Theological Turbulence

The Episcopal Church — the US branch office of the Anglican Communion (for the time being) — stands at an increasingly awkward point, as the cartoon figure with one foot on either side of a widening chasm. Many will point out that its actually rests on just one foot, and the Episcopal Church is managing to brush the dust of the far side with its other toe, claiming that it’s straddling the gap, but at least for formal reasons, its center of gravity remains finally to be determined. In matters that involve God and the action of the Holy Spirit, we should exercise all our restraint to avoid foreclosing what may be possible.

I’ve observed here before that something desperately important about the Episcopal Church’s “Anglicanism” is in jeopardy, perhaps quite lost by most people who have a dog in the particular fights that have catalyzed this decomposition. In the established Church of England, the Church had to operate on the premise that citizens and Anglicans constitute (generally) overlapping sets; although the culture knew of Jews, Catholics, Dissenters, Muslims, and Freethinkers, the extent to which church and state were integrated entailed a complicated tension of expansiveness in self-definition. If you factor out the obligation to make room for all but the most determined non-Anglicans, you collapse one element that sustains the definition of “Anglican” or “Episcopalian”; while the church could always (and did always) develop deliberate claims about doctrine and practice, those claims had to be applied in a way that recognized the citizen-congregant status of almost all English/Welsh/Scots-Episcopal/Northern-Irish adults. (Establishment brings with it a variety of pernicious effects, absolutely; here I’m citing one background effect of establishment that I appreciate, without arguing that the legal ground for that effect should be preserved.)

Another bulwark against convulsive exclusion in Anglican identity was the Book of Common Prayer. Its careful compromises between the firm Calvinism of many Anglicans and the Catholic resistance to Reformed theology (a legacy of Henry’s theology, the determined position of some theologians, and a strong substrate in much popular theological sentiment) in a single point of theological reference obliged all Anglicans to frame their positions with regard to a particular regimen of affirmations and claims. That the BCP served admirably in that regard for so long provides preliminary evidence that something like “the historic Book of Common Prayer,” a generally harmonious series of BCPs from 1662 onward (and it would be easy to overamplify the differences among the editions before 1662) articulated a flexible but durable reference point for theological orientation.

Fast forward to 2006 in the United States, where the Episcopal Church stands under no extrinsic obligation to comprehend a maximal constituency of people-who-might-be-called-Anglicans, and where the 1979 Book of Common Prayer departs from its predecessors by incorporating a wide variety of liturgical forms (leave aside, for a moment, its deliberate changes in theological perspective) — and at the moment, many congregations treat subsequent liturgical texts as functionally equivalent to the BCP, meaning that any of nine (I think) eucharistic prayers may count as the legitimate sacramental expression of the church’s faith, depending on where one worships. Absent two powerful checks on capricious theologizing, the whole matter of “Anglican-ness” has drifted toward a Humpty-Dumptyian ideological stipulation, rather than a bounded compehensiveness. That is, when one must accept, in general, the Anglicanicity of most everyone who wants to be called an Anglican, and while “wanting to be called ‘Anglican’ ” involves at least general affirmation of the authority of the Prayerbook (with a single authorized form for the Daily Office and the Eucharist), then one can afford to be patient with dotty vicars and controversy-mongering bishops; one has an identity imprecisely-bounded, but a bounded identity nonetheless.

Without the tension between needing to take a generalist view of the church’s identity (on one hand) and acknowledging the formulations of a canonical compromise among divergent visions of ecclesiastical identity (on the other), things fall apart. Particularly when we treat the Prayerbook simply as a sourcebook and inspiration for “the kind of prayers we like, here,” and when our partisan (in a non-pejorative sense, if that’s possible) alternative definitions of “Anglican” vie for the power to enforce their theology over against opposing views, something fragile stands in peril — if indeed it has not already been lost. That loss would injure all concerned, whatever their theological stripe, however confident they may be that theirs is the divinely-justified, legitimately correct response to God’s call.

3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The rites of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer are confined within fairly narrow limits. All of the Eucharistic Prayers, for example, contain an institutuion narrative. The option of devising one based on the anaphora of Addai and Mari, which does not contain one, was not exercised, even though there are good reasons to scrap the institution narrative. Its presence represents a failure of liturgical nerve on the part of the early church: Christians lost their understanding of a meal shared with thanksgiving as inherently sacramental, and instead fell back on the lame legalistic rationale that Jesus had “instituted” the sacrament.

    And the words over the cup are always in the Gospel form, “this is my blood”. The option of using the Pauline version, “This cup is the covenant in my blood” was lost in the revision process.

    Similarly the office rites are all quite traditional. Even the “Order of Worship for the Evening”, if it is used as a complete office, contains many of the same elements as the Evening Prayer rite, in about the same order. And there is no corresponding “Order of Worship for the Morning”. Morning Prayer must be offered according to the Prayer Book rite, or not at all.

    Liturgical crackpots are given the playground of “Enriching our Worship”. The result is that the worship of parishes that use the Prayer Book by itself shows a fair consistency from place to place.

    Hence I think you underestimate the extent to which the 1979 Prayer Book serves as a unifying element.

  2. Hmm. The Church of England itself has adopted a very flexible set of liturgical forms in Common Worship.
    Eucharistic Prayers A to H. And that’s only counting the ones in contemporary English.
    A Service of the Word that is a “directory” rather an a fixed order.
    TEC seems to have a much less iflexible approaches to liturgy and the interpretation of rubrics than the Mother Church…

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