Saturday, July 27, 2013

Evangelicals and the Prayer Book

Until my teenage years, no church was as surely Prayer Book in England as an Evangelical parish. The Alternative Services were looked upon with suspicion (and rightly so) as introducing theology that was not entirely that of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and were generally suspected of either theological liberalism or Romanizing. Evangelicals stuck with the tried and the true, the liturgy of the Reformation, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the second revision of Cranmer's 1552 book. They were often criticize for being 'wooden' and unimaginative in the way they used the BCP, but in a sense that lack of imagination was a blessing. The main reason for the Evangelicals' faithfulness to the old liturgy was that it reflected their theological preoccupations and their emphasis on the doctrines of Grace. Funnily enough, the old High Churchmen's insistence on the BCP was rooted in the same sort of preoccupation, but in their case it was because the BCP embodied their own peculiar emphasis on Baptismal Regeneration and the Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The positive side of the Evangelical insistence on the old BCP was that their services remained firmly rooted in the Anglican tradition. At that time, before the Alternative Liturgies were embraced by the Evangelicals, the Matins and Evensong were chanted, traditional hymnody was used, and the sermon was very firmly set in its liturgical contect. Visually, Evangelical services remained very much rooted in the mid-Victorian era. Most Evangelical parishes had adopted the typical Ecclesiological Society layout of open bench pews in the nave, pulpit, lectern, and minister's seat as separate pieces of furniture, and the choir stalls in the chancel. The Communion Table would be against the East wall, but it was often a little shorter than usual to allow the Lord's Supper to be celebrated at the North end. The minister would wear surplice, tippet and hood for all services in church.
The down side was that they often took liberties with the appointed services. Their chief victim in this respect was the Communion Service where everything that is before 'Ye that do truly and earnestly repent...' was omitted. The Lord's Supper became an appendage of Morning or Evening Prayer giving rise to the old joke that the Church of England - or at least its Low Church wing - had three services - Matins, Evensong, and Stay Behind! However, it was the Evangelicals that introduced the long popular 8am Communion service, which the Rev. Daniel Wilson added to the schedule at St Mary's Islington in c.1820. The drive behind this, so far as the early 19th century Evangelicals were coencerned, was to provide an opportunity for Serious Christians to receive Communion away from the noise and fuss of the later service. It also has to be said that it allowed the morning service - which then consisted of Matins, Litany, and the Ante-Communion - to be somewhat shortened in order to make time for preaching.
However, it should not be thought that the old Evangelicals were in anyway flip about Holy Communion. It was a serious business that required proper preparation in the form of self-examination and prayer. Some early Evangelicals, such as William Grimshaw of Haworth in Yorkshire, were noted for the large attendances at Communion. In the late 1740s Haworth is recorded as having twelve hundred (1200) communicants, about a quarter of the population, and the Lord's Supper was celebrated monthly - three times as often as the usual rural quota of four times a year. This seriousness about the Sacrament marked out the Evangelicals from the vast majority of ordinary Churchgoers.
Sadly, many Evangelicals have now abandoned the Book of Common Prayer. One lamentable feature of the present alternative liturgy in the Church of England (and also the Church of Ireland) is that allows for a 'Service of the Word.' Whilst this requires the incorporation of certain elements, somewhat in the manner of the 'Articles of Perth' which James VI & I imposed on the Kirk in 1610, it is pretty much a free form service. This, sadly, places the congregation very much at the mercy of the Minister and his theological prejudices. This may be acceptable if the clergyman involved is a model of orthodoxy, but all too often they allow that which interests them to upset the balance not just of their preaching, but of the congregation's worship and prayer. At least in the old days of the BCP one got a balanced diet of praise, prayer and thanksgiving. Whilst the seventeenth century language of the BCP may not be acceptable to many Evangelicals today, I would make a plea that they consider using a version of the 1662 Prayer Book rendered into modern English. This would enable them to remain faithful to the legacy of the English Reformation and also act as a corrective to theological eccentricity.
There is also another point still to be made. The Book of Common Prayer provided one of the bonds that held Anglicanism together, and with its abandonment one of things that held Evangelicals and Protestant High Churchmen together has disappeared. If we are indeed to witness effectively to the Reformed Catholicism of the Anglican tradition, Evangelicals and High Churchmen need to work together as without its two lungs - one Evangelical, the other Catholic. The tendancy in modern times has been for the one to try and live without the other and the result as been a certain 'shortness of breath,' or, in some cases, a state of suffocation. The society that we live in today needs the faithful witness of a Church that is rooted in the Bible and the Creeds, is Sacramental, and also Reformed. This is the version of Christianity which Anglicanism is uniquely equipped to provide. It is only by being faithful to the Bible and to traditional Christian values that we will be able to roll back the tide of the new Paganism that is overwhelming society. The advantage of the BCP is that it gives Scriptural doctrine a liturgical form, and by praying it each week it enters deep into our souls to strengthen us against 'the world, the flesh, and the devil.'