In Nature Indifferent and Alterable: The Prayer Book, Missals, and Uniformity

XXXIV. Of the Traditions of the Church

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willing and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.”


In a time when the order of worship has disintegrated catastrophically, where liturgical anarchy has become the norm, it’s unsurprising that many of us, myself included, are inclined towards a firmer application and enforcement of the liturgical rubrics and the canonical laws. It very well may be that in our time the only way to reform and restore order will require us to be conservative in the interpretation and stricter in the application of the law than we might privately think is “necessary”. But it is precisely here that we must be vigilant not to fall into the trap of legalism when we reject the individualistic vanity that continues to injure our Church. A rigid conception of the law cannot serve the art of the economy because practical wisdom is fundamentally a meditation on the contingency of the law. It is this tension between our current need for a stricter application of the law and the need to resist an improper abstraction of the law that is central to the problem of whether or not it is catholic to use the missal as an Anglican.

One of the reasons why I feel compelled to respond to Preston-Kendal’s short essay, which argues that the use of the various missals derivative of the Roman Missal is illegitimate, is because for some time I also had similar thoughts. When I first came to truly see how deep and pervasive the corruption of liturgical and ecclesial order really is in the Anglican Communion, one of my first reactions was to cling tightly to the distinctively Anglican symbol of the Book of Common Prayer. I operated for some time with the premise that we could reconstruct a coherent sense of order by judging all things by the letters of the Prayer Book, whatever that doesn’t cohere being considered as improper deviations. While I continue to be very confident of and loyal to the Prayer Book, I am also increasingly convinced that this kind of Prayer Book exclusivism fails. I believe it fails partly because it is too reductive and limited to truly respond to the whole complexity of the balkanization of the Anglican world, and also because I don’t think the actual principles laid out by the Prayer Book quite support it the way I once assumed. What I’d like to suggest is that being faithful to the principles of the Prayer Book does not allow us to be “BCP-onlyists” in a strict sense. Since Preston-Kendal puts such great emphasis on “reformed doctrine” as the Anglican measure by which to reject the legitimacy of the missals, let us examine the Prayer Book itself.

The preface of the 1662 BCP opens with the declaration that the “wisdom of the Church of England” has been to keep a balance between the extremes of “too much stiffness in refusing [variation]” and “too much easiness in admitting any variation” in the public liturgies. Most importantly, the preface asserts that the particular form of the liturgy, the rites and the ceremonies, are “in their nature indifferent, and alterable”, and thus it is reasonable for changes and alterations to be made to the form of the liturgy if “upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions” authorities find such changes to be “necessary or expedient”. Indeed, shortly later a note is made about how the 1662 BCP itself has changes from the former Book, with various principles given to justify the changes.

One of the immediate implications of the preface’s declaration that rites and ceremonies are “indifferent” is that the principles of the venerable Prayer Book of 1662 itself refuses the common idea that is peddled around by Anglicans today. That is, the idea that the fundamental grounds of Anglican identity and unity is liturgical commonality cannot stand, for to hinge our identity upon something indifferent is to say that our identity is ultimately grounded upon something ephemeral and superficial. If we are to give deference to classical Reformed principles, the popular idea of Anglicanism being defined by common worship is to be rejected as an illegitimate idea. (On a cruder examination, the empirical reality in our parishes already suggests that the idea is dubious on a practical level.) This idea is, in my mind, the most noticeable false tradition that is propagated within our Church today, and one which must be extinguished–partly because it is ahistorical, but more importantly because it is a convenient distraction that is deployed to avoid dealing with the far more serious problems that threaten Anglican unity today.

With the preface, we can come to see that the liturgical vision laid out in the 1662 is more flexible than what we might popularly imagine. Now, to be sure, the wording of Article 34 seems to be written with the idea that the diversity is to be on the level of national Churches, for in the section “Concerning the Service of the Church” that immediately follows the preface there is a note made about how the Realm of England will no longer have a great diversity of regional rites and now have but “one Use”. So we’re left with a tension that needs attending. On one hand, following a classical Reformed principle, the outward form of worship, both rite and ritual, are “indifferent” things that are alterable; on the other hand, the consolidation of regional variations and the imposition of one common form of worship upon the Church has practical advantages for ensuring unity. But even with the latter point the uniformity of ritual is pursued for the sake of good order, not as a ground upon which Anglican legitimacy is constructed. The uniformity of rite, if it is not too cheeky to refer to modern English sensibilities anachronistically, is a pragmatic question, not a dogmatic question.

With the latter point, we see an unmistakable parallel with what occurred with the Roman Catholic contemporaries, where many regional ritual variations were suppressed and a simplified and unified Roman Rite was imposed by law. This homogenized recension is what we popularly know today as the Tridentine Rite. Indeed, the imposition of the Authorized Version (the King James Bible) in the Church of England (even if not by law, by official policy), also has parallels to the way the Church of Rome consolidated the Vulgate variants and imposed the Clementine Vulgate upon the Roman Catholics as the authorized version of the Bible.

The fact that I personally revere the Vulgate, the Tridentine Rite, the KJV, and the 1662 BCP as venerable heirlooms of the Western Christian tradition is rather immaterial for examining the desire to consolidate and homogenize that took root in both England and Rome, and critiquing the way these homogenizing policies were imposed upon both churches. And while this is beyond the purview of the questions that are raised by Preston-Kendal, it is noteworthy that the Russian controversy of the Old Believers also occurred in the same era, a controversy that occurred because a patriarch found it unacceptable for two variant rites to exist in the same Church and imposed uniformity unilaterally with a heavy-hand. That I might personally favour uniformity for practical governing purposes (and even find it aesthetically preferable) must be immaterial when considering if it is ecclesiastically proper, as Anglicans, to impose liturgical uniformity with authoritarian measures and attempt to maintain this imposed uniformity with recourse to legal positivism.

To return to the classical Reformed principle laid out in the 1662 BCP, it is because the rites and ceremonies of the Church are indifferent and alterable that catholicity cannot be tied to absolute liturgical conformity. The fact that the best leaders of the Tractarians and the Ritualists deferred to the bishops’ wishes when the bishops forbade the use of certain rites and ceremonies does not show us that it is strict homogeneity on indifferent and alterable things by which we are unified. No, what it shows us is that the foundational ecclesial principle is obedience, that what it means to be a churchman is to have the humility to set aside our personal preferences on indifferent things when our superiors deem it necessary. But what this must also mean, if episcopal authority comes from truth, order, and justice, and not merely the legal force of the episcopal throne, is that the Church hierarchy must not be too willing to impose strict uniformity on indifferent and alterable things. This is not only a practical consideration–I have no interest in creating excuses for spineless bishops that govern their dioceses like a school teacher who is ruled over by their unruly students–it is also a moral concern. I fear that saying catholicity is “to do everything within the church with respect to the structure of authority which has been handed down from the apostles’ time” can too easily lend ourselves to legitimizing arbitrary exercise of power, whereby episcopal authority goes beyond pastoral rule to also assume pretensions of truth by decree, and also advocate for an equally arbitrary and feeble submission to power. We must be careful not to stress the wrong notes. To deploy the goodly Christian virtues of humility and obedience to browbeat those who deviate from the strict letter of the Prayer Book would be unfortunate.

On a more technical note, the claim that the Anglican Prayer Book was a rejection of the liturgical rites that preceded it is textually and historically a bit dubious. It does not take much to compare the Prayer Book and the pre-Reformation rites to see how Morning Prayer is constructed out of simplified but distinct elements of Matins, Lauds, and Prime, and Evening prayer made up of elements of Vespers and Compline. We can see similar continuities when comparing Holy Communion with the ordinary of the Mass, the proper collects and lessons for Sundays, and the liturgical calendar. If the Prayer Book really was a rejection of the earlier liturgical rites then the Prayer Book would not have existed at all. We would have followed the line of the Puritans, who did their utmost to consign the Prayer Book to oblivion for being a “Romish” vestige.

It is also a bit curious that a rejection of the pre-Reformation rites is accompanied with a defense of altar books that contain ceremonial directions, private prayers, anthems, and hymns, even hymns that have been used in “the service from ancient times”. But what is “the service from ancient times” other than the pre-Reformation rites? From where are these ancient proper hymns found and translated from other than the breviaries and missals, and the other liturgical books that supplemented them? Such liturgical developments in our Anglican liturgies cannot be considered as legitimate if the breviaries and missals are rejected in principle. And why should this kind of accretion be considered unproblematic? Were not these the kind of accretions that led the bishops to censure the Ritualists and lead many ordinary Anglicans to ridicule the Ritualists in the past? The ideal of the “Prayer Book Catholic” cannot be asserted as if it self-evident and uncontroversial; a Dearmerite vision cannot be smuggled in without argument.

There are, of course, real doctrinal questions that demand difficult questions upon us. But to answer the doctrinal questions that rage through the Anglican Communion today we cannot rely on a sterile positivism. The 39 Articles deserve more attention and respect than it garners today, and a more serious engagement with our Reformed heritage is required by most of us “high church” Anglicans. Conversely, polemicists that utilize the symbols of the Reformation as a broad hammer also need to contend more honestly with the complexities of the Anglican tradition and its peculiarities that make it so distinct from other bodies of the Reformed tradition. That is, the Reformed polemicist has to ask if the Anglo-Catholic movement, in all its diversities, is also an organic development that comes out from the Prayer Book itself. Given that Preston-Kendal and I have discussed the restoration of the traditional canticles of Monday to Saturday from the old breviaries (whether Roman or Benedictine) in public worship, which Preston-Kendal has actually done concretely in her own parish, I will allow this question to provide its own answer.

On a practical level, what I have come to learn from being in a diocese troubled with comprehensive liturgical disorderliness is that reference to legal principles doesn’t really get us anywhere when trying to convince someone who desecrates the liturgy with strange novelties. This might in part be because such people lack a general sense of discipline and dignity, but it’s also because reference to the law alone is hardly convincing. And if this is so with those who seemingly have no liturgical principles other than to utterly disregard all liturgical order, how is such a legalism going to be convincing to any Anglo-Catholic faithful to their breviaries and missals? Say what you will about the Anglo-Catholics (and I’m not talking about the latitudinarians that drape themselves in glorious apparel), they are probably the most liturgically disciplined and learned Anglicans today. They are going to be rather unimpressed by calls for strict adherence to the Prayer Book when what this actually means is left rather unclear. Even when we set aside all the criticisms I’ve laid out above, even if a strict imposition of the Prayer Book is internally coherent, I can’t help but think that polemically attacking these Anglo-Catholics is strategically inadvisable–if anything, in our age of liturgical and theological anarchy these Anglicans loyal to a faithful practice of the English reception of the pre-Reformation rites are some of our greatest allies. Their ritual and ceremonial adherence, no matter how much one might have differences with them, is not arbitrary, and to suggest that their beliefs and practices are a purely superficial aesthetic vanity is deeply uncharitable. I know this is an untrue description for many Anglo-Catholics.

We are now in a place, whether we like it or not, where doctrinal disharmony and balkanization is the norm, and in such a moment of chaos it is not only unwise but without effective power to simply refer to a past moment as having self-evident force of law, as if a positivistic appeal to that which is de jure is enough. To actually deal with the problems at hand, to overcome the chaos in the Anglican Communion, requires a deft and lithe set of principles because positivism is incapable of addressing the existential complexities of the de facto rule of anarchy. And such deftness can only manifest if we are truly confident in our tradition, because pettiness and insecurity always accompany each other. If Anglican unity was made or broken on liturgical uniformity, that truly would mean that the Anglican spirit is superficial.

I have my own personal opinions with regards to the wholesale usage of the missals in parishes, especially when it is done without express permission from the local bishop. I also have a far higher view of the nature of the liturgy than the authors of the 1662 BCP, and I personally have disciplinarian tendencies that are probably stricter than what I have written here. But if we Anglicans today are to work towards restoring order and beauty in our fraught Church, we must think again about the old English wisdom of finding a balance between the extremes of “too much stiffness in refusing [variation]” and “too much easiness in admitting any variation”, and for us today this requires us to critically review not just the rites of the Prayer Book but also our doctrinal proclamations–not because they are indifferent, but because we now must reconvene on various matters of fundamental doctrine. The terms themselves require reinterpretation, and this cannot be done without us all convening together like the English bishops did, and how the different parties of the Church of Canada came together to produce our spectacular revision of the Prayer Book (with the sole exception of its regrettably censored Psalter).

Should we advocate the use of the Prayer Book? Of course. But not just because it is de jure the “official liturgy”, but because it is orderly, theologically substantive, and beautiful. If we are truly confident about the Prayer Book we should allow it to speak for itself.


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