Synodical Liturgiology

WHEN I WAS FIRST elected to the General Synod in 1980, some of the veterans who had been members of the previous Synod spoke in pained terms of the marathon sessions they had endured as the text of the ASB was debated line by line in full Synod. In the event, the ASB as published has been usable by most of us in the Church of England, but one has gained the impression that but for the perseverance and tenacity of a small band of dedicated liturgists, it might not have been.

Now the ASB, in its turn, is to be superseded by a new book (or five books if some have their way), we have an opportunity to reflect on what has been happening to our liturgy.

Cranmer in his day was quite revolutionary. He produced a liturgy in the vernacular and it is difficult for us to appreciate quite how this would have impacted on congregations at the time. Instead of a Roman Catholic priest chanting in Latin, they had an Anglican minister (who was incidentally most probably one and the same) speaking in a language they understood. Gone was the turgid Roman diet of mass, mass and more mass where the people sat (or stood) far removed from the action, hoping to catch a glimpse of the host being raised. In its place came a varied diet of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer and Holy Communion and these services were participatory – the congregation actually joined in and said things. Well, this was too much for some and in parts of the West Country, it provoked riots.

A century later the 1662 Prayer Book was published and it was largely Cranmerian in pattern. For two hundred and fifty years it was the normative form of worship in Anglican churches, in England – and latterly throughout the world.

An attempt to revise the Prayer Book was made in the 1920s. Its motivation was not just to revise words that had changed their meanings (presently and immediately, for example), but also to shift the theological stance. The re-introduction of prayers for the dead, anathema to Anglicans for three centuries was the final straw that provoked Parliament to reject the proposed Prayer Book. However the seeds of the present liturgical free-for-all had been planted and some parishes started using the revised services – indeed they were published “as proposed in 1928” in little green prayer books which I can recall encountering in some Anglican churches in my youth. As the years went by, some people muddled up which services were which – and today it is not unknown to discover advocates of the 1662 services who are actually defending the services as proposed in 1928.

When it came to Series 2 and Series 3 in the sixties and seventies, the same forces were at work. While there were those pious souls who felt that we only had to call God “You” rather than “Thou” and people would flock back to church, there were others at work in the liturgical field to subvert the texts and usher in a theology which was more to their liking than Cranmer’s. And so the scene was set for those Synodical battles over the ASB.

In July the General Synod received proposals from the Liturgical Commission for the revision of the Rite A and the Rite B communion services. Attempts to move the prayer of humble access back to its 1549 position and printing the Nicene Creed without the filioque clause have not just etymological significance, but theological significance too. Where is the option of the 1662 service in modern English, one might ask? Why are the Liturgical Commission so determinedly ignoring the English Prayer Book – which contains texts which would meet the needs of many parishes? Within the last month I have heard one diocesan bishop opine that it is widely accepted that “the 1662 Communion Service is a mess.” I’m sure a lot of the laity in his diocese might beg to differ.

Synod briefly debated the Liturgical Commission’s report (GS1211) in July and members were invited to respond in writing with comments and proposed amendments. Since no fewer than 137 members have done so, it is difficult to foresee rapid progress on the proposals. Dates have already been set stretching into 1997 for the Revision Committee to sit, and one suspects that the only room large enough to contain the interested parties may prove to be the Assembly Hall itself. It would appear that the battle lines are already being drawn.

However the legacy that the liberals have left us in the Church of England may work to their disadvantage. The Church of England has its Thirty-nine Articles which read pretty much like an Evangelical Charter. Nevertheless laity are aware that for many years now, assent by the clergy has, shall we say, embraced a certain latitude of interpretation. I think Cranmer would have been appalled to find that amongst the clergy of the Church of England today, there are some who are not sure whether they believe in God and there are others who think that the see of Canterbury should owe allegiance to the Pope.

Equally when Synod solemnly considers liturgical texts and declines to approve them, is it not surprising that a Bishop of the Church of England is party to promptly publishing them? What possible use can they be to anybody, if they are not going to use them in public worship – which is precisely what General Synod has not authorised? It is the world’s worst kept secret that many parishes use the Roman Missal rather than the ASB – but every Bishop I talk to professes official ignorance that such a thing might be happening in his diocese. When parishes use barely any recognisable Anglican liturgy in a service, Episcopal disapproval is rarely voiced.

So how significant will the deliberations of the Revision Committee be, and for that matter the subsequent Synod debate? I wonder whether the Bishops are not in danger of losing whatever liturgical influence remains to them. Are we moving to a situation where “everyone does what is right in his own eyes” with incumbents and PCCs using whatever liturgy suits them? If liturgical discipline is important, it must be re-established very quickly. Otherwise the new prayer book will be no more than suggested resource material.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.