Single prayer book no panacea

Published October 1, 1999

ONE CHURCH, One Faith, ? One Book? Dr Reginald Stackhouse echoes a refrain which has been sung by other voices within our church when he writes, “It is time for us to be one church with one book again.” This melody is perhaps evident already in the Book of Alternative Services in the inclusion of a BCP-like liturgy, and has been taken up in earnest recently by a chorus of bishops in the Province of Canada. The strain has been heard in the Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee, which has been given the task by General Synod of orchestrating the liturgical direction of the church in the year 2001. Finally, some people have suggested a book of Common Prayer would be a fitting duet with our new hymn book of Common Praise.

This is a sweet refrain, concordant as it is with Jesus’ prayer for the church “that they be one,” and the potential political benefits of producing an omni-book merit reflection. But I want to sound a note which may clash with the voices of those calling for liturgical consolidation. The production of a single book of liturgy is not a panacea for the church’s woes for the following three reasons.

In the first place, we are passing through a season of liturgical experimentation. It may be short- sighted to attempt to fix the liturgy at a time when many parishes are trying out new liturgies, and, indeed, the community of liturgical scholars world-wide seem to be rethinking the whole shape of liturgy. The Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee has become aware of many liturgical resources now available in electronic form, and we know that many parishes have their own liturgies. Moreover, the approval given by General Synod in 1998 to five new pieces in the alternative services repertoire is an indication that as a church we are still hoping to find a collection of prayers which will give satisfying expression to who we are as Canadian Anglicans. It is probable, therefore, that any single book produced in the near future would be obsolete by the time it reached the pew.

In the second place, the attempt to produce a single book may actually exacerbate, not ease tensions in the church. Acting on recommendations from the BAS evaluation commission, the 1995 General Synod directed the General Synod of 2001 to establish a revision commission to undertake a full revision of the BAS. The motion further states “that alongside any revised book of contemporary language liturgies, the Book of Common Prayer retain its canonical status and availability.” The evaluation commission, representing “a wide diversity of the theological, liturgical and spiritual traditions,” and formulating their opinions in light of a massive national survey, considered the one-book option. But they could not recommend this option “either immediately or at some point in the future” because it “would almost certainly lead to conflict rather than reconciliation.”

Now, my experience of the church is that there is at the moment a truce in the liturgical hostilities which plagued us when the BAS was introduced. Most parishes have compromised on the matter of liturgy and the majority at least tolerate the present arrangement. At the same time, there are initiatives under way in the church to achieve a greater understanding between different church parties. Discussion in the Faith, Worship and Ministry Committee has been characterized by toleration and good will. We are also hopeful that the work of the Primate’s Theological Commission (the result of an evaluation commission recommendation) will help us to forge deeper respect in the church. It would be a shame if the cry for a single book were allowed to upset the balance that now exists or to derail the dialogue so necessary to our true unity.

This leads to my final point: liturgy ought not to be regarded as a political tool. Dr. Stackhouse says “one book with two rites can make us one church again.” But we must protest. Only Christ can make us one. Liturgy is not a party plank. It is the language of worship and its primary purpose is to draw us closer to God. If we are drawn closer to God through a hundred different prayer books, we cannot help but be drawn closer together as a church.

For this reason, let us put the notion of a single book of worship out of our heads, let us respect the wisdom of our synod in applying ourselves to the development of new alternative prayers and let us continue to pray for the time when our different voices will be ordered in the music of divine praise, already joined by the saints in glory. Dr. Stephen Andrews is Dean of Saskatchewan and a member of the Faith, Worship, and Ministry Committee of the General Synod.


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