The Anglican "Glue"

[COMMENT:  This is a good summary of some of the strengths and failures of the Anglican Communion.  Our primary locus of unity has been the Book of Common Prayer, the evolution of which, as Peter Toon observes, got high-jacked by persons who had an undeclared intent to change Anglican theology. 

We will see that might come out of the present ruckus in the US and abroad, hopefully a realignment according to the realities of faith and unfaith.   E. Fox] 

The Rev. Peter Toon

The Anglican “Glue” – the means by which the Anglican Way & Communion have been sustained


In 1948 the Bishops of the Anglican Communion could state with confidence and in humility the following:


“We commence our report [on the Anglican Communion] by emphasizing again the fact that the Churches of the Anglican Communion are Catholic in the sense of the English Reformation. They are Catholic but reformed; they are reformed but Catholic. The embodiment of this character is the Book of Common Prayer. It is not only an importance source of Anglican teaching, it is also the means by which the Anglican tradition has been sustained. The English Reformers were not trying to make a new Church. It continued to be the Church of England, the Ecclesia Anglicana, as Magna Carta described it in 1215. For this reason the Anglican Communion is not a sect. It is a true part of the Church Catholic.” (Lambeth Conference 1948, p.83)


How many Bishops would now agree to this statement  as a whole? Today most  accept the idea of a Reformed Catholicism and say that the Anglican Communion is not a sect but a part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God. However, to make the claims made in 1948 concerning The Book of Common Prayer is now wholly out of fashion.


In The Encyclical Letter of the same Lambeth Conference, the Bishops wrote of the important place in the Anglican Communion of the Prayer Book.


“Our organised life will rightly be influenced by local colour and national culture, and will, in consequence, develop varied characteristics. But within this diversity it is essential to maintain such a unity of faith and order as will preserve its unity of purpose and spirit. We find the authoritative expression of that faith and order in the Book of Common Prayer, together with the Ordinal. This book is the heritage of the whole Communion, and, while revisions of it are made to suit the needs of different Churches, it provides our accepted pattern of liturgical order, worship and doctrine which is to be everywhere maintained.” (Lambeth Conference 1948, p.23)


The Letter went on to call for celebrations in 1949 for the four hundredth anniversary of the first edition of The Book of the Common Prayer (1549). “Such celebrations will help to call to mind, and to emphasize, the important position within the fellowship which the Book of Common Prayer has always held and the formative and unifying influence which it has exercised.”


I think it is true to state that from the mid-sixteenth century through the centuries until the middle of the twentieth century (and probably until the 1970s) the Church of England, & the Churches overseas formed from or by her, generally assumed that the reformed catholic character of the Anglican Way is set forth and maintained by The Book of Common Prayer, especially in its edition of 1662 (which was translated into over 150 languages).  Inextricably united to this Book is The Ordinal, by which all the Bishops were ordained & consecrated. Therefore, while there was always a unity in the Episcopate through time and across space, this unity was closely related to the larger unity of worship and doctrine contained within The Book of Common Prayer.


So what has happened since the middle of the twentieth century to remove The Book of Common Prayer from its pivotal and crucial position as both service book and formulary of the Anglican Way? We cannot blame the two World Wars because in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War, the above statements were  made about the centrality of the classic Prayer Book in the Anglican Way.


First of all, we cannot avoid naming the liturgical movement, so-called.  This was international – primarily European – and it had the effect of sending liturgists back to the period of the Early Church to discover and study the earliest liturgies, rites, ceremonies, structures and contents of worship.  In the enthusiasm of discovery, certain proposals were made by Anglican scholars about what is authentic liturgy and these became the accepted wisdom, on the basis of which new liturgies were created by Liturgical Commissions for modern use.  Within this context, the shape and contents of the liturgies within The Book of Common Prayer were seen by the committed liturgists as deficient, old-fashioned and out of touch. Thus the Lambeth Conference of 1968 recommended, and permission was granted by Synods, to create experimental new services to exist alongside those within The Book of Common Prayer.  Thus the unity based on the classic Prayer Book was undermined – at first quite innocently.


In the second place, the social and cultural revolution that occurred in the 1960s (which had roots in earlier decades of course) challenged both the language and the doctrine of The Book of Common Prayer. To be meaningful as a Being, God had to be addressed in familiar language: so he became the “You-God”.  In order to affirm the new sense of freedom and autonomy being claimed by human beings, the sinful creature “grovelling before God” of the Prayer Book had to be avoided.  So the new services in the new prayer books soon began both to use “contemporary language” and to soften the “harsh” doctrines of the Prayer Book.  God became more accessible and friendlier but his Majesty and Glory faded from view. To use the old Prayer Book was said to be out of touch, irrelevant and with appeal to young people.


Once the new services/liturgies were  available in the West, and once the same type of services were being made available through western missionaries and educators for the African and Asian Churches, the unity of the Communion which had centred upon and within The Book of Common Prayer began to weaken and to crack. It was felt that there was a need for “instruments of unity” to unify the separate, autonomous provinces and thus to support the unity already there in the historic Episcopate. So there was created what we now call The Anglican Consultative Council and this met more regularly than did the Lambeth Conference of Bishops. Further, the See of Canterbury was given a new emphasis as the unifying centre of the Communion and also there began to occur the regular meetings of the Primates.


No doubt there would have been some means of maintaining fellowship created among and between the Provinces even if The Book of Common Prayer had been kept as the focus of unity in worship and doctrine. The point being made here is that any such instruments would not have needed to bear the heavy weight  which is now necessarily placed upon them if the Prayer Book were there as well.


I believe that one can set up a reasonable case to argue that not a few of the present troubles, agonies and crises of the Anglican Communion of Churches owe their origin to a departure from that view and use of The Book of Common Prayer stated by the Lambeth Conference in 1948. The BCP of 1662 (as well as the 1928 edition in use in the ECUSA, the 1962 edition in Canada, etc.) could have been gently revised, with some of the best fruit of liturgical studies used in that revision. And thus the BCP could have been kept in use both as the Formulary and the Prayer Book of the Anglican Way. Nobody has ever supposed that the Prayer Book should be as unchangeable as the Bible! One of the worst effects of the liturgico-theologico-moral upheavals of recent years is that they have stopped dead the natural and necessary evolution of the Prayer Book, so that those who support this classic liturgy are in danger of being put in the position of trying to freeze time at 1662. So it is that the only unity left now – often called “common worship” -- is the claim that all liturgies should have the same structure/ shape and draw from a deep pool of possible ingredients.


The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.),
Christ Church, Biddulph Moor & St Anne's, Brown Edge;

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