“The Form of Sound Words”

“The Form of Sound Words”  (2 Tim. 1:13):
The Catholicity of the Prayer Book

By Dr. Robert Crouse

 (This address was given at St. Paul’s Church, Toronto, on May 1, 1999 at a special event organized by the Toronto Branch of the PBSC, in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the first Book of Common Prayer.)

As we gather here to celebrate the four hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first English Book of Common Prayer, we must do so with a profound sense of thankfulness for a tradition of faith and worship which has conveyed across the centuries, from generation to generation, and to every corner of the globe, “the Doctrine, Sacraments, and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word….”; a tradition which has provided for the faithful not only an effectual means of hearing and understanding the Word of God, but also a sacred language of devotion, a means of praying the Word of God.

That tradition of common prayer has been and continues to be for us a means of grace and sanctification, which, as the “Solemn Declaration” of our Canadian General Synod puts it, “we are determined by the help of God to hold and maintain … and to transmit unimpaired to our posterity”. In the words of the Psalmist, “There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High” (Ps. 46:4). Let our first and deepest thought today be one of thankfulness to Almighty God for the blessings of that tradition.

The Book of Common Prayer, from its earliest version of 1549, down to its most recent revision in our Canadian version of 1962, is not simply a liturgical resource book, or an “aid to worship”; it is, rather, a complete and logically ordered system of instruction in the essentials of Christian faith and Christian living, and it has been a guide to the practice of piety in a characteristically Anglican way in every generation. Thus, the Reverend John Keble, for instance, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, saintly country parson, and one of the great leaders of the Anglican revival in the nineteenth century, remarked in the “Advertisement” of his immensely popular collection of sacred verse, called The Christian Year:

Next to a sound rule of faith, there is nothing of so much consequence as a sober standard of feeling in matters of practical religion: and it is the peculiar happiness of the Church of England to possess, in her authorized formularies, an ample and secure provision for both.1

An anonymous contributor to the Tracts for the Times, probably the same John Keble, in a sermon on the Prayer Book, hailed it as a great defense against “the waves of men’s fancies”, and “the winds of strange doctrine”. The Church, he said, “teaches you today with the same lessons, and teaches you to pray to God in the same ‘form of sound words’, that she did your fathers, and those who died a thousand years ago”.

And this is one great advantage in the teaching of the Holy Church, that popular impulses which prevail do not affect her one way or the other … From the beginning to the end of her sacred year, she continues to bear witness against that world into which she has been received, unfolding one by one her great mysteries, and the doctrines and practices connected with them; ever labouring to maintain “the form of sound words in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus”.2

Keble and his fellow-Tractarians strongly objected to proposed changes in the Prayer Book, which they perceived as tending in a Latitudinarian direction. John Henry Newman, in particular, in Tract 38, and again in Tract 41, urged the clergy to resist all alterations. He pointed out that all the changes suggested were intended to make the book less catholic.3 It is surely one of the ironies of history that pressure for the most radical revision, and, indeed, abandonment of the Prayer Book tradition in the twentieth-century has come mainly from those who would regard themselves as spiritual successors to the Tractarians.

Dr. Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth, in his Foreword to a recent book on The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition, remarks with reference to modern Anglican controversies about eucharistic doctrine, that “if we look at the way practically all of these controversies have been conducted, one thing that immediately strikes the observer who has any awareness of Anglican history is the phenomenal degree of collective amnesia on this general subject that seems to afflict Anglicans”.4 And the historical amnesia which seems to characterize Anglican approaches to eucharistic doctrine afflicts at least as severely modern Anglican approaches to the intimately related matters of eucharistic liturgy, and worship generally.

Thus, several churches in the Anglican Communion have in recent decades produced liturgies as alternatives to, or substitutes for the Book of Common Prayer, which seem to arise out of a forgetfulness of – or perhaps even in some cases an antipathy towards – the essentials of the historical tradition of Anglicanism, and seem, indeed, to promote that very amnesia out of which they arise. The anniversary which we currently observe will be useful if it serves to re-invigorate our memory, our lively awareness of that continuous tradition of faith and worship which must be the basis of any sound judgement in the present, and any genuine hope for the future. Memory is the necessary matrix of all creativity; amnesia can produce only disorientation and disintegration.

The Book of Common Prayer is the form of the collective memory of Anglicans, the consensus fidelium, the “common mind” of the Church, the principle of authority and cohesion of the institution, and the guarantee of its catholicity. For reasons such as these, successive Lambeth Conferences have urged caution in regard to revision of the Prayer Book. The 1948 Conference, for instance, issued a warning:

The Conference holds that the Book of Common Prayer has been, and is, so strong a bond of unity throughout the whole Anglican Communion that great care must be taken to ensure that revisions of the Book shall be in accordance with the doctrine and accepted liturgical worship of the Anglican Communion (Resolution 78a).

However, already in 1947, Catholicity, the Report of the Anglo-Catholic party in the Church of England to the Archbishop of Canterbury, while recognizing the Book of Common Prayer as the most important safeguard of Anglican unity, despaired of its continuing effectiveness in that regard:

The Book of Common Prayer has played an incomparably greater part [than the Establishment] in the fashioning of our unity. It has moulded our religious outlook and given us a lex orandi wherein our lex credendi has been defined and expressed. It has held the warm allegiance of men of all parties and of none. But in our recent history its failure to remain the bond of unity, which once it was, is freely admitted … That the Prayer Book still teaches our tradition to countless Anglicans cannot be denied. That it is an effective authority for unity in worship and teaching can hardly be claimed. Nor is any revised Prayer Book likely to acquire such an authority unless it arises out of a common theological understanding.5

Finally, Richard Buxton, in a recent essay on “The Prayer Book outside England”, recognizing that the Prayer Book has served as a principle of cohesion in the Anglican Communion, raises the anxious question:

Now that many parts of the Anglican Communion have largely abandoned worship in the Prayer Book tradition, … how is this cohesion going to be maintained in the future? Will it be possible to say what the character and ethos of Anglican worship is, in brief and simple terms, on a worldwide basis at the end of this century?6

Authority for Christians is fundamentally the authority of the Word of God, expressed in Holy Scripture. Anglicanism, in particular, is a certain way of hearing and understanding and living by the Word, an ongoing exegesis of God’s Word, fostered by and expressed in the tradition of common prayer. In no other Church in Christendom does liturgy play so crucial a role. In the Roman Church, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, “The true sense of the teaching authority of the Pope consists in his being the advocate of the Christian memory. The Pope does not impose from without. Rather he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it.”Anglicans recognize no papal magisterium; for us, it is the tradition of common prayer which elucidates and defends and deepens our memory of the Word of God. The destruction or neglect of that tradition induces a crippling amnesia; and as we keep this anniversary, it behooves us to think about the causes of the malady, and its cure.

The causes of Anglican disaffection towards the Prayer Book tradition are multiple: ecumenical, sociological, and theological, as well as liturgical. Undoubtedly, post-Vatican II revisions of the Roman rites continue to exercise a powerful influence upon some Anglicans, even in the face of a rising tide of misgiving within the Roman Church itself, as expressed, for instance, in Msgr. Gamber’s work on The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, recently made available in English, with a preface by Cardinal Ratzinger,8 and the recent work of the English Dominican, Aiden Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy: A Critical View of its Contemporary Form.9 Cardinal Ratzinger observes that

J.A. Jungmann, one of the truly great liturgists of our century, defined the liturgy of his time, such as it could be understood in the light of historical research, as “a liturgy which is the fruit of development” … What happened after the Council was something else entirely: in the place of liturgy as the fruit of development came fabricated liturgy. We abandoned the organic, living process of growth and development over centuries, and replaced it – as in a manufacturing process – with a fabrication, a banal on-the-spot product.

Msgr. J. D. Crichton, dean of English Roman Catholic Liturgists, points to one aspect of the problem, when he deplores the “loss of reverence which ultimately leads to a loss of the sense of the transcendent God who is the supreme Object of all worship. In a way we are in danger of forgetting what worship is all about. It is not just a heartwarming experience for those who like that sort of thing”.10

Besides the powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Liturgical Movement, the official revision of the Roman liturgy, and many unofficial subsequent experiments, works on the history of theology by Scandinavian Protestants, Bishop Aulèn’s Christus Victor and Bishop Nygren’s Eros and Agape (both of them translated by a leader of the Anglican Liturgical Movement, Fr. A. G. Hebert, SSM) also have had a telling effect upon the way in which Anglican liturgists have thought about the Latin theological tradition from Patristic times up to and including the Reformation. Although those works have been widely and severely criticized in recent decades, their influence still lingers, and determines, for instance, how some liturgists think of medieval and Reformation doctrines of the Atonement, and the penitential element in the Prayer Book liturgy.

Criticism of the Prayer Book tradition, and the inclination to abandon it in favour of a fresh start, were brought to a head in 1945, with the publication of Dom Gregory Dix’s massive work, The Shape of the Liturgy. From Dix’s standpoint, the reform of 1549 was a disaster: “with an inexcusable suddenness, between a Saturday night and a Monday morning at Pentecost 1549, the English liturgical tradition of nearly a thousand years was altogether overturned. Churchgoing never really recovered from that shock”.11 According to Dix, Archbishop Cranmer was really a Zwinglian in eucharistic doctrine, but nevertheless “a great liturgical artist … and the phrases of the present rite are very dear to thousands upon thousands of people from habit and intimate personal associations … The way in which his material would have to be used needs more, and … more intelligent consideration than it seems to have received”.12

But if Dix thought it possible and desirable to salvage something of the Prayer Book tradition, his disciples on the English Liturgical Commission, E. C. Ratcliff and Arthur Couratin (as Roger Beckwith remarks) “held that the Prayer Book was ‘incurably Protestant’ (Couratin’s words), and that therefore the wise course for Catholics was not to treat it as a disordered Catholic rite (as they had done in the past) and try to amend it, but to get rid of it and substitute something else”.13 The result of that policy is, of course, the production of books of alternative services.

Now, more than half a century after the publication of The Shape of the Liturgy, it would be difficult to find serious scholarly defenders of Dix’s assessment of Cranmer’s theology, or certain of his conclusions about early Christian liturgies14; just as it would be hard to find defenders of the stark theses of Christus Victor and Eros and Agape; yet all those positions seem to linger as presuppositions of liturgical reform.15 Thus, the dearest ambition of many twentieth-century liturgists, Roman and Anglican, has been to skip over seventeen centuries of Christian tradition to recover for twentieth-century congregations a liturgy of the pre-Constantinian Church, hypothetically reconstructed from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus.

Other liturgists, eschewing such romantic antiquarianism, have been convinced that the peculiarity of our increasingly secular society requires that liturgy be re-made to reflect the thought forms and speak the language of a secular age. Still others suppose that liturgy must be particularized to reflect the interests and cultural ambitions of particular groups within our society. All of these tendencies war against the basic Catholic conception of common prayer, which should comprehend our distinctions and transcend the narrow confines of particular times and places and special interests.

Tradition is, and must be, open to growth; liturgies have been, and must be, revised from time to time; but I think we should be well-advised to respect the policy of the 1662 revisers, of keeping to “the mean”: a policy admirably followed by our Canadian revisers in 1962; and that we should be well-advised to resist with importunity wholesale revisions or alternatives promoted because they seem to accord with the ephemeral linguistic and theological and sociological fashions of the moment.

Archbishop Cranmer’s work in 1549 was certainly a radical revision, but it was a revision very much within a living tradition, and Catholic in scope, preserving, for instance, virtually intact, such essential elements as the ancient eucharistic lectionary of the Sarum Missal, while at the same time drawing upon a wide range of liturgical sources, Patristic and Medieval, Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant. The result was a liturgy at once Catholic and Protestant: Catholic in its continuities and in its general character as liturgy; Protestant in its care to subject every element to the judgement of the Word of God in Scripture. In that double aspect, it established and expressed the essential character of Anglicanism as a Reformed Catholicism, and that has been the secret of its remarkable durability and its capacity for comprehending and transcending narrow party interests.

That liturgical achievement, at the very heart of Anglicanism, is now very much in peril throughout much of the Anglican Communion, and as we celebrate this anniversary with thanksgiving, it behooves us to be thoughtful about the basic questions involved in the defense of the Prayer Book tradition: questions about the nature and authority of divine revelation, questions about the fundamental meaning of worship, questions about the basis of our religious language, and questions about the essential character of Anglicanism as a way of being Christian! That is to say, the tradition must be defended not with prejudice, but with understanding.

A return to liturgical sanity, and a recovery of Anglican unity will very much depend upon that understanding. That is the task to which our celebration calls us; let us undertake it in hope and patience, “ever labouring to maintain ‘the form of sound words in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus’“.

As T.S. Eliot puts it, in “East Coker”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.16


  1. Keble, The Christian Year(London: Church Literature Association, 1977), p. 1. As Sheridan Gilley remarks in his introduction, by the year of Keble’s death, the work had gone through ninety-five editions. (p.xvii).
  2. “The Church Prayer-Book: A Safe Guide”, Plain Sermons LXI, reprinted in The Machray Review, No. 7, Dec. 1998, p. 70.
  3. G. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy(London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 193.
  4. Williams, “Foreword”, in H. McAdoo and K. Stevenson, The Mystery of the Eucharist in Anglican Tradition(Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1997), p. vii.
  5. Abbot, et. al., Catholicity. A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West(London: Dacre Press, 1947), p. 53.
  6. Buxton, “The Prayer Book outside England”, in M. Johnson, ed., Thomas Cranmer: Essays in Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of his Birth(Durham: Turnstone, 1990), p. 250.
  7. As quoted in J. Little, The Church and the Culture War(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 43.
  8. Gamber, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy(Una Voce Press, 1998).
  9. Nichols, Looking at the Liturgy(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).
  10. Crichton, “Worshipping with Awe and Reverence”, in Priests and People, 9-12 (1995), p. 453.
  11. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy(London: Dacre Press, 1945), p. 686.
  12. , p. 728.
  13. Beckwith, “The Prayer Book and Evangelical Doctrine”, in The Prayer Book(Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 1985), p. 75.
  14. K. Stevenson, Gregory Dix – 25 Years On(Grove Liturgical Study, 10; Bramcote: Grove, 1977); P. Bradshaw, “The Liturgical Use and Abuse of Patristics”, in K. Stevenson, ed., Liturgy Reshaped (London: SPCK, 1982), pp. 134-145.
  15. contributions by R. Crouse, G. Dunbar and W. Hankey in G. Eayrs, ed., Atonement and Sacrifice: Doctrine and Worship(Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 1990).
  16. S. Eliot, “East Coker” V, Four Quartets(Revised edition, London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 26.
“The Form of Sound Words”