Saturday, 8 November 2014

Frankenstein's Worship: Against Liturgical Relativism

A Sermon for the St Albans Branch of the Prayer Book Society given by the Rev'd Dr Thomas Plant at the parish church of St Peter, Great Berkhamsted, on the Feast of All Saints of England, 8 November 2014.

"This morning's worship didn't do much for me, Father," says the parishioner; to which the grumpy priest replies, "that's OK. We weren't worshipping you."

A hundred years ago, if anyone was suspected of disloyalty to our Anglican inheritance, of tampering with our liturgy and threatening our uniformity of worship, it was the Anglo-Catholics. Many of their number argued that the eucharistic liturgy of the Prayer Book was at best disordered, and at worst deficient. Among the proponents of the latter view were the Anglo-Papalists, for whom nothing less than an Englished Roman Canon would suffice; while the former was the position of the 'English' or 'Prayer Book' Catholics of Pusey and Dearmer's ilk, who wanted nothing more than the reordering of the service and additional collects promised in 1928. For them, if the Prayer Book was not essentially Catholic, then nor was the Church of England, and I think they had a point. Yet, the revisions that they and most of the Church wanted never went ahead, and their case was not helped by their more extreme brethren.

Our present situation surely has something to do with the failure of 1928. We might have had a Prayer Book which was not stuck in a seventeenth century time warp, but reflected the theological (and ecumenical) advances of the day without sacrificing unity or compromising doctrinal clarity. Instead, with the authorisation of Common Worship, we are in the throes of liturgical anarchy.

I use the term 'anarchy' with intent. The Anglican approach to doctrine has consistently, even if not always explicitly or consciously, rested on the 4th century maxim 'lex orandi, lex credendi': "the rule of prayer is the rule of belief." Ours has never been a church much disposed to great systematic theologies like those of Aquinas or Calvin. Rather, what we believe, our 'lex credendi,' has been defined by what we pray, as expressed in our liturgy, our 'lex orandi.' Lex, "rule," or more properly, "law," is precisely what an-archia, 'un-lawfulness,' negates, and anarchy of liturgy means anarchy of belief. Make-it-up-as-you-go-along prayer, cobbled-together Frankenstein liturgy, means make-it-up-as-you-go-along belief, Frankenstein doctrine, a lumbering hybrid of arbitrary spare parts. It is the exact opposite of the Anglican genius.

Nor is it justified on anything like theological grounds. Rather, the relativism of our times has crept into our thinking about the Church. Liturgy is now all about 'meeting people where they are,' suiting it to the congregation's needs or abilities as rather patronisingly discerned by the clergy. In other words, it's more about us than about God.

Hence the perfidious delusion of "worship styles," two words which should strike fear into the hearts of all true believers. You often see these words in advertisements in the Church Times, and they are eagerly taken up on the lips of latitudinarian clergy who are keen to show that they can offer the full range. I was moaning (quite uncharacteristically) at our last clergy conference that it was difficult to find Anglo-Catholic clergy to fill vacancies in Catholic parishes, and about my fears that the tradition would die. The Evangelical priest I was moaning to retorted that I had no need to worry, because she could quite happily offer a variety of worship styles, from choral Eucharist to Baptist prayer meeting. It's just a difference of style, informal versus formal.

The idea that the form might in some way reflect the content of the worship, that the differences in liturgy express differences of theology, does not seem to cross people's minds. There is no difference in content between four-chord wonder "Jesus and me" worship songs and solemn, traditional hymnody with less obvious melodic resolutions; no difference between doing some arts and crafts and singing a few hymns once a month or making the sacrament of the Eucharist the focus of one's daily devotion; no difference between addressing the sempiternal fount of all being in the matey language of a bloke at the pub or in Cranmerian awe - it's all just a matter of taste. This, in case you hadn't noticed, seems to be the current orthodoxy of the Church of England, enshrined in the pick and mix methodology of Common Worship, and you challenge it at your peril. So much for lex orandi, lex credendi. What we pray is no longer an expression of what we believe, but what we like.

The thinking behind these changes is untheological, but I fear that they are being exploited by some with serious theological intent. The clergy swear to obey the Canons of the Church of England, among which is Canon A3, namely that 'the doctrine contained in The Book of Common Prayer ... is agreeable to the Word of God.' Yet, I have heard clergy say quite openly that the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons, the need of a priest to pronounce absolution or to celebrate the Holy Communion, the provision of auricular Confession and various other things stipulated quite clearly in the Prayer Book are 'unscriptural.' For these clergy, the smorgasbord of Common Worship is perfect, as it allows them to construct good, clean, Biblical worship unsullied by the tradition of the Church in which they accepted ordination. Their laity, of course, do not own the Common Worship library and are never introduced to the Prayer Book, and so have no reason to suspect that the clergy might be leading them into belief and practice that bears very little resemblance to the historic faith of the Church. Disloyalty and clericalism, it seems, are not just the province of Anglo-Catholics.
But here am I, pontificating about uniformity and the woes of relativism, while I myself offer not pure 1662, but the 'interim rite,' the Prayer Book Holy Communion restored - or distorted, depending on your opinion - into the older and now more ecumenically recognised shape. Am I then hoist by my own petard? You might think so; but I would argue that the Prayer Book has its value in use as the living liturgy of the Church, that it can be flexibly enough employed to reflect the more accurate understandings that we now have of the primitive liturgies which Cranmer and his successors sought to refine. We have, after all, an additional few centuries of scholarship, discovery and ecumenical consensus on our side. To return the liturgy to its pristine form, drawing on resources which were unavailable to the Reformers, is very different from simply knocking up a bit of whatever one fancies. 'Permitted variation' is not the same thing as laissez-faire. Today's Eucharist reflects an authentic Anglican position, namely that of the Catholic Movement, but held within the clear bounds of the Church of England's historic liturgy. It is an example of the Prayer Book as a living text rather than the museum piece as which many like to denigrate it.

We mark today a feast unknown to the 1662 Prayer Book: that of all the English Saints. That we may do so is, I think, one of the positive results of the recent reforms to the liturgy and the Kalendar; but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Prayer Book can offer twentieth century worship in the idiom which all the saints of this nation, pre- and post-Reformation, Catholic and Protestant alike, would recognise as being in clear continuity with the tradition handed down from the Apostles. It is an honour to offer such worship, an honour to which we must cling firmly if our church is to retain its claim to be not merely an informal network of self-regulating congregations, but the proper part of the Catholic Church in this land, and to teach her one true faith. 

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