No one asked for Common Worship, says John Richardson; but they got it all the same

AS I BEGAN considering this article I was struck by the fact that, in practical terms, I have lived through most of the history of Anglican liturgical revision. When comparing the present with the past, however, an interesting picture emerges.

The First Stages

The first significant step in the revision process took place, of course, in 1549 with the publication of Thomas Cranmer’s first Prayer Book. The motivation for this was both intensely theological and political. Colin Buchanan has argued cogently that Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book was intentionally a ‘first stage’ towards a clearly Protestant and Reformed position.1 Cranmer had significantly revised the existing liturgies, particularly the Mass, but his most radical innovation was the use of English throughout – causing some distress to those parts of the realm, such as Cornwall, where this was even more foreign a liturgical language than Latin.

With the 1552 Prayer Book, Cranmer completed the process begun in 1549. The theological development is revealed, as much as anywhere, in the change of title of the Eucharist from “The Supper of the Lorde and The Holy Communion, Commonly Called the Masse” to “The Order for the Administration of the Lordes Supper, or Holye Communion”. In ‘Prayer-Book-speak’, the phrase “?commonly called” means “preferably not called”, as in Article XXV’s comment that “Those five commonly called Sacraments … are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel”?.

The political motivation in this revision process was conformity. In Germany, where there was substantial popular support for the Reformation, Martin Luther (who happily used the term “?Mass”) eschewed the legal enforcement of liturgical revision:

But in all these matters we will want to beware lest we make binding what should be free, or make sinners of those who may do some things differently or omit others. (Formula Missae, 1523)

In England, however, where reform was initiated from the top down, the force of law was essential to the process. Yet it is a tribute to Cranmer’s genius that, with the exception of some tinkering in 1662, his liturgy survived almost unchallenged until the twentieth century. As Buchanan has again pointed out, that tinkering was itself theologically driven, distorting the 1552 service in a more ‘?Catholic’ direction. There was also a significant political agenda to what happened, designed to resist, and indeed to alienate, the Puritans. Nevertheless, the Anglican Communion lived for almost four hundred years with a liturgy which was consciously biblical and Protestant.

The Twentieth Century

The next round of liturgical revision, when it came, was once more theologically driven, the impetus coming primarily from the ‘High Church’ end of the spectrum. Interestingly, however, this time the political boot was on the other foot. The proposals were rejected by Parliament resulting, directly, in the 1928 Prayer Book (still before my time) and, indirectly, in the 1965 Worship and Doctrine Measure (well within it).

The forces which led ultimately to the Series 3 services were thus still partly theological. By the 1960s however, a degree of legitimate sociological pressure was also being felt. This was a time of great creativity as well as (occasionally unthinking) iconoclasm. In Christian circles, things which now seem ‘cringe-worthy’ were perceived as a breath of fresh air blowing through the dust of centuries. The era which produced Youth Praise and ‘Lord of the Dance’? also evidenced a genuinely populist demand for a modern-language liturgy which went beyond the provisions of the CPAS Family Service. In this respect, Series 3 was arguably as culturally necessary as had been Luther’s ‘German Mass’.

The Influence of Dix

Nevertheless, though theological forces were at work, they were no longer those which had inspired Cranmer. Specifically, Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy now dominated the horizon. Dix not only persuaded virtually all liturgists that the four ‘actions’ of taking, thanking, breaking and giving should provide the definitive structure of a communion service, but simultaneously accused Cranmer of Zwinglianism – in Anglican terms the theological equivalent of homophobia.

Dix’s success can be seen in all subsequent eucharistic revisions, including Common Worship.2 Cranmer’s smooth transition from the Narrative of Institution to reception, unaccompanied by manual acts and unhindered even by an ‘Amen’, is generally replaced by a vast swathe of prayers and responses, such that ‘thanking’ now separates ‘taking’ from ‘giving’ by a matter of several minutes. Nevertheless, much as Evangelicals should have disagreed with the theology of Series 3 Communion, the revision process was theologically self-conscious, even whilst it was sociologically fuelled.

In this light, the 1980 Alternative Service Book could be seen as simply tidying up what began in the 1960s. The publication of the ASB meant that in theory Anglicans once again had, in the words of the 1549 Preface, “none other books for their public service but this book and the Bible”?.

Common Worship

What, however, can be said of the process which has now produced Common Worship? Certainly the political dimension has completely disappeared. The form, language or theology of Anglican services no longer exercises the minds of members of Parliament. Indeed, few of them would have the first idea of what does or should influence Anglican liturgy. Nor is Common Worship the result of popular demand. On the contrary, very few members of the laity are even aware that new services are in the pipeline. Sociology has continued to have some influence on liturgical revision. In many parish churches, references to “all men” and the like have quietly been changed to “all people”. Yet even this has nowhere led to the cry, “Give us new liturgies”.

Surely the only remaining candidate for the force behind the revision process must be theology. Yet there is little evidence of this, either. Or rather, what evidence there is suggests a culinary smorgasbord rather than a coherent system. Cranmer and Dix knew exactly what they were doing, albeit from different directions. The principles behind Common Worship, however, seem to require the coining of a new term, for which I would suggest ‘Liturgicalism’.


This Liturgicalism has several distinctive features. First, it retains the practices of earlier generations, but without the rationale. Take, for example, the statement in the ‘General Notes’? accompanying Holy Communion that “Careful devotional preparation before the service is recommended for every communicant.” The reader is then referred to ‘A Form of Preparation’, but in contrast with the Book of Common Prayer no particular reason is given as to why such preparation is necessary. The BCP left the potential communicant in no doubt:

For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament … so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation … we kindle God’s wrath against us; we provoke him to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kinds of death.

No such warnings are sounded in Common Worship. Rather, the theological difference from the BCP is illustrated by the confession which forms part of this ‘preparation’:
CW: Father eternal, giver of light and grace, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour, in what we have thought, in what we have said and done … We have wounded your love …

BCP: Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men; We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us …

In the latter, our problem is with God, in the former God’s problem is with his feelings. The liturgical form of ‘preparation through confession’ is retained, but the theological content of the BCP is not.

The Love of Liturgies

A second feature of Liturgicalism is the love of producing liturgies for every imaginable situation. In the BCP there are just three ‘orders’ of baptism – the ‘Publick Baptism of Infants’?, the ‘Private Baptism of Children in Houses’ (most of which is actually the public service in church following such a private baptism) and the ‘Ministration of Baptism to such as are of Riper Years’. In Common Worship there are no less than five orders of baptism as well as an order for ‘Emergency Baptism’. In addition, there are seven appendices covering everything from ‘Seasonal Material’ to ‘An Alternative Profession of Faith’?.

The BCP was consciously minimalist in its approach, precisely because of an existing excess of ‘authorized alternatives’. The 1549 Preface observes that,

… the number and hardness of the rules called the pie, and the manifold changes of the service was the cause, that to turn the book only, was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times, there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.

Hence the rules of the new Prayer Book were deliberately “few in number” so that “they be plain and easy to be understanded”. Compare this with, to give just one instance, the fifteen ‘Seasonal Provisions’ for Holy Communion in Common Worship, giving alternatives in each case for the ‘Invitation to Confession’, ‘Gospel Acclamation’, ‘?Introduction to the Peace’ and ‘Shorter’ and ‘Extended’ ‘Eucharistic Prefaces and Blessing’. Unarguably this is a step away from the original principles governing Anglican liturgy.

Moreover, all these variations mean that what a typical edition of the BCP covers in about thirty pages, Common Worship squeezes into one hundred and ninety one. The 1549 Preface observed with some satisfaction that “by this order … the people shall not be at so great charge for books, as in time past they have been”. Thus even today the Cambridge University Press hardback edition of the BCP retails at £6.95. By contrast, and no doubt due in part to its size, Common Worship will retail at £15.


The third feature of the Liturgicalism behind Common Worship is a love of regulations, quite against the spirit of the Gospel. We have already observed the difference between Luther’s and Cranmer’s attitudes to liturgical revision. Yet even in the 1549 essay ‘Of Ceremonies, Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained’ it was observed that “in these all our doings we condemn no other nations, nor prescribe any thing, but to our own people only”. However, the multiplicity of prescribed alternatives in Common Worship reflects, one feels, not so much an encouragement of diversity as an obsession with control. Note 5 (of twenty-nine!) at the end of the recently-published Communion booklet displays this ‘jot and tittle’ mentality:

Acclamations, which may include congregational response (such as ‘The Lord is here: his Spirit is with us’ and ‘Christ is risen: he is risen indeed’) may be used at appropriate points in the service (with ‘Alleluia’ except in Lent).

Surely it is not beyond the wit or ingenuity of a congregation to work out such matters for itself. Of more significance (at least to Evangelicals), however, is the pronouncement in Note 12:

The readings at Holy Communion are governed by authorized lectionary provision, and are not a matter for local decision except where that provision permits.

Here endeth the sermon series!3

Unwanted and Wrong

There is much more that could be said about Common Worship, but why bother? It is a book almost no-one has asked for, and on this scale certainly no one needs. Linguistically, it substitutes the ‘touchy feely’ language of the late twentieth century for two thousand years of awe and majesty. Whoever thought that punctuating a eucharistic prayer with ‘This is his story: This is our song’ could be done without most of the congregation mentally humming a corny tune? And since when did the phrase about Jesus ‘opening his arms of love on the cross’ assume the status of holy writ to the extent that it is repeated variously in Eucharistic prayers B, G and H?

But the final comment to make is simply that the declared theology behind the Communion service is wrong. The Introduction to the Sample Edition states that during the Liturgy of the Sacrament,

… the assembly is offered the possibility of transformation as it is incorporated into the one perfect self-offering of Christ to the Father and receives the body and blood of Christ in faith with thanksgiving.

At virtually every point, this is contrary to Scripture or tradition (or both). If, to quote Article XXVI, “the Unworthiness of the Ministers … hinders not the effect of the Sacraments”?, surely neither is the congregation the determinant of their effectiveness, as this statement seems to imply by talking of an ‘offered possibility’. And in any case, what is on offer is not the “possibility of transformation” but the forgiveness of sin. Moreover, from an evangelical point of view, this overt commitment to a two-way process of our ‘offering and receiving’? is entirely unacceptable. The evangelical eucharist will always be God offering to us what Christ offered for us.

Common Worship ultimately reveals the same lack of theological conviction as found in the statement on Eucharistic Presidency put out by the House of Bishops in 1997. That statement managed to produce a rabbit of a quasi-catholic view of orders out of a hat entirely empty of doctrinal content. Its glaring inconsistencies and non sequiturs have been simply overlooked by a generation that is apparently devoid of concern. No doubt Common Worship will find a market. Indeed, its compilers are in the enviable position of being able to create a market by mere fiat. But it represents the ‘?fag end’ of Anglican liturgical revision as far as theology is concerned. From here on, it will be all sociology.

John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minster to St John’s Church, Stratford Broadway, East London.


1. C O Buchanan, What did Cranmer Think he Was Doing? (Bramcote: Grove Books, 1976). Buchanan’s conclusions are endorsed by Diarmaid MacCulloch in his biography of Thomas Cranmer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) p 507.

2. In commending this ‘fourfold shape’ as “following the example of the Lord” (Note 17, p 187), however, Common Worship overlooks Dix’s own observation that “the liturgical shape of the eucharist as we know it” is “a somewhat drastic modification” of the actual seven-action scheme of Jesus himself (see G J Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy, pp 249-250). Buchanan has described Dix as “a beacon which has consciously or unconsciously led a whole fleet astray”, (The End of the Offertory (Bramcote: Grove Books, 1978) p 29). Instead of the emphasis on the lay ‘Offertory’, however, Common Worship emphasizes the ASB rubric, frequently overlooked at present, requiring the priest momentarily (but in Dix’s view, of necessity) to ‘take’ the bread and wine and replace them on the table.

3. The enforceability of such a pronouncement, however, is surely dubious, given that whilst the Lectionary itself recognizes that “a number of … very large church communities” prefer their own “packages of readings exploring biblical issues or other matters of faith” it can only urge that these churches are “encouraged” to return to the lectionary.