts into the mouths of those who are confirmed or who come to the Table, the language they ought to use, on the great ruling principle of charitable supposition. But it does not in the least follow that all is right because of the language that is used.
c) The Collects.
Many of the collects can only be fully explained if this principle is accepted. The Epiphany collect says, “Grant that we who know Thee now by faith may after this life have the fruition of Thy glorious Godhead”. Surely no one would maintain that the compilers of the Prayer Book meant to teach that all who use the Prayer Book do know God by faith. The Collect for the third Sunday after Trinity says, “We to whom Thou hast given an hearty desire to pray”. No one can doubt that this form of words is used by many of whom it could not strictly and truly be said for one minute. But in these, and many other instances, there is one uniform principle ; that of charitably assuming that members of a church are what they profess to be. The Church puts into the mouths of her worshipping people the sentiments and language they ought to use, and if they do not come up to her high standard the fault is theirs, not hers. But to say that by adopting such expressions she stamps and accredits all her members as real and true Christians in the sight of God, would be manifestly unreasonable.
d) The Churching of Women.
Every woman for whom the service of “Churching” is used is spoken of as the “Lord's Servant”, and is required to answer that she “puts her trust in the Lord”. But no one can deny that such words are utterly inapplicable in the case of many of those who are churched. They are not servants of the Lord, nor do they put their trust in Him. Further, it cannot be argued that, because they used these words, the compilers of the Prayer Book considered that all women who were churched really did trust in the Lord. The simple explanation is that they based the service on the same great principle, that of charitable supposition.
e) The Service for Adult Baptism.
In the service for adult baptism the minister first prays that the person about to be baptised may have the Holy Spirit given to him, and be born again. The Church cannot take upon herself to pronounce decidedly that he is born again until he has witnessed a good confession, and shown his readiness to receive the seal of baptism. Then. after that prayer, he is called upon openly to profess repentance and faith before the minister and congregation, and that being done, he is baptised. Then, and not until then, comes the declaration that the person baptised is “regenerate”, and is born again and made an heir of everlasting salvation.
But can these words be strictly and literally true if the person baptised is a hypocrite, and has all along professed that which he does not feel ? In fact, the words are used on the charitable assumption that he has repented and does believe. It is quite plain that, in the absence of this repentance and faith, the words used are a mere form. The Church cannot draw up two forms of service, and in a case like this they do not imply for a moment that inward and spiritual grace necessarily accompanies the outward sign, or that a death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness is necessarily conveyed to the soul. The person baptised is pronounced “regenerate” upon the broad principle of the Prayer Book that people are charitably supposed to be what they profess to be.
f) The Burial Service.
In the burial service the person buried is spoken of as a dear brother or sister. It is said that it has pleased God of His great mercy to take to Himself his soul. “We give thee hearty thanks that it hath pleased Thee to deliver this our brother out of the miseries of this sinful world”. “Our hope is this our brother rests in Christ.” In using statements like this, did the compilers wish us to believe that all this was strictly and literally applicable to every individual over whose body these words were read? No one can honestly say so. The simple explanation is that the service was drawn up, like the rest, on the charitable assumption that all members of a Church were what they professed to be.
g) The Catechism.
In the catechism, everyone is taught to say, “In baptism I was made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven”, and “I learn to believe in God the Holy Ghost who sanctifieth me and all the elect people of God”. Does this mean that the Prayer Book writers intended to lay down the principle that all baptised children are sanctified and elect? Certainly today no minister can say that every child in his parish who has been baptised is actually sanctified by the Holy Ghost. It would be an exceptional parish if he could; or else Bible words have no meaning. Again there is but one explanation, namely these words are words of charitable supposition, and they cannot be taken in any other sense.
It is quite impossible to understand how anyone cannot see this principle in the Prayer Book. It is quite certain that Paul wrote his epistles on this principle. He constantly addresses the members of the churches as saints and elect, and as having grace, faith, hope and love. although it is evident that some of them had no grace at all ! Obviously the compilers of the Prayer Book drew up its services on the same lines, and it is on these lines of charitable assumption alone that the book can be interpreted.
So it must not be forgotten that this principle, that worshippers really are what they profess to be, runs through the whole of this most valuable book. On this principle it is an incomparable manual of public worship. Without this principle people tend to draw from it lessons which it was never meant to teach.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon
President of the Prayer Book Society 2007