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Criteria for Prayer Book Revision and the Preface to the 1549 Prayer Book
NATHAN G. JENNINGS
The Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) has responded to the General Convention's resolution 2015-A169 directing it "to prepare a plan for the comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer and present that plan to the 79th General Convention." It is difficult to predict in advance how the General Convention will respond, but whatever the decision it reaches, it will certainly be appropriate to reflect on the criteria underlying any plan of revision or correction, or any judgment that alteration is not appropriate at this time. I suggest we return to the criteria of the preface to the 1549 prayer book, the first prayer book in our tradition, as guideposts to look at and to reflect on before we begin to take up the task of any future revision. These criteria are: (1) that the worship of the church should be grounded upon Holy Scriptures, (2) that it should be agreeable to the order of the primitive church, (3) that worship should be unifying to the church, and (4) that it should be edifying to the people. My reasoning is not due to a belief that we ought to be antiquarian or because of a belief that the Episcopal Church is simply defined by our tradition in a strict or a legalistic way. Rather, the suggestion stems from the fact that these criteria have, in a haphazard, organic way, become a part of our "DNA," our "genetic" inheritance as Anglicans and as Episcopalians.
In addition to these four well-established criteria, I suggest another. But before I do, allow me a brief literary digression. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov devised "Three Laws of Robotics" for his fictional world. These laws were intended to protect humanity from the rising power of the robots. Yet in his short story collection, I, Robot, machines nearly take over the human race. As a result, Asimov imagined the development of a "Zeroth Law." Because the previous three had been hardwired into the robots in logical order, the scientists and engineers in Asimoz's story could not simply add a fourth law and achieve the result of human protection. Asimov described this Zeroth Law as more binding, even, than the first of the Three Laws of Robotics.
Similarly, even though these four explicit criteria of Cranmer are present in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, I propose a "Zeroth" criterion be added, in the spirit of Asimov. This Zeroth criterion is implicit in the manner in which Thomas Cranmer went about his work of liturgical reformation. I would sum up this Zeroth principle of the prayer book tradition as "continuity with immediate inheritance." When Cranmer began compiling the English liturgy for the Church of England in the 1540s, he did not do what Anabaptists, Reformed Christians, and some Lutherans did elsewhere in Europe. These other traditions, to varying degrees, simply discarded much of the previous liturgical inheritance of the Western church.
Of all the Protestant traditions, the Church of England, and therefore, our own Anglican tradition thereafter, was the most liturgical. When Cranmer applied these four explicit criteria to the reform of worship in the Church of England, the Zeroth criterion was always in play. For the most significant action Cranmer took to reform the liturgy was simply to translate much of the current Sarum use of the Roman rite — that is, the text, lectionary, calendar, and rubrics of the form of the Roman rite in use at Salisbury Cathedral — from Latin into sixteenth- century English vernacular. Simply translating into English was itself an act of reform, a radical one that was subject to much dispute. Thus the founding act of our prayer book tradition is the maintenance of continuity with previous inheritance. In this case, it was done through translation of previous liturgy. This Zeroth criterion of continuity with our immediate inheritance, like Asimov's Zeroth Law of Robotics, manifests a more fundamental commitment of our prayer book tradition than even that of the explicit four.
In the following essay, I discuss each of these criteria one by one, starting with the first and ending on the Zeroth. Each section of commentary includes what the criterion meant in its context, and how it appeared and was used during the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century that would develop our 1979 prayer book. Then I reflect on how the criterion suggests we might best go forward with liturgical revision today.
I. Grounded upon Holy Scripture
The prayer book is the result of the Reformation in the Church of England, and that reformation was, in large part, a desire to reform church practice and teaching based on a return to Holy Scripture. At least, that is how the reformers saw their own efforts. In many ways, they lacked historically accurate knowledge of both scripture and the early liturgy that might have aided their fulfilling this goal more clearly and succinctly than they were able, however much that this was their goal.
As Cranmer went about making his changes in order to develop the Book of Common Prayer, at times he found himself unable simply to translate the Sarum rite into English due to his commitment to the Reformation's theological trends. He would then paraphrase the prayer grounded upon his discernment of its function in the liturgy into a form more acceptable to a Reformed theologian's ear and heart. His chosen method was to draw upon scripture, either by directly quoting it, or by making an allusion or reference to it, resulting in prayers more theologically satisfactory to a Reformer.
I would like briefly to note that the way in which this criterion works in Anglicanism is different than, say, the way in which the regulative criterion works in the Reformed tradition of our neighbors. The criterion of sola scriptura was applied to worship as the regulative principle by our Reformed neighbors thusly: if it is not in scripture, it ought not be in worship. To this day, certain branches of Presbyterian churches will not sing hymns during the divine service on Sunday mornings. Only psalms are sung at worship because they are found in scripture.
What is interesting here is that although the English Reformation falls under the greater umbrella of the Reformed tradition (more so than, say, the Lutheran-Evangelical tradition), we did not, in our Thirty-Nine Articles, for example, simply take up sola scriptura as a principle and thereby take on the Reformed regulative principle for worship. Instead, the phrase "grounded upon holy scripture" corresponds in the Articles to the notion that we cannot teach anything in the church that is "repugnant to scripture." There is a great deal of difference between these two guiding criteria.
When applied to worship, it means that we no longer need to have a regulative criterion that says that we cannot, in worship, have anything not explicitly found in scripture. Instead, we hold up the act of worship to the light of scripture, and if we discern that it is not repugnant to scripture, we simply keep it. Take for example, the Sursum corda, the Latin name for the dialogue between celebrant and congregation that precedes the Eucharistic Prayer. When examined through the regulative principle, we have to deny it; it must be deleted from Reformed worship. But if we hold it up rather to the criterion of avoiding anything repugnant to scripture, as there is nothing in the Sursum corda repugnant to scripture, we find that we are inclined to keep it. Thus, even though not found in scripture, because it is not repugnant to scripture, we have the Sursum corda in our worship to this day.
At the time of the Liturgical Movement, the twentieth-century Roman Catholic and Anglican reform that led to the revision of the Roman Catholic missal after Vatican II (1962–65) and to our current 1979 Book of Common Prayer, this criterion of scripture was not forgotten, of course. The framers of the 1979 prayer book used this criterion in a way quite similar to Thomas Cranmer's own. That is to say, when the time came for new prayers to be composed, the framers of the 1979 prayer book deliberately looked to scripture and did their best to compose new prayers that either directly quoted scripture, paraphrased, or alluded to it. I would hope that any future prayer book revision will uphold this criterion genetic to our inheritance as Anglicans.
Much of the liturgical supplementary material that has come out of the SCLM since the publishing of the 1979 prayer book has continued to uphold the Anglican criterion of direct scriptural quotation, or paraphrase, or allusion. However, some of the material seems to bear the stamp of more heady academic theology currently in vogue, or other secular ideologies that we have "baptized" as the direction in which the church ought to go, or that the church as "chaplain" to current society ought to baptize. My hope, going forward, is that prayer book revision, whenever new prayers are incorporated, would continue to uphold the tradition of grounding any newly composed liturgical material strictly upon scripture in this same manner. Whatever liturgical supplementary material we consider for addition to a future revision of the prayer book, our decision would benefit from a stricter interpretation of what it means to have our liturgy grounded upon Holy Scripture.
II. Worship Agreeable to the Order of the Primitive Church
Thomas Cranmer had available to him the various attempts at performing worship that scholars of the continental Reformed tradition and the Lutheran-Evangelical tradition had made before him or were making concurrently. He also had before him various forms of the Roman rite, especially the Sarum use, and it seems evident that he also had before him Eastern liturgical material such as the liturgy of St. Chrysostom. In addition, he had the Church Fathers to which to refer, especially St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and others, who wrote about, and alluded to, the liturgies they used. In the main, however, we do not have much of an historical record of early liturgies, for these were part of the oral tradition of the church and prior to the fourth century were in many ways deliberately kept oral and not written down. Cranmer and other reformers did the best they could to reconstruct what early Christian worship might have been, triangulating from all this disparate material what might have been the practice of the early church.
At the time of the Liturgical Movement, an explosion in new historical scholarship concerning Christian liturgies burst into the Western world and Western church; for example, many translations of ancient liturgies became available in the vernacular, including English. People who were passionate about liturgy were thrilled by these discoveries. For us as Anglicans, the result was a large amount of liturgical renewal across the Anglican Communion; the result for us as Episcopalians was the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. We already had as our inheritance, in a way not present for other liturgical traditions such as Roman Catholics or even Lutherans, a desire to have worship agreeable to the order of the primitive church. Whenever we as Anglicans or Episcopalians discover more about early Christian liturgies, we get excited about it and want to give it a try. That's exactly what occurred leading up to, and finally resulting in, the 1979 prayer book.
Since the time of the 1979 prayer book, however, further historical studies have called into question many of the basic assumptions upon which the framers of that prayer book relied. We need to continue to revise prayers books with this second criterion of agreeability to ancient forms of worship. When new historical knowledge comes to light, it is always something we ought to consider. However, just looking at what happened in the 1979 prayer book should perhaps slow us down a bit. We need to be careful in thinking that current historians have reconstructed the most final and most accurate knowledge of a historical reality. If we were suddenly to so modify our 1979 prayer book inheritance according to current historical liturgical trends, we might find ourselves disappointed in yet another generation to discover that we were yet again wrong to assume we had found the ultimate reconstruction of ancient liturgies. Scholarship often reopens issues that members of one generation were convinced they had settled once and for all. So we need to be wary of buying too wholesale into any currently popular academic reconstruction of ancient historical liturgies.
III. Worship Should Be Unifying to the Church
Of course, it is important to recall that the Book of Common Prayer was to be common. In the way that common law is common, in the way that common parliamentary procedure is common, Cranmer wanted a prayer book that allowed commonality across the English people, so that they could be unified in their worship. This represents a trend in liturgical change; throughout history, liturgy follows pendulum swings. This pendulum swings throughout history in general, in the West in particularly, and especially for us as a Reformation church and tradition. The two movements of this pendulum swing consist of a movement toward greater liturgical proliferation on the one hand, and then a swing back to greater liturgical unification on the other. The first move of the pendulum pushes boundaries and expands options. The second moves toward unity and the filtering out of the unnecessary.
Both of these movements have positive and negative aspects. The movement to push boundaries is positive because, again, it expands options, it allows for localization and for greater diversity and catholicity of observance. However, what is negative about that direction is that it can tend toward festooning the liturgy unnecessarily, toward proliferation of unneeded prayers and rites, and toward dividing Christians from one another as they become increasingly unable to recognize that their worship unites them.
The other direction also has its positive and negative. On the positive side, the pendulum-swing in the direction of unity sorts and shifts, selecting liturgical material of lasting value to the community and to greater unity. On the negative side, the move toward unity can suppress local diversity and create a hierarchical control. These two movements bring balance to the Christian observance of liturgy in general, and balance to our Anglican and Episcopalian observance in particular.
At the time of the Reformation, Cranmer was trying to move toward greater unity, suppressing many different uses of the Roman rite throughout the English realm, not to mention throughout Christendom in general at the time, and to bring about a conformity of practice so that all English-speaking Christians could know that they were members of the same church, being formed and transformed by the same liturgical activity.
At the time of the development of the 1979 prayer book, the pendulum was swinging the other way. The 1979 prayer book was an attempt to push boundaries, to expand options, to try out new and different things, and to bring forward more ancient practices. The theory in play in 1979 was roughly that we would be committed to a shared order of worship but provide for interchangeable parts — a range of Eucharistic prayers, prayers of the people, optional lesser feasts, alternate forms, etc. The approach is likely drawn from Gregory Dix's idea in The Shape of the Liturgy that the liturgy has an unchangeable shape that itself conveys meaning. Now is a good time to reflect on how well the fixed-structure-with-flexible-parts approach has functioned to unite the people. So, for example, it may be time to drop the second postcommunion prayer from Rite II, or to specify that the option to drop the confession in the Eucharist is not to be exercised during Lent, or to give seasonal direction to the use of the various forms of the Prayers of the People and the Eucharistic Prayers.
Since then, the liturgical materials produced and given as supplementary options by the SCLM have continued this trend toward the pushing of boundaries, the expanding of options, and allowing for more localization, but also bringing further division. One can go to the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, and feel that one is worshiping in different Episcopal churches in each of these places. In many ways, this is a sign of catholic diversity; however, equally yet oppositely, in many ways it can be a sign of division and a lack of common prayer.
We may be tempted in a further prayer book revision to continue moving in the direction of pushing boundaries, expanding options, continuing unnecessary proliferation, and festooning of the liturgy. We've done this enough, and it is time to return to the ancient Anglican criterion of worship being unifying to the church. We would be wise to allow the pendulum to swing now in that direction.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Issues in Prayer Book Revision Volume 1"
Copyright © 2018 Robert W. Prichard.
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Table of Contents
1. Criteria for Prayer Book Revision and the Preface to the 1549 Prayer Book Nathan G. Jennings,
2. The Language of Worship Robert W. Prichard,
3. Moving Offices: Daily Prayer in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and Beyond Andrew McGowan,
4. The Baptismal Revolution of 1979 James F. Turrell,
5. The 1979 Prayer Book's Baptismal Office and the Potential of Revision James F. Turrell,
6. A Reflection on the Eucharistic Prayer in Light of the Possible Revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer James W. Farwell,
7. Calling Down the Holy Spirit: A Consideration of the Implications of the Texts of the Epiclesis in the Episcopal Eucharistic Liturgies Amy C. Schifrin,
8. "The Word of the Lord": An Examination of the Use of Lectionaries in the Episcopal Church Shawn O. Strout,
9. Burial Rites Patrick Malloy,
10. The Apostolic Tradition and Liturgical Revision Bryan D. Spinks,
11. Has the Time Come for Hymnal Revision? William Bradley Roberts,
12. The Style and Format of the Book of Common Prayer Robert W. Prichard,