I venture to say that the question put to me by the Rupert’s Land News editor – what unites us as Anglicans, even if our worship styles differ? – would have been an easy one to answer 60 years ago. To walk into any parish in the diocese on a Sunday morning in 1958 meant worship according to the rites of the Book of Common Prayer. To be sure, there would have been variations across the Diocese, ranging from the Anglo-Catholic ceremonial of St. Michael & All Angels to the decidedly low church commitments of parishes such as Holy Trinity, Winnipeg or St. Andrew’s, Woodhaven. Feathers would ruffle (and occasionally sabres even rattle) over matters such as candles on the altar, coloured vestments, and the frequency of communion, yet what was held in common was the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, in 1958 that book would still have been the 1918 version of what was then known officially as “The Church of England in the Dominion of Canada,” as the edition we now think of as being the “old” Book of Common Prayer was only approved for experimental use in 1959.
It has often been suggested that the 1959/62 Prayer Book came into being 20 years too early, as its release coincided with the beginning of a period marked by a heightened interest in liturgical renewal and innovation. Within the decade, many parishes and dioceses were beginning to experiment with new rites and ceremonies, which in time led to the authorization of the Book of Alternative Services. The introduction of that book was not uncontroversial, and some readers may recall the 1989 convening of the church’s Supreme Court of Appeal to consider arguments about the validity of the Book of Alternative Services, including questions of whether ordinations and even marriages conducted according to its rites were valid. Those were not easy days for the Church, with both individuals and parish communities often planting a flag in either the Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services camp. Needless to say, this question of what united us was foremost in the minds of many.
While some did leave the Church over the matter of liturgical renewal, in time the dust more or less settled, leaving a pattern in which some parishes made exclusive use of either the Book of Alternative Services or the Book of Common Prayer, while others moved into a practice of using both books for various liturgies. That sort of middle ground settlement was actually quite true to the deeper Anglican tradition, and in a sense reflected the Elizabethan Settlement of the late 1550s, which drew the circle sufficiently wide to make room within the Church of England for those of both catholic and protestant leanings. In the case of that settlement, the common element was in fact the Book of Common Prayer. The pressing question in our day has to do with articulating the common element(s) when there are not only two books, but also an array of approved supplemental material and any number of local innovations.
The simplest answer is that it is the bishop who unifies us; that all of the parishes in this diocese are under our bishop’s authority and direction, and, because our bishop is in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury, we are all members of the Anglican Communion. That’s fine and good, but it doesn’t really go all that far in terms of a shared identity.
Unfashionable as it may sound, I am of the opinion that we do well to look to the genius of the Book of Common Prayer and to some of the key commitments of its chief architect Thomas Cranmer. In spite of the fact that for the better part of four centuries you were likely to encounter sung Matins on a Sunday morning in the average parish church, widely and regularly receiving the Eucharist was key to Cranmer’s project. Equally important was his insistence that communion be received neither too lightly nor continually deferred due to some burden of guilt or unworthiness. That’s the force of the Prayer of Humble Access, with its insistence that, while we may well confess that “we are not worthy,” we are coming into the presence of a God, “Whose property is always to have mercy.”
A second key part of Cranmer’s vision was for a biblically-literate church, such that not only is the Prayer Book itself shot through with Scripture, its lectionary for daily morning and evening prayer is dense and thorough. Closely related was his desire that the daily office be prayed not only by clergy and in the chapels of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, but by all who were able to read. Thanks to the invention of the printing press, books were more widely available and literacy was on the rise, and so Cranmer was able to envision a praying church soaked in the Bible.
We could certainly do worse than to have an Anglican Church united around Eucharist, a heightened level of biblical literacy, and a commitment to daily prayer in our churches and our homes. It might not look like the daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer, but a shared commitment to a simple form of daily prayer and reading might just help us to remember who we are.
To this I would want to add one more point, this one inspired by the Anglican writer Kenneth Leech in his little book Subversive Orthodoxy. The churches of the 21st century will need to be what he calls “communities of rational inquiry,” with “a spirituality of struggle, of interrogation, a community of debate, a zone of truth seeking.” In such a community, space is made for dissent and for alternate views, precisely as a gradual way forward. I believe this, too, is in our DNA as Anglicans. It is clearly visible in our synodical model of governance, in which clergy and elected lay delegates are expected to vote according to conscience and even encouraged to voice views that may not be neither popular nor widely held.
Yet this goes much deeper than the relatively recent deliberations on same sex unions and proposed changes to the Marriage Canon, and can fairly be traced back to the aforementioned Elizabethan Settlement. It is a spirit given expression in the oft-quoted saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” cited by the Anglican Puritan writer Richard Baxter in his 1670 book, The True and Only Way of Concord of All the Christian Churches. It is given expression in the existence of movements so varied as the evangelical Clapham Sect – which laboured for both the extension of “foreign” missions and the abolition of slavery – and the Oxford Movement, with its more thoroughgoing Anglo-Catholic and ritualist heirs. Not that there weren’t times when some of the bishops would have wished that the circle wasn’t drawn quite so widely – this was certainly true in the case of the Anglo-Catholic socialist and activist Stewart Headlam, who was inhibited from functioning as a priest by two successive bishops of London – yet such exceptions to the rule that space can and should be made for dissent and alternate views are in fact relatively few.
Still, I confess that this may all be wishful thinking, and more prescriptive of what could define us than descriptive of what currently unifies us. Yet the vision of being a Eucharistic, biblical, thinking, and praying church is one that is both true to our heritage and promising for our future.