The Prayer Book And The Church In Crisis

An Address To The Montreal Branch
of The Prayer Book Society of Canada

By The Rev'd Dr. Robert Crouse

This Address is reprinted from the Anglican Free Press
March 27th, 1989. Vol 5, No. 4

I've promised to speak this evening about the Prayer Book and the Church in Crisis. But, before I do that, I want to make a few preliminary remarks, of a rather more personal kind, about the standpoint from which I speak. What I have to say in the paper will inevitably seem very critical of some of the current policies and practices of our church; and to some people any such criticism seems negative and disloyal. I want to assure you that I have no negative or disloyal intentions.

I am very actively involved in the life of the Church: in the University, in the work of several parishes, Urban and rural; and also in the work of my diocese, as Examining Chaplain, as a member of our Ministries Committee, a member of our new Doctrine and Worship Committee, as a General Synod delegate, as a conductor of retreats, and so on. My criticisms are entirely from within the church, and are intended to be entirely constructive. I make these criticisms precisely because I care about the whole state of Christ's Church.

In times of turmoil it is all too easy to adopt defensive postures and to suspect those with whom one disagrees of disloyalty or bad faith. That road leads to division and isolation and narrow sectarianism. What we need, instead, is open, honest, and serious discussion and debate about the issues involved. So far as the Prayer Book issue is concerned, there have been many expressions of feeling, but very little informed debate. But I think that there are signs, here and there, that a serious discussion of the issue has begun; and I hope that our meeting here this evening is one of those signs.

We are not here to mourn over a lost treasure; we are not here to defend a tradition whose history and present vigour are its own adequate defense; we are here, I hope, to promote a deeper understanding and a wider appreciation of a living tradition of faith and devotion - a tradition of truly common prayer which has nurtured and continues to nurture the spiritual life of countless Anglicans, and still has powerful spiritual resources to meet these challenges and temptations of the present and the future.

To all of us it must by now be apparent that the Christian Church in general, and the Anglican Church in. particular, are at a point of crisis. To mention only a few of the most familiar indications: the current controversies and disagreements in the United Church of Canada of which I am sure you are all aware; or the tensions between modernist and traditionalist positions in the Roman Catholic Church, especially in North America. These are not just incidental differences of opinion but are signs of profound disagreement about the essentials of Christian faith - about the nature and authority of divine revelation.

They are not mere differences of "emphasis": they are profound differences about the content of Christian belief and the character Of Christian life. That is what I mean by speaking of "the Church in crisis."

The terms of political rhetoric are not altogether satisfactory in this context, but perhaps we might distinguish, at least superficially, between a "liberal" or "progressive" faction on the one hand, and a "conservative" or "reactionary" faction on the other.

For the so-called "liberal" Christian, belief is essentially a matter of personal opinion, formed on the basis of his own contemporary experience: and experience in which scripture and liturgy, as well as his engagement in various personal and social causes, provide data for reflection. His religion is not so much a matter of "Truth" (with a capital "T") as of "truths", which are subject to continual change, revision and adjustment, so as to be "relevant" to the world in which he lives. He sees his church as the gathering of similarly committed people who, in a democratic world, must decide their "truths" by majority vote of representative councils or synods, or whatever the political mechanisms might be.

For the so-called "conservative" Christian, on the other hand, "Truth" (with a capital "T") has been definitively revealed in Holy Scripture, and authoritatively interpreted in Christian tradition. He sees his task in terms of belief, understanding, and obedience. He is inclined to be skeptical about contemporary trends, and, so far as "relevance" is concerned, for him that is a matter of seeking to apply established doctrinal and moral standards to the situations in which he finds himself. He sees his church as divinely commissioned in faith and order to maintain the faith "once for all delivered to the saints", with the responsibility of maintaining those standards, essentially unchanged, from one age to another.

These profiles of "liberal" and "conservative" are, of course, simplistic, and perhaps exaggerated. There are, after all, "liberal conservatives" and "conservative liberals", and such "moderates" are perhaps usually in the majority. But in the church today, the opposing factions have come into sharp conflict, with results which seem to foreshadow extensive realignment of allegiances, individual and institutional.

For Anglicans, the effects of such a conflict became particularly apparent at the recent Lambeth Conference where Anglican "comprehensiveness" was stretched to the breaking-point over the issue of a female episcopate - one of the favorite North American "liberal" causes. The Conference concluded with a commitment "to maintaining the highest possible degree of communion", resolved to "exercise courtesy and maintain communications", and determined to establish a commission to consider the divisive effect on the Anglican Communion of the consecration of a woman as bishop.

Now that the Diocese of Massachusetts has gone ahead with such an election, without waiting for any such commission, it is clear that radical division is imminent for the Anglican Communion, and, indeed for the Episcopal Church itself, where at least nine bishops have already declared their unwillingness to recognize such an episcopate. Clearly, the American Episcopal Church, which has lost thirty-two per cent of its numerical strength since 1966 - a quarter of a million members in the last three years will be still further divided and diminished. Meanwhile, Anglicanism continues to flourish and expand dramatically in Asia and Africa, with a theological and liturgical conservativism quite shocking to North American "liberals".

Obviously, there is a severe crisis in the Anglican Communion. But what has that to do with Canadian Anglicans and the Prayer Book issue?

My point would be that our Prayer Book issue cannot be rightly understood or evaluated as an isolated phenomenon. It is part of a much bigger package. The compilers of our Book of Alternative Services understood that, and they speak clearly in their Preface about a new reformation. And while historians may be justly skeptical about likening the liberal revolution of the 1950's and 1960's-to the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, still our BAS compilers were surely right (as were their American counterparts a decade earlier) in the conviction that any serious adjustment of Anglicanism to that liberal revolution would require more than a moderately revised Prayer Book; that it would require, in fact, "new rites for a new age."

To understand why it is the Prayer Book that is the centre of controversy, one need only consider the very remarkable position of that

book in the history of Anglicanism. We are sometimes told that it has been, and perhaps still is, a useful "aid to worship." But the Prayer Book has been, in fact, so much more than that. In the absence of any universal synod, or Papacy, or Holy Office, the Prayer Book has been our doctrinal standard. It has given us a method of reading Holy Scripture; it has provided our devotional vocabulary, and shaped our spirituality. Indeed, the Book of Common Prayer has constituted our self-definition as Anglicans.

That is why Lambeth Conferences, beginning with the first conference in 1867, have repeatedly insisted upon the Prayer Book as the standard of doctrine and practice, and as a "bond of unity." According to the 1930 Conference, Anglicans are defined as those who "uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorized in their several churches." And that is why our own General Synod, in its founding document - the SOLEMN DECLARATION, 1893 - expressed its determination to "hold and maintain the Doctrine, Sacraments and Discipline of Christ as the Lord hath commanded in his Holy Word, and as the Church of England hath received and set forth the same in The Book of Common Prayer . . . and in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and to transmit the same unimpaired to our posterity." That statement echos, of course, the solemn ordination and consecration vows of priests and bishops (at least, according to the Prayer Book rite; the wording has been significantly changed in the BAS). Until very recently I don't think it would ever have occurred to most Anglicans that serious questions of doctrine and worship could be decided by local or provincial or even national synods. The Prayer Book tradition was the standard.

We are frequently given assurances that the Book of Common Prayer remains our standard of Doctrine, Sacraments, and Discipline. But a difficulty arises if we try to reconcile those assurances with insistent recommendations that we use a book which at many points and at some points quite explicitly criticizes and rejects that standard. A recent survey, conducted by our national Doctrine and Worship Committee, indicates that a considerable number of parishes use the alternative book "most of the time", if not, in fact, all of the time; while many others have rarely, or never used it, and are unlikely to do so. Some parishes have used the alternative book and then returned to exclusive use of the Prayer Book. Still other parishes have not only alternative books, but alternative congregations. And in some parishes, the Gestetners and Xeroxes are busy once again churning out new liturgies, or new combinations of old ones. Now that the Episcopal Church, dissatisfied with its 1979 book, has entered anew upon a period of experiment with a liturgy even more radical than our BAS, there will no doubt be, and perhaps there are already, repercussions in Canada.

Such a condition of liturgical chaos would be a serious problem for any Christian body; but it is the more serious for Anglicans precisely because the tradition of common prayer has been such an important bond on union and cohesion for us, locally, nationally and internationally. As far back as 1948, the Lambeth Conference felt it necessary to issue a warning (Res. 78a):

The Conference holds that the Book of Common Prayer has been, and is, so strong a bond of unity throughout the whole Anglican Communion that great care must be taken to ensure that revision of the Book shall be in accordance with the doctrine and accepted liturgical worship of the Anglican Communion.
The Anglican Church of Canada has remained within the letter of that resolution: our Prayer Book revision of 1962 was a very temperate one, and our Book of Alternative Services is avowedly NOT a revision of the Prayer Book. Yet, for those parishes which use the BAS exclusively, or most of the time, it does become, de facto, a substitute Prayer Book. It competes with the Prayer Book for the allegiance of congregations, and win continue to do so for a long time to come.

And may I say - as strongly as I can - that I hope we will live with them, and not seek solutions in division and isolation. The American Church, now the most rapidly declining church in Christendom, should serve as an object lesson.

There, in many dioceses, the use of the traditional Prayer Book (1928) has been declared illegal, and its adherents (sometimes entire congregations) have been driven from the church with all the unedifying spectacle of civil law suits, confiscation of church property, inhibition of tradionalist clergy, and so on. I do not think that is a road which commends itself to Canadian Angficans. But make no mistake: the way forward is potentially disastrous and the safe negotiation of it will require prayerful discernment, and will test the patience and charity of all of us to the utmost degree.

Now, in all this, it seems to me that the Prayer Book Society has a very important role: not principally I think, as a sort of defense league, though that may sometimes be necessary, but rather as a means for making Anglicans more aware of the nature and importance of our spiritual heritage. All too often our disagreements are conducted in the form of shouting matches, or sulking matches, about our own personal likes and dislikes. That is not very profitable. The debate must be raised above the level of prejudices on one side and the other.

The issues theological, liturgical, esthetic, and practical, must be seriously addressed in a prayerful, informed and thoughtful way.

That is surely possible, and here and there, all across the country, I think, it is beginning to happen. Much that is genuinely constructive can be done, and is being done. In my own diocese, for instance, a group of concerned laity of the Prayer Book Society, with the cooperation of a large number of devout, competent, and mostly young parish priests, circulate thousands of copies of an excellent monthly bulletin, addressing the issue in an informed and thoughtful way.

For several years now, highly successful theological conferences for clergy and laity have been held in Charlottetown, Halifax and Fredericton, sponsored by an informal committee. Next year's Conference, in Halifax, will be on The Thirty-nine Articles, with Bishop Fitzsimmons Allison, of South Carolina, as the principal speaker. Last year, when the official church calendar adopted the calendar of the BAS instead of that of the official Prayer Book, two priests with the collaboration of an artist quickly produced a beautiful calendar following the Prayer Book. It sold five thousand copies; and this year, because of heavy advance orders, they have printed ten thousand copies. St. Peter Publications, in Charlottetown, continues to publish and distribute a wide range of excellent theological and devotional literature in the Prayer Book tradition.

Finally, at the request of Synod, our Bishop has established a new Do,trine and Worship Committee which shows every indication of readiness to address the issues seriously and competently.

But even more important than all this is the fact that considerable numbers of Anglicans, both young and old, have been discovering for themselves, in their daily devotions, the spiritual depth and richness of the Prayer Book tradition. If our present crisis produces such effects, it is surely not all bad. Perhaps we may say, with the saintly Bishop Jeremy Taylor, three times imprisoned in the Tower for his persistent public use of the prayer Book:

"it is to be hoped that all these storms are sent to increase the zeal and confidence of the pious sons of the Church of England. Indeed the greatest danger that ever the Common Prayer Book had, was the indifferency and indevotion of them that used it as but a common blessing."
People sometimes ask me if I'm not discouraged about the Church, and I must answer "no". Sometimes I am indeed discouraged about my own ineptitude or faithlessness; but not about the Church. These things are all in God's providence, and all will be well. It ill-behooves us to be discouraged about that. Meanwhile, we must all try to do our duty with faith and charity, according to the best wisdom we are granted, and we must try not to let ourselves be consumed by the troubles of this present age. As a former Cardinal Archbishop of Montreal once remarked:
"When the Church takes account only of the present, she does nothing but chase; if she looks only to the future, she does nothing but dream; only when she is conscious of being the living tradition of Christ is she truly renewed ... Distrust or ignorance of tradition no doubt still up confusion and change, but it does not promote renewal, on the contrary, it endangers it."
If the Prayer Book Society can help us to stand in a perspective such as that, I think its work will be worthwhile.
[backarrw.gif] Back to the Writings Page