In Praise of Common Prayer

I have found myself in the strange position lately of trying to defend the Anglican faith, as a unique aspect of Christian theology. The biggest challenge is how to explain it, where to send anyone who wants to know what it’s about, and make some sort of assertion of what “Anglicanism” is. The best analogy I could come up with was that the Anglican Church is like the British Constitution: unwritten, changing, and organic. The Anglican Church is the body of the faithful who follow Common Prayer, and I don’t mean the prayer book.

Anglicanism is not, perhaps, a true systematic theology. We seem to fall back on Richard Hooker quite a bit; we go to the old prayer books and our early English translations of the Bible for supporting evidence of who we are and what we believe. “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as we pray, so we believe. Our prayer books evolve and change and shift, too much so for most people’s liking, and such has always been the case. Every generation has hated its new prayer book. Some have been better than others, most certainly, but that is not the point. The Church responds to the needs of the body of Christ, even if in doing so we fall short of the glory of God.

It’s why the Anglican faith has a Book of Common Prayer. Two generations ago they were common; vernacular translations were word for word, from British English to whatever language of the people that was understanded. (I except the American BCP in particular; they went their own way in the early days of the nation – other national churches followed suit.) In the twentieth century, with English itself becoming regionally divergent, national churches undertook their own liturgies, but a central question still concerns how faithful new liturgies are to the old. The Anglican Church has always, and always will, put the understanding of the people above mere tradition. There are rock-solid traditionalists in every generation of the church, and it is part of Anglican communality that they are given credence and a voice even when they are in a minority. It is not part of Anglicanism that the majority rules in matters of faith; the many can be very wrong. Because of this, debate may seem endless and circular, but it is part of our commonality.

Another issue that puzzles non-Anglicans (and some Anglicans) is that we do not have a large body of professional theologians. Traditionally, our bishops have been our theologians, and that tradition continues in such writers as N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams. We, as Anglicans, read and admire non-theologians – mere Christians – who write and speak well of their faith journey. (C.S. Lewis is one of them.) While Anglican clergy are well-educated, I’d say we don’t admire or follow the teachings of someone based on their education, but on the words of their hearts. We are not Cranmerans, or Hookerists; we are the church that came out of England,w ith its many strands of thought and experience.

One misconception others have of Anglicans is that we are just “Catholic light” – that Henry VIII wanted to annul a marriage and the pope said no, so the king broke with Rome and started his own church. There is plenty of historical evidence that conflict between the English church and the Roman church continued after the Synod of Whitby, long before the Plantagenets and Tudors. A lot of English goods and money left Britain as church tax, donations, tithes and bequests. Henry saw that his tax base was going to a foreign monarch and moved to protect his sovereign rights. The English church had often disagreed with the Roman pontiff on appointments of episcopal sees and abbacies. The English church had a separate structure and theology before Whitby, and I suspect Abbess Hilda wished she had never agreed to call that synod. More Orthodox than Roman before Whitby, Anglican identity was entrenched and never forgotten despite the Latin facade. Cranmer looked to the East for liturgical structure, and much of the first English liturgy owes something to Chrysostom.

I am not apologizing in this apologia for the wrongs of the Anglican church – its collusion with the government in oppression, its deepseated worldliness, its occasional sense of entitlement, and its arrogance of power. The modern Anglican Church is lacking in humility – and the Lord will empty the house of the proud man. (Proverbs 15:35).

But here I stand. I have wandered and sojourned, and longed to return home. I did return, and I stand humbled.

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