Today is the annual celebration of the First Book of Common Prayer, which was made (by act of Parliament) the liturgy of the English realm on Pentecost, 1549. Much of that era’s history is fraught with painful actions, and no group emerges unsullied from it, but the content of that first Prayer Book—and its subsequent history as a liturgy and a way of church life—continues to amaze and nourish this Anglican.
I join the Church as a whole in giving thanks (though mindful of its flaws and limitations) for this compendium of worship and instruction in the Faith “once delivered to the saints.” As one who uses it daily, and who has experienced various forms of the BCP (as well as having experienced various forms of Christianity taking very different approaches to worship and doctrine), I believe it to be a tremendously wise, grounded, and flexible means of continuing to deliver the “faith that saves.”
In recent years we have seen the Episcopal Church move further and further away from the notion of “one liturgy for one realm” by allowing more variety of liturgical texts in our common worship. Some of this seems very laudable, as the old BCPs were often “unofficially” augmented on the local level in past years due to a paucity of enrichments for the seasons and a lack of various “occasional offices” that are needed to live a fully sacramentalized liturgical life. However, it has become almost universal today in many of our parishes to witness large-scale innovation in Sunday worship, often using materials put together by local clergy and “liturgy committees,” but without either the consent of the local bishop, or any vetting by the wider Church. The results are often idiosyncratic, to say the least.
The dialogue between the local and the universal is an old one in the Church. One could say that in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is keenly aware of the significance of the local origins of the Gospel, but St. Paul was aware of the universality of its message. The conflict between them at some stages represented our first foray into grappling with what it means to live out the tension between the specificity and the global-ness of Incarnation. They both have profound merit. They both have limitations when applied in isolation of the other. We have been living in that tension ever since.
Much the same thing can be said, I believe, for the current era’s uncertainty about how to address the question of a shared liturgy. For centuries the first Act of Uniformity and all that it meant—and was based on—has had a massive impact on global Anglicanism. However, in recent years the issues of diversity, pluralism, and the experience of the marginalized have called into question the notion of a monolithic liturgy—especially when we look at the variety of liturgical forms in the Early Christian period. This has led us to authorize many new services, options, and rites. It has also led to the tacit (or even explicit) license in many dioceses for parishes to “write their own ticket” in terms of public worship.
But, the tension will not be done away with so easily. Many ancient liturgical innovations failed; many new forms of worship tell us more about ourselves than they do about God. Often, the more “relevant” we seek to be, the more dated and shallow we become. The notion of a shared identity starts to look much more valuable when amnesia becomes more common amongst us than does anamnesis.
My sense is that we will eventually find out that, while we don’t need royal warrants or the use of violence to impose the BCP on congregations (things which did accompany the BCP’s birth in 1549), we all need a fairly well-defined (though not anxiously so) “still center” around which to move. That center is in its richest sense, of course, Our Lord—known in the Holy Scriptures, the historic faith, and reason enlightened by divine grace. But in a practical sense, that “still center” in our common life is, and needs to remain, the agreed-upon access to the Holy Mysteries and catholic Faith found in the Book of Common Prayer.
Long live the BCP!