On the Current BCP, A Response

A very interesting article showed up in my Twitter feed this morning: How radical a revision? by Fr. Matthew Olver. You should definitely take the time to read it. He’s wrestling with a question that I think should be coming to the fore in the next decade or so—a critical reassessment of the ’79 Book of Common Prayer particularly in terms of its connection with what has come before it. Just as Roman Catholic liturgical scholarship is exploring the issue of continuity or rupture around the changes wrought by Vatican II, we are starting to see the same discussions surface in the Episcopal Church as well.

Olver’s piece focuses on a phrase by Urban T. Holmes, suggesting that the ’79 BCP should be and is a shift “away from Cranmer and the Tudor deity.” Olver goes on to question how this shift could have occurred:

What makes the Holmes/Shepherd declaration (“we must move away from Cranmer and the Tudor deity”) so provocative is that many trumpet the 1979 BCP as the “triumph of the Anglo-Catholic movement,” and this movement was most certainly committed to the “classical theology” that Holmes and Shepherd, among others, deemed no longer “viable.”

Olver then goes on to list certain apparent Anglo-Catholic victories. He will later argue that these don’t ultimately save the book from this “move away”, but I want to make a comment on his list before getting there.

While he mentions things like the expansion of the Calendar and the appearance of Noon Prayer, he did not list what I regard as the single greatest shift in Episcopal liturgical understanding. Remember, even at the foundation of the first American prayer book, the pattern of weekly worship was that implied by the earlier English books:

[In colonial America] On Sundays the usual forms of worship were, in the morning, the sequence of Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion, with sermon and prayers, followed later in the day by Evening Prayer, again with a sermon. Holy Communion was celebrated four times each year, although there was a monthly Communion service in some places. (Hatchett, “The Colonies and States of America” in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer)

This Sunday morning sequence didn’t change until the late nineteenth century. Again, Hatchett: “That sequence had always been the usual Anglican practice, but in the 1892 Prayer Book it was no longer required; Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion could be used separately.” (I had actually thought that Convention had allowed this earlier in the nineteenth century, but Hatchett doesn’t mention it here.) As is well known, the pattern of quarterly or monthly Communion was common up through the years of the ’28 BCP and into present memory. Where the ’79 BCP alters this significantly is in the first substantive sentence of the book:

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)

This proclamation of the Eucharist as the principal act of worship on Sundays and Feasts is a major shift and the single biggest change to Episcopal worship practice since the separation of the three-service block. This change cannot be overlooked as a major alteration and an apparent win for the Anglo-Catholic side over and against Evangelicals and others.

You can’t have a catalog of changes and apparent wins without including this one.

That having been said, I do actually agree with Olver that the ’79 BCP often appears to be more of an Anglo-Catholic victory than it really is. I wrote about this a while ago and said it this way:

Of the classical church “parties” two were happiest with the ’79 BCP: the catholic wing and the broad church wing, particularly among the elites for whom the LRM [Liturgical Renewal Movement] represented an ecumenical consensus open to a liberality of spirit in contrast to liturgical and ecclesial conservatism; the “Spirit of Vatican II” and the “Spirit of ’79” made common cause with one another.

The Catholic wing thought they had made major strides because many of their longstanding issues with the Cranmerian reform had finally been undone. The liturgy had moved back towards a classic Western (Roman) model. The Calendar was once again filling with the heroes of the Great Church and of Western Catholicism in addition to a variety of Anglican worthies. Antiphons and propers were licit again. The Eucharist was the primary service on Sundays.

While these things were accomplished, it had more to do with their consonance with the aims of LRM than a tide of catholicity sweeping through the Episcopal Church.

Due to the influence of the LRM and its influence in the upper reaches of liturgical thought in the Episcopal Church, the ’79 BCP ended up having a more catholic appearance due to 1) the recovery of historical ideals that also guided the reform of the Roman liturgy post Vatican-II and 2) ecumenical rapprochement with Roman Catholics. Furthermore the performance of the liturgy likewise took on a more catholic appearance with a proliferation of chasubles in places where they would have been anathema as ‘too popish’ just a generation before.

. . .

We are at the point where we must come to terms with the fact that we have inherited a prayer book with a greater catholic appearance but without catholic substance behind it. To put a finer point on it, we have a catholic-looking calendar of “saints” yet no shared theology of sainthood or sanctity. While a general consensus reigned that the appearance was sufficient, the lack of a coherent shared theology was not an issue. When we press upon it too hard—as occurred and is occurring in the transition from Lesser Feasts & Fasts into Holy Women, Holy Men into whatever will come next—we reap the fruits of a sort of potemkin ecumenism that collapses without common shared theology behind it.

I think the coming discussion needs to wrestle with whether the prayer book shapes or reflects Episcopal theology. My own sense is that the ’79 book sought to do both. For my part, the changes the subcommittee I co-chair will be recommending to General Convention regarding the Calendar seek to do the second: reflect. More on this later…

To pick up the thread of Olver’s article again, he ultimately locates the challenge to the “classical theology” and “Cranmer and the Tudor deity” in the notion of baptismal ecclesiology. This is a fairly standard position for the book’s critics. And, not surprisingly, he draws on Colin Podmore’s critique of baptismal ecclesiology.

I have a couple of issues here.

First, both Olver’s article and Podmore’s paper present the evidence in such a way to suggest that the notion of baptism as the entrance to ministry is a very modern notion and one done chiefly for the sake of social activism—particularly with an eye to the ordination of women and active homosexuals. This is an untenable move. You cannot have a full and proper discussion of baptismal ecclesiology and the ministry without at least a reference to Martin Luther’s Letter to the German Nobility.  In this piece, Luther is arguing against the notion that the pope and his clergy can over-ride the authority of the secular princes; one of the chief ways he does it is through an appeal to baptism:

It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people.

But that a pope or a bishop anoints, confers tonsures; ordains, consecrates, or prescribes dress unlike that of the laity, this may make hypocrites and graven images, but it never makes a Christian or “spiritual” man. Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood, as St. Peter says in I Peter 2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom,” and the book of Revelation says, Rev. 5:10 “Thou hast made us by Thy blood to be priests and kings.” For if we had no higher consecration than pope or bishop gives, the consecration by pope or bishop would never make a priest, nor might anyone either say mass or preach a sermon or give absolution. Therefore when the bishop consecrates it is the same thing as if he, in the place and stead of the whole congregation, all of whom have like power, were to take one out of their number and charge him to use this power for the others; just as though ten brothers, all king’s sons and equal heirs, were to choose one of themselves to rule the inheritance for them all, — they would all be kings and equal in power, though one of them would be charged with the duty of ruling.

To make it still clearer. If a little group of pious Christian laymen were taken captive and set down in a wilderness , and had among them no priest consecrated by a bishop, and if there in the wilderness they were to agree in choosing one of themselves, married or unmarried, and were to charge him with the office of baptizing, saying mass, absolving and preaching, such a man would be as truly a priest as though all bishops and popes had consecrated him. That is why in cases of necessity any one can baptize and give absolution, which would be impossible unless we were all priests. This great grace and power of baptism and of the Christian Estate they have well-nigh destroyed and caused us to forget through The canon law. It was in the manner aforesaid that Christians in olden days chose from their number bishops and priests, who were afterwards confirmed by other bishops, without all the show which now obtains. It was Thus that Sts. Augustine, Ambrose and Cyprian became bishops.

Since, then, the temporal authorities are baptized with the same baptism and have the same faith and Gospel as we, we must grant that they are priests and bishops, and count their office one which has a proper and a useful place in the Christian community. For whoever comes out the water of baptism can boast that he is already consecrated priest, bishop and pope, though it is not seemly that every one should exercise the office. Nay, just because we are all in like manner priests, no one must put himself forward and undertake, without our consent and election, to do what is in the power of all of us. For what is common to all, no one dare take upon himself without the will and the command of the community; and should it happen that one chosen for such an office were deposed for malfeasance, he would then be just what he was before he held office. Therefore a priest in Christendom is nothing else than an office-holder. While he is in office, he has precedence; when deposed, he is a peasant or a townsman like the rest. Beyond all doubt, then, a priest is no longer a priest when he is deposed. But now they have invented characters indelebilis, and prate that a deposed priest is nevertheless something different from a mere layman. They even dream that a priest can never become a layman, or be anything else than a priest. All this is mere talk and man-made law. (http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html, emphasis added)

Luther does have a lower view of the priesthood than many Anglicans throughout history, and his formulation here takes issue with certain aspects of the Apostolic Succession (but not with others!). However, to suggest that the idea that [baptism = ministry] is a recent invention of social activists is factually incorrect. Indeed, I see it as part of the “classic theology” that we seek to retain—an expression of it, rather than an overturning of it.

On the contrary, the problem that I have with the phrase “baptismal ecclesiology” is that I believe it is not being thought through enough and that all of its implications have not been fully considered or applied. In its semi-official use “baptismal ecclesiology” is intended as a rejection of clericalism and exclusion. Where it does not tread is into broader questions of its implications for ecclessiology particularly around the dead—which was the impetus for my first major article against Holy Women, Holy Men.

There’s a lot more to say on that last point but in the interest of time, I’ll save it for later.

7 thoughts on “On the Current BCP, A Response

  1. John-Julian, OJN

    Derek, you are certainly right.
    I am old enough to have first heard Mass celebrated from the Knott Missal! Fond du Lac born-and-bred—Nashotah trained—Anglo-Catholic up, down and sideways.
    (And also a special parish consultant to the Liturgy Commission when 1979 was being born) We Anglo-Catholics won virtually all of our liturgical battles in there EXCEPT that of the invocation of saints (as you point out). But even there, a few things snuck in, e.g. p.489/504 “…encouraged but their examples, AIDED BY THEIR PRAYERS, and strengthened by their fellowship…” and (a little less clearly) p. 250 “…we may always be supported by this FELLOWSHIP OF LOVE AND PRAYER…”. Of course, neither of these actually ASKS the prayers of the saints! But, as you also say, the real turnaround came in the baptismal theology department. That and the consistent emphasis on the Resurrection was what was in the heart and intention of the composers.

  2. Ben Miller

    This has been an interesting discussion to follow because it is emphasizing the 79 BCP’s discontinuities. Some of these seem valid in that I have “felt” them in my own individual/corporate worship with this BCP. However, I only came to TEC a few years ago, so this BCP is all I have known – I feel that I have no dog in the fight between Elizabethan vs Contemporary English, or Liturgical Renewal Movement vs “the Tudor Deity”. I can only testify that learning to pray the 79 BCP Offices on my own, with supplementary liturgical rubrics and no former knowledge of Anglicanism, was my very gateway INTO continuity with Anglicanism’s reformed catholicity. I was just blown away. With that in mind, I think that whatever flaws the 79 BCP and the circumstances of its creation bear are not fatal, and do not outweigh its ability to communicate a holistic rule of life to my discipleship. If anything, it is not that Episcopalians have been impoverished by the 79 BCP, but that they have not been taught by their own parishes to embrace its regula and its continuities. Instead of a document that places our life in Christ under a distinct shape, it’s seen as an engineer’s manual or a liturgical textbook. I think that, taken as a whole, this Prayer Book, like those of the past, calls us to holiness. In that sense it is capable of bearing as much fruit as its ancestors can. Whether our “Deity” is Tudor or LRM, it has still communicated the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

  3. John-Julian, OJN

    Ben, you certainly are right. BCP 1979 is not something one “reads”, it’s something one simply gets to know—and then all its entwined, interwoven, knitted-together bits get into one’s spiritual bloodstream, and its wonder is evident. I have said (and would gladly defend) that BCP 1979 is the finest liturgical document in the history of the Christian Church—not entirely unflawed, but simply excellent. And one of the most awesome dimensions of it is that the idealistic intentions and commitments of its compilers were actually realized instead of being watered down to nothing or avoided by pious propriety. I am personally sorry (pace Derek) that Rite I had to be included—there is no other way it would pass General Convention—because it means that for some, the power of Rite II and its resurrection theology is never discovered and those folk are left with “the old wording is much nicer and more familiar.”

  4. Ben Miller

    *oh, that should say “WITHOUT supplementary liturgical rubrics.” My point was I had gone into the BCP cold. It was a steep hill, but I’m glad I was willing to climb it.

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