Andrew Starkie takes an historical view

In filling in my form to the Liturgical Secretariat to feed back how I had found using the Daily Prayer from Common Worship, I noticed that an innovation of some weight had been introduced into the liturgy of the Church of England. It was not announced with fanfares, in fact it was not noticed at all by another clergyman who had also been regularly using, analyzing and reflecting on the services. I suspect that it has also escaped the notice of many clergy and concerned laity in the Church of England. My suspicions were raised when I came across a question on the response form asking whether the material which is optional was indicated clearly enough by its being indented in the text. I had not noticed any problem in using it, so I presumed that it was, but when I took a second look, I found that the doxology which followed the psalms had been made optional. The only indication that this is so is the casual use of the word ‘may’ and the fact that both the doxology and the rubric are indented.


I can only conjecture as to the reasons behind this demoting of the doxology from a place which it has always held in the liturgy of the Church of England, but I thought that it might be instructive to examine some of the controversies which have in the past attended the use of the Trinitarian doxology after the psalms, and of which perhaps not many Church people are now aware.

Towards the front of the Book of Common Prayer there are various instructions about how to use the liturgy in public worship. One such instruction is entitled ‘The Order how the Psalter is appointed to be read.’ It says ‘… at the end of every Psalm, and of every such part of the 119th Psalm, shall be repeated this Hymn, Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.’ In this the compilers of the Prayer Book followed the consistent practice of the Church, a practice which goes back to the fourth century. The ancient Arian heretics composed their own rival variations. Early seventeenth-century Puritan objections to the doxology were largely on the grounds that it was (allegedly) unscriptural and a vain repetition. Towards the end of the seventeenth century, however, heretical beliefs about the Trinity started to be mooted within the Church of England. The more extreme wing of the ‘Latitudinarian’ group started questioning the orthodox, Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, with its notion of ‘substance’, and the related question of the incarnation. Their statements on the matter were evasive, and Archbishop Tillotson was charged by his critics with ‘Socianism’, the denial of the true divinity of Christ.

Accommodating dissent

Tillotson (then merely Dean of Canterbury) was a member of what might be termed a ‘liturgical commission’ appointed by William of Orange and Mary in 1689, to revise the Book of Common Prayer. The commission had a minority of high church clergy appointed to it to give the impression of even-handedness, but in fact their brief was to fix the liturgy to make way for a comprehensive Church that would accommodate the scruples of William’s Dissenting supporters. Orthodox voices argued valiantly, but were marginalized in the amendments which were eventually marked in Commission’s copy of the Prayer Book. There was evidently vigorous debate in the commission about the doxology, but eventually it was decided (after several corrections and crossings out) to amend the rubric to say ‘… at the end of the Psalms for the Morning and Evening service shall be repeated this Hymn.’ The commission clearly envisaged a staged reduction in the mandatory use of the doxology. Given the suspicion of heterodoxy on the question of the Trinity amongst the commissioners, this had evident doctrinal implications. However, the intended comprehension scheme failed, and the new prayer book was never approved by Convocation.

Arians and Socinans

But the Arians and Socinians were busy rebranding themselves as good loyal churchmen. Foremost among them was that clever Cambridge theologian Dr Samuel Clarke, Rector of St James’, Westminster, (at that time a hotbed of heterodox theology), who argued that one could be an Arian and still subscribe to the 39 Articles, because one need understand them only in a ‘scriptural’ sense. It was from St James’ that doxological controversy next erupted. On 30 November 1718 a choir of Charity School girls used an Arian doxology ‘revived’ by Clarke’s friend Dr William Whiston during a service at St James’. Although a serious student of ancient liturgies, especially those of dubious provenance, Whiston’s talents as a poet were not great; the doxology ran, ‘To God, thro’ Christ, his Son our Lord, All Glory be therefore; As in Beginning was, is now, And shall be evermore’. The incident was widely reported in the press, and caused something of a scandal. The Arian party were evidently pushing at the boundaries of Anglican inclusiveness and seeing if they could get away with it. This, however, being an age when liturgical conformity could still be enforced, the Bishop of London, John Robinson, was wisely moved to write a pastoral letter to his clergy reminding them sternly that they were forbidden to use new forms of doxology, thus putting an end to the liturgical experiment.

Doubts from Down-Under

The Liturgical Commission had the wisdom to exclude from Common Worship the ‘alternative’ doxology which had appeared in Celebrating Common Prayer. This echoed the language of an alternative blessing which had appeared in A New Zealand Prayer Book, I presume as a sop to those who found the Trinitarian formula too ‘masculine’ with all this talk of Father and Son. Those responsible for Common Worship are to be applauded for resisting the pressure to go down this road, not only because it would ultimately undermine the ‘common’ nature of the worship offered to God in the Church of England, but also because (as CS Lewis once pointed out) it would be another step towards changing the Christian God for something else. Unfortunately, however, making the doxology optional is also potentially pernicious. Those within the Church of England who object to the Christian understanding of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (for whatever reason) would have permission not only to omit the Trinitarian doxology after the Psalms in the Daily Office, but also to appeal to the liturgy of the Church of England to legitimize their position. But Daily Prayer is at present only in its preliminary edition. In the light of the historical contention over the issue, it should therefore be urged on the Commission to think again and to reinstate the orthodox doxology as a mandatory ending to the Psalms in the definitive edition of Daily Prayer.

Andrew Starkie is the Assistant Curate of St Bartholomew’s, Longbenton in the Diocese of Newcastle.

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Pull Quote:

The Liturgical Commission had the wisdom to exclude from Common Worship the ‘alternative’ doxology which had appeared in Celebrating Common Prayer