What is a Customary?

A Customary is a set of rules, written or unwritten, regarding the execution of the liturgy in a specific place. Anglican worship is directed ultimately by the Common Prayer Book, set forth by proper authority, but the manner in which the book’s contents are realized can vary from place to place.

Some churches have very elaborate customaries, detailing gestures, use of incense and bells, movement of the sacred ministers, distinguishing low mass and high mass and solemn high mass, dotting every i and crossing every t. The Church of the Advent (Episcopalian) in Boston is a famous example of this. Other churches take a much simpler approach, giving little or no thought to gestures and vestments, and making ad hoc decisions about preparing their worship services, certainly not writing them down.

There are multiple approaches to the writing and usage of a Customary. It may be regarded as a rule, a standard, or an ideal. A customary treated as a rule is one that is known and taught to the ministers and followed as faithfully as possible. A customary as a standard is also taken seriously, but the ministers allow room for periodic deviation from the set norms. A customary as an ideal is more like a goal: as far as its contents as possible, it is followed, but if certain aspects cannot be fulfilled, then so be it.

The Saint Aelfric Customary is written as an ideal. Its operating principles are stated later in this chapter, but on the most basic level this book exists to help Anglican ministers bring the Prayer Book liturgy to life in an ordered, thoughtful way with an eye to obedience to the current rule and an eye to the tradition of those who have gone before us, all the while seeking to serve the spiritual needs of God’s people in the midst of an increasingly anti-religious culture.

This Customary is formatted to follow the outline of the Book of Common Prayer (2019). As the book presents the various rites and rubrics of the Church, this Customary adheres to the same order, presenting its own rubrics, interpretations, and rationales.

Why Saint Aelfric?

Saint Aelfric is a difficult historical figure to identify. Historically he was understood to be the Abbot of Eynsham who wrote many biblical commentaries, sermons, and hagiographies in Old English, and the 28th Archbishop of Canterbury. In modern times “Aelfric of Eynsham” and “Aelfric of Abingdon, Archbishop” tend to be identified as two different men. Both lived in the late 900’s and died in the early 1000’s. Both of them are considered the namesake, or patron, of this Customary.

For one, the Aelfric who wrote all those treatises may also be responsible for some of the earliest Bible translation in the English language. Centuries before Wycliffe, significant parts of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, of which the four Gospels, the Psalms, and other fragments survive to this day. Curiously, however, Aelfric was said to have been reluctant to do this; he apparently preferred the Latin Scriptures and liturgy, which were widely understood by all who learned to read and write, but he made his translation out of acquiescence to royal demand. This Customary reflects that sense of hesitation, acquiescing to the authority of the Book of Common Prayer (2019) as set forth by the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America, yet looking back to the long-standing tradition of Anglican worship that was interrupted in the late 20th century. Rather than revert to “1928-onlyism” it is the purpose of this Customary to follow the modern standards with the historical material in mind whenever possible.

The split identity of Aelfric – the Abbot of Eynsham or the Abbot of Abingdon who became the Archbishop – also plays into the context of this Customary. As it stands, the Anglican Church in North America has its own form of identity crisis: traditional hymnody versus contemporary praise songs, solemn liturgical standards versus charismatic leniency, disagreement over the ordination of women, a wide range of interpretation regarding the wearing of clerical vestments (from the high to the classical low to the cheap substitutes to the “why-bother”)… all making this province a colorful and confusing place. This Customary is offered as a liturgical standard and ideal to interpret and execute the Prayer Book in such a way that Anglicans of all stripes may benefit from the riches of our historic tradition without too much intrusion into their particular preferences within the modern Anglican camp.

Operating Principles of Worship

The first principle of this Customary is that, under ideal conditions, the liturgy is to be carried out in its entirety. Secondarily, almost every option given in the Prayer Book is allotted its own time and place for use. This means that the Daily Office is provided for on a daily basis, the Litany is used regularly, and the Communion Service is expected on every Sunday and Holy Day, with provision for a daily Communion also. The execution of each service, therefore, is designed with the greater context of worship in mind. After all, liturgy is not about an individual worship service – not its order nor content nor style – but about the entire life of worship. Thus it is the purpose of this Customary to provide for the full execution of the liturgy.

The second operating principle of this Customary is that the liturgical expression of the congregation be recognizably historically Anglican. Many changes to the prayer Book has taken place in the last century; there are many who accuse the American book of 1928 to be excessively Romanized; there are many who accuse the American book of 1979 to be a radical departure from all Anglican liturgical tradition. As monumental and laudable our Prayer Book of 2019 is, given the many challenges surrounding its creation, there remains a great deal of Anglican liturgical tradition that is obscured or absent. For example, the gain of the use of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a victory wrought at the loss of the Commination; the enriching of the Daily Office with additional canticles obscures the historic use and rubrics thereof. Thus it is the purpose of this Customary to highlight the traditional material in the Prayer Book, supply further traditional resources when possible, and, on rare occasions, suggest gentle edits to the official text.