The Prayer Book and Revision
Anglicans who support the Prayer Book should support in principle the idea of Prayer Book Revision.
After all, the 1962 Canadian Prayer Book is itself the product of revision– the last and only modern revision, it must be said, which was undertaken in conscious fidelity to the principles of the classical Prayer Book tradition. What has been the question, ever since the advent of liturgical experimentation and the attempt to corral the diversity of liturgies into the BAS (Book of Alternative Services, 1985), is any sort of theological consensus about liturgical worship, let alone Prayer Book Revision.
The Prayer Book Society has been at pains to demonstrate that the primary issue in the liturgical debates is the matter of doctrine in devotion. Language alone cannot be the primary issue– it belongs to the articulation of doctrinal truth. Therein lies the critical importance, without which liturgy merely degenerates into the competing aestheticisms of cultural, social, and political agendas.
The celebrated Collects in the Book of Common Prayer, for example, do not simply stand on their own in isolation from the principles of the Prayer Book. They stand together with the ordered pattern of reading the Bible at the Holy Eucharist. They assist in the expression of the doctrinal understanding of the Scriptures.
The Collects belong to the Scriptures, not the Scriptures to them. They serve devotionally because they serve in helping to articulate the essential doctrinal content of Scriptures. They are a devotional example of the doctrine of the primacy of Scripture. Their beauty lies in their simple and eloquent truth.
However convenient it may have been for the champions of le nouveaux liturgique (the new liturgies) to defame the Prayer Book Society as only being interested in language, it hasn’t worked. Questions about essential doctrine increasingly come to the fore.
At the present time, for instance, there is no theological consensus in Canada upon which the revision of the Prayer Book could possibly proceed. Nor, I might add, is there any real consensus about what contemporary language for liturgy should be.
Whose contemporary language after all? On the one hand, we are still caught in the time warp of the ‘sixties and ‘seventies with respect to certain modern renditions of doctrinal texts; and, on the other hand, the issues of political correctness and the various inclusive language enterprises, exciting further divisions for which there can be no easy resolution because the assumption that language is primarily nominal and political is what both unites and divides at one and the same time.
In the meantime, it is increasingly seen that the Prayer Book is the necessary doctrinal standard for Anglicans which alone can correct and measure the inadequacy of alternative liturgies. In such a climate, too, there should be a growing sympathy for the use of the Prayer Book in the recognition of its spiritual and doctrinal integrity as a system for being with Christ.
At the same time, there must be, at the very least, a willingness to work towards a theological consensus upon which both the correction of liturgical abberations and liturgical revision depend, including the possibility of Prayer Book revision. The policy of producing some “contemporary language” rites faithful to the principles of the Common Prayer tradition, conditional and provisional as such rites must be, is simply part of that willingness.
It belongs to the task of recovering the principles of the Common Prayer tradition. It is part and parcel of the recognition that Anglicans have no magisterium— teaching office– apart form the Book of Common Prayer. It is part and parcel, too, of the recognition that “The Book of Common Prayer constitutes the fullest expression of the consensus filelium for Anglicans” — as Fr. Robert Crouse observed some ten years ago.
The Book of Common Prayer comes increasingly into prominence both for the sake of the possibility of theologically acceptable alternative liturgies, and for the sake of our Anglican Identity.