Anglican Spirituality & the Book of Common Prayer

Anglican Spirituality & the Book of Common Prayer

By Dr. Robert Crouse

It is evident, I think, to most of us – however much we may have been sheltered by the highly selective reporting by our national and diocesan Church press – that the Anglican Communion has entered a time of severe crisis, in which the character, and indeed the very existence, of Anglicanism is radically in question. Most of us are painfully aware of certain aspects of that crisis, by virtue of our own painful experience of stresses and contentions in our own dioceses and our own parishes, the evidence of which even the bravest shows of episcopal and synodical solidarity cannot effectively obscure.

By some, as, for instance, by the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury in his lectures at the Trinity Institute in New York, this is regarded principally as a political crisis: a problem having to do with the structures and forms of such quasi-authoritative bodies as the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting, Provincial and General Synods, and the like. Archbishop Runcie, in those lectures (as reported by the Church Times),

analyzed the changes in secular authority over the past twenty years characterized, he said, by oscillation between radical permlssiveness and reactionary authoritarianism – and claimed that these swings were mirrored in the Churches. [1]

In terms reminiscent of Professor Sykes’ well-known thesis about The Integrity of Anglicanism, Dr. Runcie observed that authority in the Anglican Communion “had been characterized by a ‘dispersed’ model, using a combination of different sources, aspects and levels of authority,’, and that contentious issues now dividing Anglicans “had demonstrated an inadequacy in the central structures of the Communion”, which, he said, would need to be “examined”.

No doubt, the 1988 Lambeth Conference devoted some attention to examining such questions as, indeed, Lambeth Conferences have done regularly ever since their beginning over a century ago. But, as the late Dr. Gareth Bennett remarked in his fine and notorious Preface to the current edition of “Crockford”, “no one should ‘underestimate the capacity of a Lambeth Conference to take its real decisions by doing nothing”. [2] Meanwhile, the various bodies which constitute the Anglican Communion will continue to act according to that interpretation of Anglican comprehensiveness which Dr. Bennett ascribes particularly to Bishop Spong of Newark: “that everyone should do what seems right to him in conscience and that everyone else should accept it.” [3] And that is what the Archbishop’s concluding evocation of what he calls “the Gamaliel principle” seems to come to. As Dr. Bennett puts it, quoting Mr. Frank Field, “the Archbishop is usually to be found nailing his colours to the fence.” [4]

Questions of Church politics, and “central structures”, are, of course, important, but I don’t think that they are really the fundamental questions just now for Anglicans. Anglicanism, world-wide, has never had, after all, a universal synod with power to define and legislate in matters of doctrine, worship, morals, and pastoral practice. There is no Pope, and no Holy Office. Canterbury does not qualify for that role; nor, I’m afraid, does Jarvis Street. Each bishop is largely independent in his own diocese; except. that he is bound by his solemn oath, at his consecration,

to hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments, and Discipline of Christ, as the Lord hath commanded in his holy Word, and as the Anglican Church of Canada hath received and set forth the same,

and his promise of “due obedience” to the Metropolitan, who has taken a similar oath (BCP. p.661). No one vows to obey the General Synod, or the Lambeth Conference.

In this, there is no principle of authority other than the Word of God in Holy Scripture, as understood and expressed in the Book of Common Prayer. And the mandate of General Synod itself is defined in the same way in its own “Solemn Declaration, 1893″ (BCP, p. viii):

We are determined by the help of God to hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth the same in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’… and in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity.

I think it is not too much to say that that principle of authority has been, and remains, the only enduring and effectual principle of cohesion in Anglicanism. Through the centuries of Anglican history, the common liturgy has been the standard against which the ephemeral fancies and fads, the theological and devotional exaggerations and aberrations, have always been measured. The integrity of Anglicanism, as a distinctive form of Christian life and witness, has been sustained and nourished by, and radically depends upon, that Prayer Book tradition.

The 1948 Lambeth Conference, addnessing the question of authority, found all its necessary elements unified and expressed in the Prayer Book liturgy; [5] and in 1950, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Fisher) felt able to write, with what now seems painful optimism:

Wherever we go throughout our Communion we find ourselves at home in worship scriptural, catholic, congregational, understanded of the people, simple and profound, of which the standard and exemplar is the Book of Common Prayer. That knits us together indeed. That lies at the root of our fellowship with one another. And it is deeply moving to know that the older and younger Churches of one Communion find alike in this tradition the same values of Catholic truth, scriptural soundness and evangelical zeal. [6]

“Deeply moving”, no doubt, but, within a generation, all that has radically changed. As Dr. Bennett remarks in his “Crockford” Preface:

No change in Anglicanism during the last thirty years has been more remarkable than the virtual disuse of prayer books based on the English Book of Common Prayer. . . nothing is more apparent than Anglicanisms’ break with its liturgical past, and any attempt to define Anglicanism by its tradition of worship is now on very insecure ground. It is sometimes said that the new Anglican services have a ‘family resemblance’ but this may be only a reflection of the common forms of the ecumenical liturgical movement. Certainly it does not take a very close examination to detect that the liturgies have distinct doctrinal differences from each other. This would indicate that they are not so much a factor for unity as a sign of increasing diversity. [7]

“Virtual disuse” is certainly an exaggeration: In Canada, and in other parts of the world, there are countless parishes which remain faithtul to Prayer Book standards in doctrine and worship, and multitudes of individuals, especially among the laity, who are staunchly determined to maintain what they rightly regard as their heritage as Anglicans, and to resist what some of our bishops seem fond of describing as “the direction in which our Church is moving”. We have not reached the point -and I hope we shall not reach it – when we must sing a lamentation, or threnody, for the Book of Common Prayer. But the issue is critical, and much will depend upon the prayerful, informed, and outspoken activity of those who understand what is at stake.

The questions involved are numerous and vast: there are serious theological questions, questions of liturgical scholarship and theory, questions of the literary and esthetic dimensions of liturgy, and so on, as well as questions of practical politics, all of which must be insistently raised and addressed at every level; and I think that the Prayer Book Society should be greatly encouraged by the very rapid and widespread development of serious interest in these matters – though it is, of course, still extremely difficult to achieve any meaningful debate about these things in the higher echelons of Church government.

But most Anglicans are not, of course, theologians, or liturgical or literary scholars, and are nevertheless deeply concerned about the defence of the Book of Common Prayer; not, I think, because they are naturally “conservatives”, or “reactionaries”, or “nostalgic” (though some of them may be), but because they have a deep sense of the worth of our traditional liturgy as spiritual nutriment in an increasingly secular world, and are dismayed by experimental liturgies which seem to reflect and express the conventions and thoughtless conformities of the present age. Precisely what they do not want is a liturgy, such as the BAS claims to provide, which wears “the idiom, the cadence, the world-view” of the present age. Their problems with the new liturgies are not so much the problems of theology in any very specific sense, but rather the more immediately practical problems of devotion, or spirituality.

The Book of Common Prayer is not conceived (as are its current alternatives) as a kind of resource-book for worship, from which one may choose elements according to one’s tastes or inclinations, or have them chosen for one by the clergy or by some “worship and spifituality” committee, more or less ad hoc. The Prayer Book is, rather, a spiritual system, biblical, traditional, and logical, which includes, but at the same time transcends and corrects the subjecfive inclinations of the worshipper or the spirituality committee. It is the common prayer of priest and congregation, and corporate in a way in which the selfconscious “gathering of the community” can never be.

Liturgical resource books will not do. The prayer of the Church becomes the common prayer of the people only when its variants are few enough that they can become thoroughly familiar and habitual, and thus can be genuinely prayed. William Beveridge, several centuries ago, put the matter cogently:

… If I hear another pray, and know not beforehand what he will say, I must first listen to what he will say next; then I am to consider whether what he saith be agreeable to sound doctrine, and whether it be proper and lawful for me to join with him in the petitions he puts up to Almighty God; and if I think it is so, then I am to do it. But before I can well do that, he is got to another thing; by which means it is very difficult, if not morally impossible, to join with him in everything so regularly as I ought to do. But by a set form of prayer all this trouble is prevented; for having the form continually in my mind, being thoroughly acquainted with it, fully approving of everything in it, and always knowing beforehand what will come next, I have nothing else to do, whilst the words are sounding in my ears, but to move my heart and affections suitably to them, to raise up my desires to those good things which are prayed for, to fix my mind wholly upon God, whilst I am praising of him, and so to employ, quicken, and lift up my soul in performing my devotions to Him. [8]

That comes from the seventeenth century, of course, and is therefore supposedly unintelligible to twentieth-century Anglicans; but I think that anyone who has tried to guide a stranger through the intricacy of such a document as the 1979 American Prayer Book or its more recent Canadian offspring theBAS – book in one hand, and bulletin in the other – will somehow feel the force of Beveridge’s words. Experimental liturgy and the new breed of service books, whatever may be the good intentions of the compilers (and I do not doubt their good intentions), by the provision of multiple alternatives, and various forms and translations of those alternatives, tend to destroy the very possibility of prayer. One is reminded of the strictures of the 1549 Prayer Book against late medieval service books, that “….the manifold changings of the service was the cause, that to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” [9]

Novelty and variety certainly have a place in devotional life. It can be very refreshing, for instance, sometimes to hear a familiar passage of Scripture in a new translation, and a new version of a Psalm may call one’s attention to aspects of the meaning which one had missed before. But if that process is carried very far, it can also be devotionally destructive, by confusing and destroying one’s devotional vocabulary. For countless Anglicans, all down the centuries, and in our own generation, the language of the Book of Common Prayer, the language of the King James Version of the Bible, the language of the Coverdale version of the Psalter, have been deeply engraved upon minds and hearts. They have become an habitual language of devotion, rich with associations; words ready to hand, which come to mind and tongue in times of weariness, or sickness, or despair, when we have no heart to invent new words, and when the words of contemporary liturgical revisers seem shallow and banal.

What is in question is not an antiquated language – not Crammer’s “images, cadences and world-view” – but a genuinely liturgical and devotional language, thoroughly biblical in its images and inspiration. What is gained in revisions of that language? What, for instance, in the tentative substitution, as in the BAS, of a new American translation of the Psalter? Nothing much, certainly, from a literary standpoint; a little bit, possibly, from the standpoint of intelligibility. But what is lost?

Simply a rich and deeply meaningful language of devotion, which has shaped the spiritual vocabulary of Anglicans – literate and illiterate -for many generations. One must ask simllar questions about other matters, such as new versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Canticles, the Creeds, and so on, which are now thrust upon us. What, really, do we gain? And what do we lose? Quite simply, we lose our Christian memory, our recollection: and surely few things can be so debilitating as that for the growth and development of spiritual life.

Anglican spirituality is basically a liturgical piety, nurtured by the Book of Common Prayer. It is a rich and glorious tradition, and I, for one, am unwilling to see it undermined or discarded. No doubt much dedicated labour and much expense have gone into the production of our alternatives; and certainly much energy, as well as much heartbreak, have gone into the promotion of them. No doubt, as with the famous “Curate’s Egg”, “parts of it are excellent”; but, as far as I can see, the general effect, from the standpoint of spirituality, has been disastrous, and is likely to be more so. At best, as an alternative, our new rite can produce a kind of spiritual schizophrenia; at worst, it can produce profound and lasting destruction of the Anglican tradition. And, as a matter of fact, in so far as any alternative clearly contravenes “the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ” as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer, its use violates the bishop’s oath and the Solemn Declaration of the General Synod, and must not be condoned.

It has been said in another connection that the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. Times of crisis are times of confusion and danger, but they are also times of great opportunity. Now, as never before – at least, within this century – Anglicans are compelled to think about what Anglicanism means; and here and there, all across this country, people who had taken the Prayer Book pretty much for granted, are discovering its spiritual importance, and, more and more, actually using it daily for Morning and Evening Prayer. Furthermore, they are becoming unwontedly vocal about it. Perhaps Shakespeare best sums it up.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Let me conclude with a quotation from Jeremy Taylor, a holy and learned 17th century bishop, who was deprived of his benefice and three times imprisoned during the Commonwealth period, when the Book of Common Prayer was suppressed.

This excellent book hath had the fate to be cut in pieces with a pen-knife and thrown into the fire, but it is not consumed. At first, it was Sown in tears, and now is watered with tears; yet never was any holy thing drowned or extinguished with tears… Indeed, the greatest danger that ever the Common Prayer Book had, was the indifferency and indevotion of them that used it as but a common blessing – . But when excellent things go away, and then look back upon us, as our blessed Saviour did upon St. Peter, we are more moved then by the nearer embraces of a full and actual possession. I pray God that it may be so in our case, and that we may be not too willing to be discouraged: at least that we may not cease to love and to desire what is not publicly permitted to our practice and profession.’ [10]


  1. The Church Times (London), January 22, 1988
  2. Anonymous (G. Bennett), “Preface”, Crockfords’ Clerical Directory, 1987/88 (Church House Publishing, London, 7987), p.65
  3. Ibid., p.67
  4. Ibid., p.68
  5. Cf. S.W. Sykes, “Authority in the Anglican Communion” in Four Documents on Authority in the Anglican Communion (Anglican Consultative Council, Lond., 1987), p. 13
  6. G. Fisher, “The Mission of the Anglican Communion”, Pan-Anglican, I (Lent, 1950), p.5
  7. G. Bennett, op.cit., pp.62-63
  8. W. Beveridge, “A Sermon on the Excellency and Usefulness of the Common Prayer” (1681); excerpt in P.E. Hore and F.L. Cross, eds., Anglicanism (London, 1935), pp.626-627
  9. Book of Common Prayer (Canada, 1962), p.715
  10. Jeremy Taylor, An Apology for Authorized and Set Forms of Liturgy, Preface; reprinted in More and Cross, op.cit., pp.177-178.
Anglican Spirituality & the Book of Common Prayer