Text, Shape, and Communion: What Unites Us When Nothing's the Same Anymore?

By Dowling, Ron | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

Text, Shape, and Communion: What Unites Us When Nothing's the Same Anymore?


Dowling, Ron, Anglican Theological Review


When the specifically Anglican liturgical tradition developed in the mid-sixteenth century there was but one order for the Holy Communion. No choices of words or alternative shapes were provided for the liturgy, and it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that such changes were even desired, at least in England-this had not been the case in Scotland or the United States. Over the past 150 years the desire for change has steadily increased: first with the words, then concerning the actions, and leading to a series of national prayer books, most deriving from the Book of Common Prayer. Amid all this liturgical diversity a fundamental question has come to the fore: Does our liturgy (especially Holy Communion) still bind us together as Anglicans? Many Anglicans have found that the binding unity of our liturgy is not so much the prayer texts anymore, but simply the basic shape and actions, though other factors are also at play, such as reading common scripture passages and using some of the same prayers. With the development of computer technology even wider variations have become possible, and authorization of particular texts has become a desire rather than reality. Given this situation, the education of worship leaders is more important than ever.

The principles of the Anglican liturgical tradition were set forth in the Preface and the section Concerning the Services of the Church in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with the first principle being that the people together are the focus of the liturgy-hence the title "common" prayer-which means that our "worship is essentially corporate and envisages a wider social intentionality and bearing."1 To this end, therefore, the liturgy should be in a language "understanded of the people," the Bible should be read in an ordered fashion, the Service should be read in an audible manner, and there is to be one order for the realm (that is, England).

Over the past 350 years, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has been at the core of the liturgical life of most Anglicans. In some provinces it is the veiy center of the constitution of that province as well, and is thus (still) at its legal basis, Anglicans likewise find their theological understanding through their worship, and since for most of the 350 years there has been little or no change in that liturgical life, Anglican theology has also been slow to change.

While this is true for provinces which derive from the British Empire/Commonwealth, there is another slightly different stream, deriving from Scotland and the USA. This stream came into its own in the mid-1670s when the Scottish church was influenced by the nonjurors, and they in turn influenced the American church after the War of Independence.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century those influenced by the Oxford Movement began to look for change. They found the 1662 Book of Common Prayer a straightjacket, both theologically and liturgically. In England the impetus for this change led to the revision of the BCP proposed in 1927, with its provision for additional texts for the consecration prayer at Communion and additional ceremony where desired. (We are limiting these comments to the eucharist.) Despite being approved by the convocations of the Church of England, however, the text was defeated in Parliament in 1928. The church itself (and its bishops) turned a blind eye, though, and allowed the use of the textual changes in the proposed 1928 Prayer Book. Here began a movement toward varied texts with the introduction of an alternative "consecration prayer."

From the 1950s onwards various provinces began the journey to revising the entire Prayer Book. At first these revisions were very conservative, but gradually they grew in number and in breadth. In 1966, for example, the Australian liturgical Commission issued for use the volume Prayer Book Revision in Australia, which contained a number of revised rites. Of these rites, there were two versions of the eucharist: a conservative version of the BCP rite using traditional language, and a "radical" version not only in modern English ("you" rather than "Thou") but also with an adapted shape of the eucharistie prayer based on that of the Church of South India, along with the introduction of a Greeting of Peace prior to the preparation of the gifts on the Table. …

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