One of the common critiques of Western Christians, of either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant variety, is that we are obsessed with systematizing our faith. We develop catechisms, confessions, and treatises ad nauseum in our quest to define our faith down to the teeniest detail. By contrast, Eastern Christians say that they have a lived faith. That is not to say that there is no emphasis on doctrine in the east. On the contrary, having right doctrine is a great concern of those who seek to be known in the world by the label “Orthodox.” Nevertheless, the concern within Orthodoxy is not to define faith down but to live into it by way of spiritual practices, the liturgy being chief among them. It is through living an Orthodox life and experiencing Orthodox worship that a person is formed in the particularities of the faith. For the Christians of the East, Christianity is not something you simply believe, but something you do, something you are.
In this respect, classical Anglicans share more in common with Orthodoxy than with our sister churches in the west. We have no specifically Anglican confession. We do not narrow our doctrine down on every last matter but only on those matters where the Holy Spirit has definitively spoken in the Church through the Scriptures and the Fathers. We allow mystery to be, well, mysterious. There is, however, an important and distinctly western element to the way that we live this out that separates us from our Eastern brethren. We have a magisterial authority.
The word magisterial comes from the Latin for “magistrate” or “master.” That which is magisterial is that which conveys the mind of the master. It is official and authoritative. Magisterial authority within the Church is that which is exercised to provide us with the framework of both how to understand our Christian faith and how to live good Christian lives. In the Church of Rome, this function is performed largely by edicts of the Pope. In traditional Reformation Protestantism, it is the work of the confessions. Some more radical Protestants deny the need for any magisterial authority beyond the Bible itself, though in practice this usually means that the whims of individual preachers and teachers fill in the gap. For Anglicans, magisterial authority rests in the Book of Common Prayer.
Liturgy as Teacher
As has been previously discussed in this series, the theological modus operandi of Anglicanism is an intentional return to scripture and to the faith and practice of the early Church. Anglicanism holds scripture in the highest place of authority and yet acknowledges that scripture has to be interpreted from within the life of the Church to be properly understood. While there is more than one way to pass down this apostolic faith from one generation to the next, liturgy is by far the best. This is because liturgy is not simply didactic. Liturgy is participatory. Liturgy is dynamic and relational. When we read the words of a confession or listen to a good talk by a learned Christian preacher, we may learn many good things about God, but when we participate in liturgy we actually encounter God. We learn who He is and who we are in relation to Him by worshiping Him, hearing His Word proclaimed, and receiving His grace through the Sacraments.
This is not a new idea. In fact, it is the approach used by the earliest Christians. When the apostle Paul seeks to explain the way in which Jesus is both God and Man and the nature of His self-giving for us, he quotes from a hymn from the liturgy of his own time (Philippians 2:5-11). So we can see, right from the beginning, that there is a synergy between scripture and liturgy, between the revealed Word and the method by which that Word continues to be revealed.
The Roots of Our Anglican Liturgy
Of course, the Prayer Book did not just come down to us from on high, nor would it be fair to say that Cranmer wrote it, though both his writing and his editorial fingerprints are all over it. But most of what we say in the Prayer Book liturgy is scripture itself, formed into prayer. That which is not quoted from scripture directly is more often than not taken from ancient prayers written by the great saints of the early Church. The arrangement of the services follow ancient patterns of worship wherever possible. If a first century Christian came into a Prayer Book service today, while there are many things that might surprise him, by and large he would be able to recognize the liturgy as consonant with that of his own day. This is why the Prayer Book has always been for Anglicans the highest source of authority for teaching and understanding the faith of the scriptures. The liturgy is not just an expression of our faith but the teacher of that faith itself. It forms us in our faith, and as such we are called to submit ourselves to it.
The Purpose of Liturgical Revision
That is not to say that the liturgy is perfect or above the need for revision. The eighteenth century Anglican Humphrey Prideaux observes, “As to the Liturgy of our Church, I freely acknowledge, and I think no man can contradict me therein, that it is the best which was ever yet used in any Christian Church, but that it should therefore be so perfect as not to be capable of amendments or alterations for the better, doth by no means follow.” From the beginning, the Book of Common Prayer has undergone periodic revision. Yet the purpose of that revision has largely been to make the faith presented more clear, not to change it. While there is a definite waxing back and forth in the theology of the first two Prayer Books, the Elizabethan Book of 1559 made a clear theological statement about the Reformed and Catholic nature of the Church of England. Despite protests from Puritans, Romanists, and Radical Protestants, this liturgy remained authoritative in the Church of England for nearly a century. And after the English Civil War, when the Prayer Book was revised into its current form, the theology of the Elizabethan Prayer Book largely remained unaltered. The purpose of revision is not to change doctrine or to accommodate the new fads and trends of any particular age, but to make the ancient and unalterable faith accessible to every people, in every place, in every generation.
Accessibility is in fact one of the major Reformation insights that informs the way that Anglicanism expresses its Catholic heritage. The Book of Common Prayer replaced a panoply of earlier service books which were only accessible to clergy. In the BCP, at least in theory, every person has access to the liturgy, in one concise volume that is written in the language of the people. If one of the major purposes of the liturgy is to form people in the faith, then the people need to have access to that liturgy. This does not mean that the liturgy should be dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, smoothing out the difficult bits and removing anything that the average person would find challenging. Rather, the liturgy in the language of the people, in the hands of the people, allows the people themselves to participate in the prayers and the worship, so that they can be incorporated into the mystery of God’s self-revelation in Word and Sacrament. This is not a show put on by the clergy to entertain or pacify the people. It is the work of priest and people together to step into the mystery of God.
The beauty of having magisterial worship is that it ensures that we hold to a standard of accepted truth while freeing us from the whims of any culture, generation, or charismatic individual leader. As Roberta Bayer observes in this excellent essay, the theology of the Prayer Book is “a distillation of the accepted, historical teaching of the Christian church. Implied is the idea that inherited wisdom shaped by scholars steeped in God’s Holy Word, and the example of the blood of the holy martyrs, was a surer foundation for the English church than the will of any particular magister, be he Pope or King.” Keeping this in mind, Bayer questions the way in which modern Prayer Book revision has worked in the opposite direction, allowing us to affix our own ideas about current, hip theology onto the bones of the ancient skeleton:
I am forced to ask of those who desire innovation: if these innovations are founded on the BCP and scripture, why was it not seen by the holy and learned teachers of the past? I ask them to think again what it means to be under the BCP as magisterium. Surely the answer cannot be to take a line from it here or there to justify one’s own desires. Instead it is to stand under it, to learn from it, to take its order into one’s soul and practice its daily discipline. Humility, rather than intellectual pride, would be the result.
It is no accident that the unraveling of traditional faith in some parts of the Anglican Communion has coincided with the introduction of new liturgies that obscure both the beauty and truth of classical Anglican worship. Our liturgy is our center. When it goes, everything else eventually will go with it.
Fortunately, the same also applies in reverse. If we wish to see a revival of Anglicanism, the place to begin will be with a revival of traditional worship. By this, I do not simply mean that we should start saying “thee” and “thou” and awkwardly chanting the psalms. Rather, I mean that we must recover a sense of the magisterial authority of our classical worship, that it should form us and teach us what we need. Instead of seeing liturgy as a tool that we wield for the sake of setting our own agendas, we need to recover the idea that through liturgy God speaks to us. The center of liturgy is not us, but Him. The heart of liturgy is not our desires, but His grace.
Photo courtesy of Bryan Sherwood. Learn more here.