One of the more baffling and frustrating things I find in common discourse regarding the nature of Anglicanism, and more particularly our way of worship, is the identification of our liturgy as a distinctly “catholic” expression of spirituality. This is true one sense – it is a heritage that we have happily received from the wider family of Western liturgies. But it is equally true that our beloved Prayer Book liturgy is very much a Protestant treasure also. One need not be a high churchman or an Anglo-Catholic to love and defend the Prayer Book way of life. Indeed, our low church or reformed members can be just as fierce defenders of our heritage.
In our own day we need look no further than the recently departed J. I. Packer of blessed memory. This quote of his, for example, captures the respect any (and indeed every) member of the Anglican tradition can have for the Prayer Book:
The Prayer Book Liturgy on the Large Scale
The Prayer Book liturgy, in both its “pattern” and its content, provides a veritable symphony of Scripture. It is filled with intricate lines of biblical theology and thought, it is permeated with a robust spirituality that is both Patristic and Protestant, it is stately, yet simple; English, yet ecumenical; poetic, yet precise. It would admittedly be the height of hubris to claim this or any other liturgy to be utterly perfect. But the great Teachers of the Church have always agreed that the wisdom of those who have come before us are guiding lights in matters of faith’s practice, particularly in worship and liturgy. The formational power of worship, repeated over days and weeks and years, cannot be underappreciated; and the intentionality of a life of worship, rather than attention only to punctilious moments of worship on individual Sundays (as is the mentality of modern evangelicalism), will yield much greater spiritual gains in the long run. The Prayer Book offers us a full symphony that runs not just for “the Sunday service”, but throughout the day, throughout the week, and indeed all year long. No sextet, quartet, chamber ensemble, let along pop song, has the same scope, size, and sound of a full orchestra.
The music analogy is excellent, and speaks well to the beauty and craft of the liturgy, but perhaps another analogy speaks more pertinently to the sustaining power of worship – that of food. The worship of the Lord in Word and Sacrament are literally life-giving to the Christian soul. Liturgy is the meal planning. When a worship service is considered in isolation, only a single meal is being addressed; the Prayer Book prepares not only individual services but the whole meal plan, the full diet, for each day, week, and season of the year. A healthy diet needs to take the bigger picture into account, after all, one can’t usefully prepare a single meal or snack without accounting for what has been eaten already and when & what the people will eat next. Too many cheese sticks will complicate digestion. Not enough liquids will dehydrate the body. Junk food staves off starvation, but doesn’t contribute to bodily health in the long run, but rather, kills.
The Prayer Book is not unique in that it provides for the full orchestra or plans the long-term food plan; all liturgical traditions before it did so, and these were not inventions of medieval Christians but date back to Christ and the Apostles attending the Temple and the synagogue, which in turn dates back to various stages of Old Testament history. Obviously the Old Covenant prayers had to be “updated” in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, but the continuity of worship from B.C. to A.D. is remarkable.
The Prayer Book, is, however, unique in that it provides all this in one single volume. Over the course of time, liturgical traditions (especially in the West) grew more and more elaborate. As one reads in the Preface to the first Prayer Book, “many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” Liturgy had become over-specialized, elitist, the provenance of priests and monks, the laity reduced to mere spectators most of the time. The gem of Anglicanism has been to provide the essential material of our historic liturgical tradition in a single book that can be used (albeit with some practice and guidance) by anyone who can read.
Thus the Prayer Book is a vital tool not only for the work of the priests and other ministers, but for everyone in the pews, as it protects the laity from the clergy. Instead of being subject to the whims of individual ministers, who might pray as they wish and provide no guarantee of orthodoxy apart from personal trust, the Anglican with a Prayer Book is assured that no matter what church or chapel one might visit, the worship of God will be sound, no matter how well- or ill-disposed the minister might happen to be.
The Prayer Book Liturgy on the Small Scale
It has become something of a popular mentality since the 20th century to pay more attention to the shape, contour, or outline of a worship service than to its specific ingredients, contents, and phraseology. It is true, as our Articles of Religion confess, that rites and ceremonies need not be everywhere identical. Language changes over time and varies across distances and cultures. The Prayer Book, especially the 1662 Book which is effectively the mother of all other Prayer Books since, is not a golden tablet received from the hand of God himself to be used unchanged and unvaried for all time, but it is the gold standard by which we measure our changes and variances over time. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it is a Book that we understand to be reliable, having fed and nourished one local national church into a global communion of tens of millions.
Thus it is important that we appeal not only to the types of worship services in the Prayer Book, or the ideas of the Prayer Book services, or their shapes or outlines, but also the specific contents thereof. A long-term meal plan must use specific ingredients to make its meals; a symphony orchestra must appoint specific notes to played by specific instruments at specific times. What we pray is an essential part of how we pray.
Many volumes of books could be (and have been) filled to comment on the truth and beauty found within the Prayer Book’s pages; this essay can only address a few brief examples and perhaps point beyond itself for further reference. Let us consider how we confess our sins, how we confess our faith, how we approach the Communion table, and how we commend our prayers unto God.
Confession of Sin
The Prayer Book tradition has two different prayers of confession, which modern practice had sometimes simplified and sometimes diversified.
In the Daily Office, the minister prepares the way for confession with Scripture and exhortation, providing a compelling biblical case for the practice of confessing our sins especially “when we assemble and meet together.” In this confession we not only offer a functional admission of guilt and wish for forgiveness, but we use sober and uncompromising biblical language to express it with clarity and sincerity. “We have erred and strayed from [God’s] ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against [God’s] holy laws, we have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Here we express general ways in which we have sinned (by commission or by omission) and detail the means in the language of straying, following other ourselves, and offending against the Law. This culminates with the admission that “there is no health in us,” – that on our own we are dead or dying, unless or until God’s grace changes that. Our plea for mercy and forgiveness follows, with the hope that we might “hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life” to God’s glory.
At the Communion service we “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.” Or, in more modern terms, we “acknowledge and lament our many sins and offenses, which we have committed“. We further acknowledge our sins manifest in thought, word, and deed, cutting deep into our souls, and we acknowledge these sins provoke God’s wrath, or righteous anger, against us. For this we are deeply and heartily sorry, and we confess that our sins are an intolerable burden, more than we can bear, already hinting at the solution in Christ who could and did bear our sins on the Cross. We offer a three-fold plea for mercy which is followed by a prayer for such forgiveness that we may evermore serve him in newness of life to the honour and glory of God’s name.
These prayers are thorough, biblically rich, personal, and far more honest than we otherwise would be on our own. They express the depth of our sinfulness and proclaim the Gospel of salvation – especially when followed by the minister’s words of Absolution and (in the Communion) the Comfortable Words from four New Testament passages.
Contrast this with the pithy confessions of modern liturgies and the loss is clear.
Lord God, we have sinned against you; we have done evil in your sight. We are sorry and repent. Have mercy on us according to your love. Wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin. Renew a right spirit within us and restore us to the joy of your salvation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.Common Prayer (2000, UK), page 31
If you look at the shape or contour, you will see that the outline of the prayer is basically the same. But the substantial content is massively reduced – we say we are sorry but we don’t express we are sorry. It is like playing an excerpt of a grand symphony on a plastic recorder – it sounds the same functionally but carries little of its gravity. Thus even though the worshiper here is speaking truth, there is far less impetus take that truth into the depths of one’s heart.
The American prayer of confession from 1979 is a little longer, but ultimately suffers from the same problem:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.Book of Common Payer (1979, USA), page 79
There is more room to “feel” the truth of penitence here than in the previous example, but there’s still more “tell” than “show.” The grave wickedness of sin is not mentioned, the standards of God’s law or holiness are not put upon our lips. True confession of sin, or contrition (to use the language of Psalm 51 and Isaiah 57, and the Church’s traditional discourse ever since) must be heartfelt. Short and simple confessions like these run the risk of a rubber-stamped contractual obligation – “I’m supposed to say I’m sorry before I’m allowed in.”
Confession of Faith
Something that is popular in some modern liturgies is to provide fresh new confessions of faith to use in the course of worship. Take, for example, this Affirmation of Faith:
Let us declare our faith in God.
We believe in God the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.Common Worship (2000, UK), page 148
We believe in God the Son, who lives in our hearts through faith, and fills us with his love.
We believe in God the Holy Spirit, who strengthens us with power from on high.
We believe in one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is an authorized “Affirmation of Faith” that may be used in place of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds. It is noted to be drawn from Ephesians 3, and in that sense it is a lovely confession of faith. BUT, of course, it is incredibly limited in its value as a Creed. Gone is the name of Jesus, let alone his death and resurrection. Gone is the forgiveness of sins, holy baptism, the creation of the universe, the church. For a private devotion this “creed” can be a beautiful reflection on Ephesians 3, but a real Creed it is not.
Instead, in the liturgical tradition we have always used Creeds that have been accepted across the global church with almost perfect unanimity. There were complications with the Nicene Creed in a few small quarters, and the Athanasian Creed is not used in the East, but as far as our family of liturgical practice is concerned we have received three Creeds: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. At the Communion, we recite the Nicene Creed, in the Daily prayers we recite the Apostles’, and on special occasions the Athanasian Creed makes an appearance. Again, this is not a “catholic” versus “protestant” thing; my Reformed colleagues outside of the Anglican tradition also argue that the Apostles’ Creed is inferior to the Nicene Creed when it comes to parsing out the full divinity and humanity of Christ. And the Athanasian Creed remains the most useful resource in all of Western Christianity for explicating the doctrine of the Trinity. When it comes to rehearsing the basic articles of our faith, there is no better place to turn than these three creeds.
Furthermore, these are not ingredients in isolation. In both the Daily Office and the Communion service, we recite a Creed soon after the Scripture readings. The Creed therefore serves not only as a summary of our faith but also a summary of biblical teachings. Whether is is a sermon (as at the Communion) or not (as in the traditional Daily Office), the Creed still stands as at least a brief teaching to follow up on our hearing of the sacred Scriptures.
Approaching the Communion Table
One of the most-beloved specific prayers of the Prayer Book tradition is entitled the Prayer of Humble Access. Its precise location in the Communion service has shifted from one Prayer Book to another, and there is merit to discussing its precise role in those different places. But in all cases, it serves as a preparatory prayer, a voice of humility and devotion before receiving Holy Communion. here it is in traditional and modern language forms:
We do not presume to come to this thy/your Table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy/your manifold/abundant and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy/your Table.
But thou/you art/are the same Lord, whose property/character is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy/your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Modern liturgies often remove this prayer entirely. Some forms axe the two penultimate lines (“that our sinful bodies…” and “and our souls washed…”). Some offer alternative prayers:
Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinner. So cleanse and feed us with the body and blood of your Son, that he may live in us and we in him; and that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in your kingdom. Amen.Common Worship (2000, UK), page 181
As with the modern confession prayers, this alternative follows the same “shape” as the original, but it lacks much. Most notably, this example has no language of cleansing. It sets up our unworthiness truthfully and God’s gracious invitation is biblical, but God does not simply share his bread with sinner, but rather he transforms us through this bread and cup into people who are cleaned and washed so that we may live in him forever.
There is a lot going on in the celebration of Holy Communion, and the Prayer of Humble Access is one of the most “personal” moments in the liturgy, whether it’s read only by the minister (traditionally) or by the whole congregation with him (in some modern forms). We have already heard God’s Word, we have already confession our sins and heard words of absolution and comfort; the Prayer of Humble Access is where each one of us recognizes the ongoing nature of our unworthiness and cleansing-in-Christ that happens before, during, and after the eucharistic feast of which we are about to partake. To confuse this prayer with the Confession of sin, or to remove it utterly, would be a great loss to the richness and power of the liturgy.
Commending our Prayers to God
It is perhaps one of the most arrogant things in popular evangelicalism today that we presume upon God as if he is obligated to hear us and answer our prayers. It is true that we have a gracious God who has dwelt among us sinners precisely to open the way to eternal life to any sinner who repents and turns to him, but that does not translate to an attitude to flippant presumption on our part. We do not invite God’s Spirit among us when we begin to worship, nor do we offer him prayer without humbly beseeching him to hear us. The Litany, in its extended list of supplications, is a prime example of us principle in action, but perhaps the best single-prayer summary of this is the Prayer of Saint John Chrysostom, found at the end of the Daily Office. As the name implies, it has a fair bit of history before the advent of the Prayer Book, but its role in our liturgy is significant.
There we acknowledge of our prayers that God has “given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto Him, and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in His Name, He will grant their requests“. This is, in one sense, an affirmation that the liturgy – what we’ve been praying so far – is acceptable to God (cf. Psalm 19:14 and Psalm 69:13, Proverbs 10:32 and 15:8), and that we can be confident in the content of the liturgy. It is also, of course, a more personable reassurance that God is with his people. The prayer then continues with us asking God to “fulfill now the desires and petitions of His servants” So we not only express humble confidence that God has listened to our prayers, we ask that he would answer them. God has no obligation to us apart from his own promises – we have no power over him, there is no magic force in true faith.
So we ask him to hear and answer our prayers, and even that we do humbly: “as may be best for us [or most expedient for them], granting us in this world knowledge of thy/your truth, and in the world to come life everlasting.” God knows best how to answer our prayers, whatever is best or most expedient for our true needs. And, whatever the specifics of our prayers, there is always an underlying intention in our worship to gain knowledge of God’s truth and to attain to everlasting life. These intentions are mirrored in the Blessing at the end of the Communion service – that the peace of God which passes all understanding would keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and that his blessing would be among us and remain with us forever.
Thus even our “meta-prayers”, our prayers about prayer, are instructive to the worshiper and humbly worshipful before the Lord.
World without end
Our liturgy, our Prayer Book, is indeed a symphony and feast that stretches from winter to summer to winter again; from birth to death, from baptism to last rites; from the dead souls at the Gates of Hell to the regenerated, justified, and sanctified soul stepping through the Gates of Heaven. Could there be another symphony written, as elegant and effective, as beautiful and true, as ours? Certainly it could. The wealth of liturgical history is ample evidence of this – the Liturgies of Saint James and Saint Chrysostom have been observed for over a millennium in the East, the West has enjoyed the Mozaribic Rite, the Sarum, Gallican, and Roman Rites, various monastic institutions such as the Benedictines and the Dominicans have developed their own forms of the same liturgy… the variety is beautiful, and periodic moments of cross-pollination have been very enriching for the church at large.
But each of these liturgical traditions are the work of centuries, crafted carefully, slowly, reverently, and lovingly, over many generations. The 1662 Prayer Book itself represents the work of many individuals spanning over a century beginning with one Archbishop’s consolidation of the Sarum Use of the Western liturgical tradition. And since 1662 standard practices have gradually shifted and developed; the liturgy is living and active, a sharp sword in its own right, dividing the demons of ambition and personal preference in public worship, much like how the spiritual sword of sacred Scriptures divides the joints and marrow of our souls to uncover our underlying sinful nature in all realms of life. Thus it is foolhardy and dangerous to presume that we can, in one fell swoop, overthrow and replace a liturgy as developed as our heritage has delivered to us. Alternative services, variations or order and wording, have their places on the fringe of experimentation and the occasional what-if’s of Christian worship, but to replace our Prayer Book history wholesale with something new or different is to cast ourselves adrift in the chaotic ocean of the world a new untested ship. It may deliver some to their desired port of rest, but if the new Titanic has sunk en route one can hardly say the massive loss was worth it.
As my province’s Prayer Book admits in its Preface, “The Book of Common Prayer (1979) in the United States and various Prayer Books that appeared in Anglican Provinces from South America to Kenya to South East Asia to New Zealand were often more revolutionary than evolutionary in character. Eucharistic prayers in particular were influenced by the re-discovery of patristic texts unknown at the Reformation, and often bore little resemblance to what had for centuries been the Anglican norm. Baptismal theology, especially in North America, was affected by radical revisions to the received Christian understanding, and came perilously close to proclaiming a gospel of individual affirmation rather than of personal transformation and sanctification.” In the wake of such wide-ranging revisions and changes, it is all the more difficult (yet necessary) that we take steps to rediscover and reclaim our rightful heritage, which nurtured our forebears for centuries and led to the great and global growth of our tradition which many since the 20th century have gone onto squander. We must labor to further work of true reform and restoration, seeking the historic confines of what is authentically the Christian Faith and the Anglican patrimony, to restore their fullness and beauty.