In the current edition, I was struck by the “Thesis from a Seminary Door” column from the Very Rev. Paul F. M. Zahl, titled, “Anglican Without the Skin On.” I was immediately caught by the first paragraph:
Now that our old church has left us, what does it mean to be Anglican? Now that the form is changing, what is left of the heart and essence? What does it mean to be an Anglican without the comfortable and familiar wrapping?
Dean Zahl suggests three characteristics. First, “Anglican means the 1928 Prayer Book. Stated a little more deeply, Anglican means the incomparable liturgy that Thomas Cranmer and his friends put together in the 1540’s and ‘50’s, which is a unique and very precious treasure for the entire Christian Church.”
Second, “Anglican means to be non-lecturing. An actual empirical quality that emerges when you are with traditional or orthodox Episcopalians, in contrast to orthodox members of other churches, is the fact that they don’t lecture you..” The context is important to understanding his perspective: “When I am with other evangelicals, in particular, I often feel I am being talked down to.”
Finally, “Anglican means to be core and not penultimate.” The specific application of this is that “we do have a tradition of riding easy on secondary matters. It really is possible (despite what we have been told since 1979) to be a kosher Anglican and have Morning Prayer as the principal service most Sunday mornings and wear a cassock, surplice, and tippet.” The liturgical uniformity of the 1979 Prayer Book “doesn’t mean that wide latitude in secondary matters is not important. It is just that the core of ‘what is everywhere to be believed’ [in The Episcopal Church] has been shrunk to way too little.”
Now, what intrigued me in this was not his second point. I have my own experiences of feeling lectured to by Christians of other, more stereotypically Evangelical churches. I grew up, as I often say, breathing Southern Baptist air. I knew very young that when some folks asked me if I were a Christian or if I knew Jesus that my baptism and active participation in the United Presbyterian Church (or, as we said in the Southern Mountains, the Northern Presbyterians, to distinguish them, obviously, from the Southern Presbyterians) would not meet the questioner’s standards for either. (Yes, I am another Episcopal cleric who is a convert.)
I was more struck by the Dean’s liturgical observations. Now, I came into the Episcopal Church just at the beginning of the long process of revision that ended in the current Book of Common Prayer (1979). I came into the Episcopal Church in a church that had Morning Prayer from the previous Book of Common Prayer (1928) two Sundays a month (second and fourth, as I recall). I often say that as a young man who loved music, I fell in love with the liturgy of The Episcopal Church, and chanting the canticles of Morning Prayer was an essential part of that. I had a greater appreciation of that than I had of the Eucharistic prayer we had inherited largely from the Scottish Episcopal Church. Even with a longer sermon, Morning Prayer always seemed shorter than Holy Communion, probably because we participated more, and because once the sermon was over we were essentially done. Now, that was all a feeling. I came to realize that Holy Communion was a shorter service; but the perception that it was shorter was clear. Indeed, as our parish explored revised liturgies, it was a major concern: some people were afraid that a Eucharistic focus would keep them in church too long.
With all that, I grew into the Episcopal Church using the previous Prayer Book (if not only the previous Prayer Book), and, graduating from seminary as I did in 1980, was one of that last generation trained to use the previous Prayer Book. To this day in the midst of a Rite I service I will feel welling up inside of me such phrases as “and there is no health in us; “ and “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood.”
At the same time, it seems to me his liturgical concerns are hardly “secondary matters.” My reactions above are sentimental, and I fear his are as well. After all, as I recall the point of the Eucharistic focus was to recover Biblical practice – as in all those references in Acts to gathering “on the eighth day.” Certainly, our Orthodox siblings (Greek, Eastern, and Oriental) have maintained that practice in continuity from earliest days. Even if some of our Anglican ancestors were concerned that weekly Eucharist was “too Romish,” they would never have argued that it wasn’t the ancient practice of the Church.
I would suggest this was Cranmer’s expectation, as demonstrated by this rubric among the exhortations in the 1549 Prayer Book: "And if upon the Sunday or holydaye the people be negligent to come to the Communion: Then shall the Priest earnestly exhorte his parishoners, to dispose themselfes to the receiving of the holy communion more diligently, saiyng these or like wordes unto them." (I will acknowledge that Communion was commonly preceded by Matins; but that isn’t really the practice I knew as a new Episcopalian on those second and fourth Sundays of the month.) And while that rubric is not in the 1552 Prayer Book, this one has been added: "And in Cathedrall and Collegiate churches, where be many Priestes and Deacons, they shall at receyve the Communion wyth the minister every Sonday at the least, excepte they have a reasonable cause to the contrary." (Considering the changes in ceremonial from 1549 to 1552, this is an interesting consistency.) Marion Hatchett is of this opinion. He writes in Commentary on the American Prayer Book, “The rubrics presume… that the Eucharist will be celebrated in every church every Sunday and holy day for which a proper is provided” unless “…there is no one prepared to communicate with the priest.” (p. 300)
I am also struck with an argument for a return to a 19th century rendering of 16th century English, because that runs so counter to the intent of Cranmer’s work. After all, consider Article XXIV of the Articles of Religion, titled, “Of Speaking in the Congregation in such a Tongue as the people understandeth:” “It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a tongue not understanded of the people.” Now, I would never suggest that people today can’t understand Tudor English, in Prayer Book or Scripture, or Shakespeare for that matter; but we know well there is a certain amount of education required. As beautiful as it is, it would not be understood these days by many unchurched visitors.
Now, I’m sure Dean Zahl is aware of this. His essay seems to me, as I said, a sentimental perspective, and not a theological argument; and he has certainly as much right to his sentimental perspective as I want to mine. The fact is, I’m not disturbed at the thought of Morning Prayer as the principle service on Sunday (although I would personally prefer using Morning Prayer as the Liturgy of the Word, not that far from early Anglican practice). Certainly, I miss singing in church the canticles of the offices, whether in traditional or contemporary language.
I would respectfully disagree, though, that some such return to my childhood would be all that Anglican, or at least any more Anglican than the current norms of the Episcopal Church. It seems to me less Anglican practice “without the comfortable and familiar wrapping,” than changing back into some worn, comfortable clothes. I return to such clothes precisely because they’re comfortable; but they’re no more effective as clothes – protecting me from the elements and from inappropriate exposure – than some of the newer items in my closet. (And, believe me, this is not an argument for what is stylish. No one has ever accused me of being stylish in my attire.)
No, while I can appreciate his opinion, I can’t share it. Has “the core… been shrunk to way too little?” So he believes. But, in a Church that believes lex orendi lex credendi, norms of worship can hardly be secondary, however much we might value being comprehensive. And so I cannot agree that considering such matters secondary could ever be considered Anglican.