Could it every happen?
The Anglican Church is carrying a burden of a century and a half of ceremonial left over from the Oxford Movement and the Puseyite influence. We were always a liturgical church with some ceremonial, but the mid 1800s saw the growth of interest in “restoring” Gothic and medieval motifs in a church still largely Protestant. While that can all be very exciting, with pageantry and colour and music, it has been a prohibitively expensive burden.
Vestments are expensive, unless a priest can make his or her own. (I did, and some churches own sets for the priest’s use, but this didn’t work out well for me because they were cut for men much taller or bigger than me.) Vestments also set the priest apart from the people. I’m not sure this is good. I do not know why we continue to go around in the garb of Roman gentlemen as interpreted by a small band of mid-Victorian English churchmen. I preferred the black cassock, white surplice and black preaching stole commonly known as a tippet. I had an academic hood, but I’ve lost it and I don’t think I care to get another. The original idea was that the vestments would not distinguish the priest from other priests and ministers, and followed common collegial form. Howver, the introduction of liturgical colours and the promotion of vestments made in costly fabrics began with the Gothic Revival and we can’t seem to get away from it.
We’ve also acquired a plethora of furniture in the church – besides the altar, pulpit and stalls, we have all sorts of chairs, tables, prayer desks, lecterns, fonts, candlestands and musical instruments. I’m willing to strip the sanctuary and nave down to pews and bench kneelers, altar, bishop’s throne, credence table if needed (I’m willing to put everything on the back corner of the altar), two chairs or stalls for ministers, pulpit/lectern and a font at the door. Two candlesticks on the altar, chalice, patten, some decent linen. Prayer book and Bible. All the excess tables, chairs, candlebra, banners, processional crosses, desks and stands can go. Any literature should be in the narthex, not ranged on pews or benches at the back of the nave.
The choir has taken the place of the ministers (deacons, readers, acolytes, assisting clergy) and sit in the clergy stalls in most churches. A choir belongs in the choir loft, if one exists, at the back of the church, or in antiphonal seating on the nave floor. They should be heard and not seen. Their job is to support the people in singing and chanting, not replace them. Anthems belong strictly at festivals and are not meant for weekly use.
As I said, the font goes at the door. If there is a paschal candle used, that is where it belongs. After Pentecost the paschal candle is used only at baptisms and funerals, and should be stored in the sacristy, preferably covered to keep it from fading or yellowing. Many paschal candles now can be made with a join so that the upper portion is replaced yearly while the decorative lower part remains. This can save a lot of money over just a few years.
I dislike processions in parish churches. Processions are meant to get a lot of people in and out of clergy stalls quickly; they are not some sort of parade. Processions strictly belong in cathedrals and colleges. If vested clergy are to be seated on the nave floor in pews, they should not proceed (the verb is not “process” – procession derives from to proceed) but be seated before the procession.
The parish choir should be seated in their stalls or loft before the service begins. The ministers enter from the vestry and go to the clergy stalls or altar. The service can then begin with a hymn or opening prayers.
I have developed a dislike for organ music. Small churches just don’t need a big voiced instrument. Most Anglican churches did not have organs until later in the nineteenth century, and they replaced the small village orchestra and choir with a professionally trained musician. It was part of the professionalizing of the church, which I don’t believe has been a good trend. I would much rather hear a choir or congregation a cappella, since they then must attend to what they are singing, or with a piano for accompaniment. Choirs should not need to be robed if they do not proceed nor are visible from the nave.
I don’t approve of the modern practice of passing the peace by shaking hands. Originally, Christians greeted each other before and after divine service with a kiss. Clergy exchanged the kiss of peace before the Eucharist. Shaking hands is a secular indication that one is not armed. “I won’t use my sword on you,” is the message. I avoid shaking hands. Kiss me if you wish.
A Plain church doesn’t have to be unadorned. Distracting and sentimental artwork and objects need to be removed. Icons, stained glass windows (if they are artistically good and theologically correct), altar crosses and other tradtional ornaments should be retained. Frontals and superfrontals could be used if the altar is not itself ornamented with carving. A bunch of coloured ribbons and hangings which have no purpose are a waste of money and maintenance. I’m not fond of altar flowers. They tend to shed and stain the linen, and to be honest, I am quite allergic to some kinds of flowers, especially lilies. If lilies ended up on the altar where I was celebrating, I had to remove them. Artificial flowers have no place in a church celebration. It’s real or none.
That’s how I feel about the physical appearance of the possible Plain Anglican church. It’s the least of our worries, though. We’ve got better things to address, of course – liturgy, practice, prayer. I’ll have more to say on that some other time, if you can stand it.