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The Future of Anglican Liturgy

ISS Reports


A paper given at the seminar of the Institute for Spiritual Studies held on the 25th of July.

Delivered by The Rev Dr Ron Dowling, who teaches liturgy part-time at the United Faculty of Theology. Ron has served on national and international liturgy commissions.

What makes liturgy Anglican?

According to Cranmer himself in Of Ceremonies and Concerning Service of the Church (BCP 1549, 1552 et al.): intelligibility, edification, corporateness are produced by single, simple liturgy in the vernacular, where scriptures are read and expounded in an orderly way, biblical teaching is incorporated throughout, all that is misleading or meaningless is excluded, words are audible, actions visible and congregational participation (speaking, singing, sharing sacraments) is encouraged.

At International Anglican Liturgical Consultation meeting in Prague in 2007 the topic was Anglican Liturgical Identity.

In an introductory document, Canon Christopher Irvine outlines the following as typical of Anglican liturgical "norms":

  1. Worship is liturgical and has an ordered shape and common structure. Lambeth 1978 endorsed the view that a unity of structure could happily be combined with a greater flexibility in the content of common prayer, a view which attracted ecumenical consensus and was developed in the IALC documents of the Toronto [1991] and Dublin [1995] Consultations on Baptism and Eucharist respectively. Against this focus on structure one might also observe that words, or the content are equally significant, as the story of the revisions of English Prayer Book testifies. The often cited principle of lex orandi, les credendi (as we worship, so we believe), is reciprocal and works in both directions, with our belief being shaped by our praying together, and by authorized forms of worship being shaped by the doctrinal understandings and perspectives of those who compose and authorize them. The vocabulary of the Church's prayer, we could say, has a grammar of doctrine.

  2. Worship is essentially corporate and envisages a wider social intentionality and bearing. What is recognized here is that those who consciously enter the presence of God are implicated in networks of social relationships set by the claims of our neighbour and of divine justice. It is sometimes wryly observed that the 'collection' is the ritual high point of a Church of England service, but its origins in Cranmer's introduction of 'the poor men's box' speaks of a deliberate welding together of our being called to divine service and the obligation placed upon the Christian community to provide for those in need. For us, this dual accent on social responsibility and corporate/common prayer contrasts with any inward-turned group of like-minded individuals, and, at the other extreme, the anonymity of mega-churches. Again, the corporate character of worship underlines how liturgy is dialogical, with ordained and lay people together voicing the Church's prayer and praise through the classic structure of versicles and responses, reading and canticles. In essence, this is Cranmer's vision of the Church, with the structure of catholic order, and of the whole people of God gathered together in prayer and praise under the word, and around the Lord's table.

  3. The Bible is central and to be read in the vernacular according to a lectionary system to ensure the reading of the full sweep of biblical literature. Cranmer's evident intention was to facilitate a greater biblical literacy among Christian people. Furthermore, scripture is to be heard (which means more than simply a public reading) in the context of shared worship. The primacy of the liturgical setting for the hearing of scripture guards against individual interpretations of the Bible, and suggests a particular liturgical hermeneutic. The hearing and reception of the word in the setting of corporate worship, as distinct from a private reading, was amplified by the architect of Anglican polity, Richard Hooker, who stressed how the Bible was heard as scripture when it was read aloud as part of divine service, and introduced the idea that the reading of the Bible in worship was also doxological, a service performed to God, as well as for the edification of those who heard it read.[1]

Irvine also touches on corporate confession, patterns of common prayer being inextricably bound to ecclesiology, and especially episcopacy. Anglicans subscribe to a single baptism, and regard baptism and eucharist as defining moments in Christian identity. Anglican worship has a care for aesthetics and has a leaning towards "decently and in order" among other things.

So what of the future?

I thank Rhys Bezzant for his paper. I mostly (strongly) agree with him, and I differ only in two areas:

  1. corporate vs individual — this is an expected difference between "catholic" and "evangelical". It is a difference of emphasis.

  2. Sacraments and symbols — hardly mentioned in his paper.

Corporate vs individual

Corporate vs individual is almost equivalent to Order vs freedom. Order used to be maintained by authorised texts and rubrics (Books of Common Prayer). Bishops, then synods, authorised these texts. Books were used to limit the freedom. But technology has passed all that by. Any given text can be downloaded at the desire of any given worship leader. Rhys rightly comments that whilst this makes for a much wider (even limitless) freedom, it can sometimes lead to error. No bishops I know will seek to correct or control that, but it is often complained about.

This raises questions about order/control. It used to be about every sentence and rubric, but since the liturgical renewal of the last 60 or so years, various parts of the Anglican Communion have used different texts. So it is that liturgical shape is important rather than sentences and phrases and whole prayers, both as a means of order, and a means of unity (previously understood as uniformity).

Bishop Godfrey Fryer in his paper in Facing the Future[2] speaks of the universal and local in regard to order. He argues for a core of values that should be common to all Anglicans: ordered reading of scriptures, use of bread and wine and a Prayer of Thanksgiving in the Eucharist, the Decision, the Affirmation of Faith, the Thanksgiving over water and the Baptismal formula (name of Fr, Son and HSP). I would also want to add the laying on of hands with prayer in ordination.

Most other liturgical forms can be more open to local variation (ie freedom): daily office, pastoral offices of marriage, sickness, death, other rites of passage. Many of these are already culture bound, especially around different geographic areas of the Communion. Here in Australia we have two forms of marriage in APBA. We do not have two types of marriage but two forms: biblical emphasis with liturgical shape making the difference. A controversial question for the not too distant future will be the question of same-sex relationships, even same-sex marriage. Marriage has always been a domestic rite, ie, concerned with the family and the living arrangements of its members. What happens when what has essentially been a domestic rite for its entire history finds the domestic bit changed, some would say beyond recognition? This certainly raises questions about freedom. The current Anglican Communion war is about that freedom.

Valuing our symbols and sacraments.

Our symbols, and the rituals that enact them, are an important part of our liturgy. The Liturgical Commission and the General Synod that authorises its work spends the vast majority of its time and energy on words and texts, almost as if the symbols can take care of themselves. They can, but we need to value them. Eating bread and drinking wine together have often been minimalised to individual little wafers, dipped in a cup. The wafers do not require eating, merely dissolving on the tongue! A very small amount of water does constitute "valid" baptism but does it speak of bathing, let alone dying and rising with Christ, of which Paul and others speak? In some circumstances the separation of word and symbols is so complete that we may as well drop the symbolic action. The only problem with this (and it is a major one) is that the ritual action carries its own message and meaning. This cannot be avoided and cannot be controlled. (Perhaps that's why some parts of the church prefer to stick with words.) If our symbols are to last into the future then they need to be released from their captive minimalism and given full expression, the best way of releasing their full meaning.

My biggest disappointment with Rhys' paper is that he barely mentions the sacraments. I refer to the so-called "gospel sacraments" of baptism and the Lord's Supper. These have a permanent place in the liturgical life of the church.

So what of the future?

I agree with Rhys that we need more Great Thanksgivings on quite a variety of themes, not just biblical books. Whilst the doctrine of the atonement is central to our Anglican theological stance, there is more than one way of dealing with it, not just the theories called 'penal atonement' or 'substitutionary atonement'. I would certainly like a Great Thanksgiving or two with other expression of our reconciliation with God. I would encourage our bishops to authorise Great Thanksgivings from around the Communion where there are instances of different expositions of atonement.

One of the disappointments with the taking up of APBA has been the refusal in some places to allow the use of the whole book, especially some of the Great Thanksgivings. Of course I refer to No 3 in the Second Order. This Prayer has a unique story to tell. Cobbled together in the "back room" late at night during the meeting of General Synod, it was presented to members of General Synod as an agreed text between Sydney and Ballarat. It was an evangelical/anglo-catholic compromise, so it was said. It was adopted into APBA — without ever having been prayed in public, and without ever having been properly trialed and approved by the Liturgy Commission. Soon afterwards a new archbishop of Sydney refused permission for its use. It is still banned, as is most of the rest of the book. Of itself this raises questions about freedom and unity. Does this bode well or badly for the future? Some would say badly, but I am not so sure. As a liturgist I think it is a badly crafted prayer, the phrases are long and difficult to speak confused in theological stance, and certainly not having undergone proper process. This state of affairs should make us think again about the limits or otherwise of liturgical freedom.

Bishop Fryer rightly points out in his paper[3] that many Australian Anglicans do not understand or use the freedom that is granted through the rubrics and notes of APBA, let alone the wide freedom available through the Outline Order for Holy Communion (pg 812) where only a series of headings for the various liturgical parts is provided.

Other questions for the future of Eucharistic practice include the admission of very young children to communion (some would say from their baptism on). A related question growing around the Communion is the question of whether baptism is required at all for welcoming persons to Eucharistic fellowship. After all, they say, Jesus did not require baptism first. And then there are questions about presiding over the Eucharistic assembly, not just the gender of the person, but whether that person has received Episcopal ordination or not. We could be here all night discussing some of these!

Ecclesiology and Holy Baptism go hand in hand. The importance of Holy Baptism for the future is a question of "what" rather than "if" I believe. There are many pastoral questions here. But these are pastoral rather than liturgical. And there is a question about the future role of Confirmation and baptismal renewal.

Another area that needs looking at in the future is the relationship between the liturgy and the Church's mission, especially the mission to the poor and outcast. We do not seem to link eating bread and drinking wine in any way to those who are starving from famine or who lack enough to drink. We have only begun this exploration. There is a long way to go.

One thing in the future is highly likely: there will not be another printed revised book. The technology has passed that completely by, and the economics have joined it. So whilst order and freedom may be the hot issues for the future, Rhys is right: the future is with us now.


  1. Christopher Irvine, Ed, Anglican Liturgical Identity, Joint Liturgical Studies No.65, (Alcuin GROW, 2009)
  2. Stephen Hale and Andrew Curnow, Eds, Facing the Future (Acorn Press, Melbourne 2009)
  3. Facing the Future, p241-8.

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