Raymond Chapman considers the state of Anglican Liturgy as the Millennium approaches

TO BEGIN WITH A DECLARATION of interest: the writer supports the Book of Common Prayer as the proper book for Anglican worship. At the same time, he affirms the declaration of the Prayer Book Society that it ‘does not propagate Prayer Book fundamentalism’. He does not believe that all other liturgies are totally bad, and has had some engagement with work on the planned new service book. More of that later; but a review of liturgical change may help to focus thoughts about what is yet to come.

After the publication of a revised BCP in 1662, there was little official change for nearly three hundred years. The State Services were removed in 1859; none will regret the loss of the highly anti-catholic Gunpowder Plot service, but the propers for Charles I, are still sometimes used by aficionados. The Shortened Services Act of 1872 permitted some abbreviation of Mattins and Evensong.

The ritualist controversies of that decade and after brought anxiety about increasing diversity of practice. The result was a Royal Commission in 1906, which suggested that the time had come for some revision. The war of 1914 prevented immediate action; service chaplains were moved forcefully and often traumatically to think about the basics of public worship. Discussion continued after the war, and led to a proposal for Prayer Book revision.

The story is well known: various drafts sought the support of different Church parties. The final version was accepted by the Convocations and the Church Assembly, presented to Parliament in 1927, passed in the Lords, and defeated in the Commons largely by a determined Protestant interest. Despite further revision to appease this opposition, the measure was again defeated in the next year.

The 1928 Prayer Book turned out to be one of the most successful losers in ecclesiastical history. It commended itself to many clergy and is used, albeit without official sanction, to this day. It contains all that is in 1662, with optional additions and variations. There are orders for Prime and Compline and extra Proper Prefaces. It allows some return to the communion order of 1549, including the Prayer of Oblation as a continuation of the Prayer of Consecration.

With 1662 as the only authorised service book for the Church of England, liturgical debate continued. Gregory Dix with The Shape of the Liturgy (1945) has been probably the greatest single influence in subsequent innovation. Dix was no lover of the BCP, though he had to admit the excellence of its communion service as a statement of justification by faith. His ideas have been criticised by some later scholars, and his appeal to antiquity sometimes sits uneasily with demands for modern ‘relevance’. Nevertheless, Dix is there and we cannot discuss liturgy as if he had not happened, any more than we can discuss politics or psychology as if Marx and Freud had not happened.

In the 1950s, there was a growing demand for restoring the centrality of the eucharist through Parish Communion. The eucharist was still celebrated mainly at said services before or after full Mattins, while a choral eucharist with few or no communicants was a mark of the ‘High Church’. If it was called Mass, the church was very high indeed.

The new orientation was influenced not only by Dix but also by sociological implications of the eucharist earlier presented by A.G. Hebert in his Liturgy and Society (1935). Parish Communion was widespread well before approved liturgical revision, and it is worth remarking that it worked with the BCP order.

There followed a succession of coloured experimental booklets. Series 1 was largely 1928, Series 2 was the progenitor of Rite B and Series 3 of Rite A. The questions of Parliamentary sanction and rival church parties which had arisen in 1928 did not go away. Parliament was, reasonably, unwilling to make decisions for a church which seemed divided. The Liturgical Commission which reported in 1957 strongly commended the BCP and advised, ‘Prayer Book Revision should be conservative’. The report came at a time when the new liturgical movement was gathering momentum, and conservatism was already not a popular stance.

The Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 allowed the General Synod to authorise changes in the liturgy of the Church of England, though the BCP remained fully safeguarded by law, as authorised by the Act of Uniformity. What followed is recent history.

The Alternative Service Book appeared in 1980 after much synodical revision which damaged its wholeness of idiom and approach. It offered a eucharistic liturgy with scope for considerable variation, and more lay participation than was envisaged in the BCP. Its emphasis has seemed to some to be too strongly on the eucharist as a fellowship meal, at the expense of its sacred and mysterious quality. In other ways too it is somewhat humanocentric; the confession is bland as compared with the solemnity of the BCP form. The shared Peace is for some a delight, for others a disagreeable and inappropriate disruption as the liturgy moves solemnly towards its climax.

Choice between the two authorised service books depends partly on one’s theological emphasis and partly on regard for the language of the BCP as the traditional and desirable register for public worship in English. Unhappily, personal preference was not always respected and the 1980s were a decade of confrontation in which many intemperate things were said. Some parish clergy and trainers of ordinands seized on the new book and proceeded to denigrate and marginalise the BCP. Many lay worshippers, by no means all elderly, were hurt and deprived of what they deeply valued, despite the clear statement in the Preface to the ASB, ‘The Alternative Service Book (1980), as its name implies, is intended to supplement the Book of Common Prayer, not to supersede it’.

Foolish things were said by clergy claiming they could not worship with the BCP, ignoring the centuries of its loved use. It held the Church of England together through years of earlier controversy; it was the book of the Evangelical Revival and of the Oxford Movement. Objections were frequently to ‘sixteenth-century language’. The language of the BCP, a style familiar through unbroken tradition, is no more difficult now than in 1900 or 1800. The language of liturgy will always be in some way ‘different’ from the common core of language, because it is dealing with a dimension of experience and response which has no parallel in matters of ordinary discourse.

The centrality of the eucharist in worship is almost universally welcomed. So too is emphasis on its place as the work of all the people; something done and not merely said. Yet it may be feared that the careful preparation which communicants were taught to make before receiving the sacrament is now not so carefully observed. The decline of the office services is a loss, and perhaps a hindrance to evangelism as the non-communicant feels excluded from an inner circle.

Now a different Liturgical Commission is working on a new book for the year 2000. The speed of change may be regarded as regrettable: liturgy needs a considerable time to be tested in action, to be absorbed into the worshipping community and its surrounding culture. However, the ASB was an experiment in new language and new concepts. If it went wrong in some ways, and was often banal in the attempt to avoid traditional language, it makes sense to look at it again. It has not many serious defenders among liturgists, though some parish clergy have developed an affection for it. We may yet see an ASB Protection Society.

Things have not stood still since 1980. The new seasonal books Lent, Holy Week and Easter and The Promise of His Glory are an advance on the ASB both in language and in underlying doctrine. The new book seems likely to be a large one, covering all aspects of public worship that one could think of, and perhaps some which clergy have generally been content to devise for the occasion. It may result in unwieldiness that will make it less than user-friendly, but this remains to be seen. So far, the proposals put before the General Synod have not been mauled as severely as were those for the ASB. Some new eucharistic prayers were rejected by Synod, rightly since they tended to excessive emphasis on creation theology. This is an area never to be neglected, and certainly not to be monopolised by the liberals, but incarnation and redemption are at the heart of the eucharist. The gifts of creation are honoured, but they are also sanctified and lifted into a dimension beyond the sensory.

The Liturgical Commission is not in the business of promoting the BCP, but many of its members show a greater regard for the traditional foundations of Anglican liturgy than did their predecessors who produced the ASB. There is more sensitivity towards those who have suffered loss, and a desire for less divisiveness in the worship of the Church. It is in this spirit that there is continuing dialogue between members of the Commission and representatives of the Prayer Book Society. Discussions have been friendly and courteous, also frank and sometimes forceful. The Liturgical Commission has recognised the value of traditional language and recommended that some traditional texts should be maintained, also that more care should be taken with the language of new texts. This is welcome, but there should be care to avoid mixing of styles. Traditional and modern language forms could co-exist in one book, but not satisfactorily in one service. Language register is a sensitive thing and both could be damaged by juxtaposition. The use of the traditional Lord’s Prayer is an exception; even in this post-christian age, it is the one prayer known to many who are not regular worshippers. A common form for the Lord’s Prayer is to be the subject of separate discussion: it seems unlikely that a totally new version will find favour.

There is of course something nasty lurking in the thickets of liturgical change. The report Making Women Visible (1988) called for the use of inclusive language in ASB services. The ASB was just too early to catch the force of political correctness, and the present Commission is faced with a new situation. Common usage has now generally rejected the generic use of masculine nouns and pronouns. Almost everyone says things like, ‘If you want to bring a friend, they will be welcome’. The thing has happened, and it will be reflected in what is put before us in 2000.

There is a different convention in the language of the BCP and in prayers and hymns in its tradition, which can be changed only with distortion of rhythm and loss of familiarity. Praying for all sorts and conditions of men or for each in his vocation and ministry, does not exclude or marginalise women, and until recently no one has thought that it did.

A far greater danger lies in the possible change of words relating to God. There are advocates of experimental language and metaphors for addressing God in prayer, avoiding what is stigmatised as patriarchal usage. Quite clearly, to speak of God as He is not to impute gender, any more than reference to the arms or heart of God imputes physicality. But she and related forms are gender-specific in English in a way that the he group is not. The whole question needs more linguistic and theological consideration than can be given here, but there is a path which could lead towards a Mother God, earth worship and near-pagan liturgy.

There will continue to be two authorised service books in the Church of England, and no one wants to perpetuate confrontation between them. It is good for people of all opinions within the Church to engage with new liturgical work. The 1994 report to the General Synod expressed disquiet about the ‘idiosyncratic’ ASB Calendar and Lectionary as discordant with the BCP and most of the Anglican Communion. Proposals for a common calendar and lectionary, partly honouring BCP tradition by restoring such familiar usage as Sundays after Trinity, are welcome.

Prayer Book worship may itself be enriched by additional commemorations, with collects which can be rendered in its style. After such cautious approval of much that is being done, the Prayer Book Society continues to promote knowledge and use of the BCP, to safeguard its doctrine and to ensure that it is available in public worship wherever it is substantially desired.

At the same time, those who value tradition and orthodoxy, without necessarily being wholehearted for the BCP, may consider its virtues and see that its maintenance in public worship is essential to their cause. Those who produced the ASB did not intend it to lead to liturgical anarchy. But its permissive nature in terms of what could be said and what omitted has been misused and taken to extreme individualism in some places. Not many perpetrate a Nine O’clock Service, but unstructured services with dubious theological foundations can be found too easily.

The example of the BCP, sound in doctrine, dignified in language and plain in rubric, is not to be set aside. Its obsequies, conducted by some in 1980, were remarkably premature.

Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London and an honorary assistant priest at St Mary’s, Barnes. He is a Vice-chairman of the Prayer Book Society.