Last month (October 20, 2017) I was delighted to speak at a one-day Colloquium sponsored by the Prayer Book Society of the United States at the Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas, where we were kindly hosted by the rector, the Rt. Rev. Anthony Burton (formerly Bishop of Saskatchewan), himself a learned and sensitive student of the Prayer Book tradition.
The title of the event was “Revising the Liturgy of the Episcopal Church: Can a Thousand Flowers Bloom?” The title was a cheeky reference to Chairman Mao’s 1956 invitation to Chinese intellectuals to voice any criticisms they had of communism: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and let a hundred schools of thought contend.” (Of course, the following year he promptly squashed all “rightists” who had voiced dissent.) The current conference asked, by contrast, whether a motion passed by the Episcopal Church’s General Convention asking the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music to prepare options for a revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer might lead to the permissive authorization of an even greater variety of liturgical rites in the Episcopal Church than currently exists—or, on the contrary, whether this might spell the end of more traditional liturgical options.
This was rather a daring event for the Prayer Book Society to sponsor, since its focus has been on the preservation and promotion of the 1928 American Prayer Book, not the 1979 compilation that laid claim the title “Book of Common Prayer.” (One of the points raised in the colloquium was that other provinces of the Anglican Communion had not, in fact, replaced their classical Prayer Books as the Episcopal Church did: rather, they authorized official alternatives.) I gather that it is hoped that the Prayer Book Society might make common cause with those who love and use the traditional-language “Rite 1” in the 1979 BCP. Initial surveys taken by the PBS suggest that this rite is in fact very, very widely used. Any attempt to delete it from the 1979 BCP, or to dilute its contents, would probably meet with considerable resistance.
My own contribution was itself a bit cheeky. My title was “The Mysterium Anglicanum and the New Puritans.” I compared the assured certainty of twentieth-century liturgical scholarship (founded on what has proved the shifting sand of the [Pseudo]-Hippolytan Apostolic Tradition) to the assured certainty of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Puritans, who despised the Book of Common Prayer and looked to the liturgical model of Calvinist Geneva, which they believed had recovered a truly scriptural and apostolic form of worship. The great Puritan divine Richard Baxter famously composed a complete liturgical book (known as the Savoy Liturgy), which he proposed should be added as an alternative to the classical Book of Common Prayer—just like Rite 1 and Rite 2 in the 1979 American BCP.
The ground has fallen out from under both “Puritan” claims, and this leaves us free to evaluate the classical Prayer Book tradition (what I have dubbed the Mysterium Anglicanum, borrowing a twelfth-century description of the medieval Milanese liturgy as the Mysterium Ambrosianum) on its historical, theological, and pastoral merits. As I always hammer away to my students at Trinity College, the Book of Common Prayer is “the Tradition of the Church (what the Church has always done) expressed within the compass of Scriptural language (which limits what the Church can say).” This, I suggest, is the true basis of Anglican comprehensiveness. It may aggravate some Evangelicals (who are suspicious of tradition) and may frustrate some Anglo-Catholics (who want to say more than scripture lets them); but it is, for all that, as Nicholas Ferrar said, “The right, good old way.”
A lightly revised version of my paper should appear in a forthcoming edition of Anglican Way magazine.