Evolutionary text adapts to culture

Published June 1, 1999

ON CONVERSATIONS Anglicans are having with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada dialogue often turns to questions about the foundational documents and principles of our two churches. Lutherans have a confessional church; that is, they base their doctrine on the 16th century Augsburg Confession. Often they expect that the Thirty Nine Articles play the same role for Anglicans, yet the parallel is not exact. Anglicans are always engaged in struggle among ourselves about what constitutes the essential statement of our faith, and we have (of course) several answers. Most would agree, however, that it is not the Thirty Nine Articles, but the liturgical book in which they are contained, that is one of the principal touchstones of our tradition.

The Book of Common Prayer forms part of the bedrock of Anglican tradition, yet it is also an evolutionary document. Since its publication 450 years ago, it has changed and grown, adapted to a variety of historical, liturgical, and cultural situations. Its revision has always been difficult, because it is so central to our expression of the relationship between our community and our God. It has found itself at home, in some form or other, on every continent and island. It is used in airplanes and submarines, even on spaceships; it is tucked in the backs of pews in cathedrals and prairie churches and carried reverently in cloth bags across the snows of the Ungava. It is also stacked in cupboards, half forgotten by parishes, which have opted exclusively for the Book of Alternative Services. Yet it remains the standard and norm of our worship, a key document in our canon law, ratified as the official text to which others are, indeed, alternatives.

We may be on the brink of undertaking yet another revision of the BCP. While this alarms some, we need to remember that this foundational book has always been in a process of revision. Sometimes the changes are minimal; sometimes, as with the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A.’s revision of 1979, quite sweeping. General Synod in 2001 will be making some choices about whether to revise the BCP, revise the BAS, maintain the two books, or do something quite startling by moving beyond books to electronic liturgy. he bishops of the Province of Canada have requested a revision that would give Canadian Anglicans one book again. It is deeply ingrained in our church culture to look to a book, even as we change it according to local custom, or put it on the shelf to watch over our leaflet liturgies.

While one might challenge the term “uneducated” in the following passage, our attitude to the BCP is not much changed from that expressed by the Lambeth Conference of 1908:

“While the educative value of the Book of Common Prayer and the importance of retaining it as a bond of union and standard of devotion should be fully recognized, every effort should be made, under due authority, to render the forms of public worship more intelligible to uneducated congregations and better suited to the widely diverse needs of the various races within the Anglican Communion.” (Resolution 24)

At the Lambeth Conference of 1998, to the best of my knowledge, the Cranmerian text of the BCP was never used in an official conference worship service. All around the Communion liturgy has been adapted and made more intelligible to widely diverse contexts. Yet somehow, there is still a fundamental bond to that original book: its shape, its style, its contents, its cadences still inform the manifold liturgies which have been prepared by Cranmer’s successors around the world. For many congregations, it is still the principal book, the preferred way of praying day by day and week by week. It continues to shape our theology and help to bring us home to our God.

Happy 450th birthday to a still beloved treasury. Alyson Barnett-Cowan is director of Faith Worship and Ministry for the Anglican Church of Canada.



Keep on reading

Skip to content