Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conflict and Innovation: Learning from the Prayer Book Tradition

I’ve recently been reviewing the Prayer Book tradition in preparation for teaching. I haven’t looked at this history in detail since before “the recent unpleasantness,” so some of the things I’ve been reading about have struck a chord in a new way. Among other resources, I’ve particularly benefited from reading William Sydnor’s The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997). For a slender volume, it provides a fairly detailed and comprehensive look at each of the English and American Prayer Books.

Based upon my recent reading and research, and with the acknowledgement that I’m skimming the surface of very complex historical and theological matters, there are two points I wish to highlight about Anglicanism when viewed through the lens of the Prayer Book tradition. Those two points are (1) the centrality of conflict and (2) the tendency towards innovation.

First point: the centrality of conflict.

Take the first two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552. Viewed from the perspective of their reception, both were failures. 1549, for example, went too far for the conservatives and not far enough for the reformers. Here’s how William Sydnor summarizes it:

“In producing the 1549 Book, Cranmer and his colleagues were sincerely and honestly seeking to lead the Church of England into a genuine revival of its worship practices. They aspired to help worshippers find greater meaning and significance in practices which were grounded in the rich heritage of Christendom. … The attempt failed from every point of view. The conservatives disliked its innovations and the omission of old services; the reformers thought it retained too much of the old and did not go far enough in innovation” [The Prayer Book Through the Ages Revised Edition (Morehouse, 1997), p. 12].

This widespread dissatisfaction motivated Prayer Book revision, which produced the more Reformed 1552 Prayer Book. William Sydnor notes that it was “unpopular everywhere” [The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 23]. Given that reception, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that the 1552 Prayer Book was in official use for a mere 8 months before ultra-Catholic “Bloody Mary” canned it for the Latin liturgy.

The tide turned in favor of the Prayer Book when Elizabeth I ascended the throne on November 17, 1558. With the Queen’s backing, the 1559 Prayer Book was authorized by an Act of Uniformity that passed by only 3 votes. Penalties for failing to use the new Prayer Book included “a fine of one year’s stipend and six months imprisonment for the first offense, forfeit of all ‘spiritual promotions’ and one year imprisonment for the second, life imprisonment for the third” [William Sydnor, The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 27]. Given such penalties, perhaps Sydnor is guilty of understatement in noting that there was “little opposition” under Elizabeth’s reign to bringing back the Prayer Book.

Similar use of political force was used to institute the 1662 Prayer Book. Sydnor notes that “with the passage of the Act of Uniformity in 1662 civil power went a step further [than retaining practices to which the Puritans objected], requiring ministers not only to adopt the new arrangements, but also to declare the unlawfulness of their past conduct [under Cromwell’s Presbyterian Commonwealth] and to submit to Episcopal ordination” [p. 50]. Part of what this meant was limits to inclusion. Presbyterianism, for example, was officially banned from the Church of England.

Dissatisfaction, protest, revolt, lobbying with the like-minded for reform suitable to one’s own preferences against opponents, exclusion, and the threat and/or reality of violent coercion: these all mark the birth of the Prayer Book tradition in England.

In a word, conflict is central to the foundations of what over time formed the unique trajectory of Christian belief and practice we now refer to as “Anglicanism.” As part of the warp and woof of the Prayer Book tradition, conflict is in our ecclesial DNA. So we shouldn’t be surprised or alarmed that something as central to our identity as conflict serves as a governing force in the unfolding story of today’s Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It’s part of who we are.

Second point: the tendency towards innovation.

There are many examples of this within the English Prayer Book tradition, as the ultra-Catholic and ultra-Protestant factions would no doubt have attested in response to the 1549, 1552, and 1559 Prayer Books. For the purposes of this posting, however, I want to focus on the revisions in the Proposed Book of 1786, the precursor to the first American Prayer Book of 1789. The Proposed Book included a number of changes from the 1662 Prayer Book to which English bishops strongly objected. Here are a few of those changes:

1. Under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism and deism, the Proposed Book “deemphasized distinctive doctrines such as the Trinity and the atonement and offered a less exalted view of the sacraments and the episcopacy” [Jeffrey Lee, Opening the Prayer Book (Cowley, 1999), p. 62].

2. The Proposed Book eliminated the Nicene Creed from the Communion service.

3. The Proposed Book eliminated the Athanasian Creed from Morning Prayer on Major Feast days.

4. The Proposed Book eliminated the phrase “he descended into hell” from the Apostles’ Creed.

The English bishops viewed such proposed revisions as signifying at least a downplaying if not an explicit rejection of the substantive creedal content of the historic Christian faith. In other words, the American proposal was an innovation that went beyond revision by breaking in specific ways with the English Prayer Book tradition. And so in response the English bishops wrote:

“ … we cannot help being afraid … lest we should be the instrument of establishing an Ecclesiastical system which will be called a branch of the Church of England, but afterwards may appear to have departed from it essentially, either in doctrine or in discipline” [quoted in William Sydnor’s The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 60].

Here’s how the pre-General Convention meeting of Anglicans in the newly formed United States of America met the objections of the English bishops:

“The ‘southern states’ responded to this communication at the second session of their 1786 Convention (October 10-11) by restoring both the Nicene Creed and the permissive use of the descent-into-hell clause of the Apostles’ Creed. This action received the approval of English bishops and cleared the way for [William] White of Pennsylvania and [Samuel] Provoost of New York to sail to England the next month for Episcopal consecration” [William Sydnor, The Prayer Book Through the Ages, p. 60].

One wonders if these concessions would have been made were it not for the fact that the American Church was looking to the English bishops to consecrate American bishops. True, Samuel Seabury was the first bishop consecrated for the American church, having secured the episcopate with his consecration by bishops in the Episcopal Church of Scotland on November 14, 1784. But Seabury’s consecration did not secure an American episcopate in communion with the Church of England, and in particular with the See of Canterbury (note that William White was not consecrated by English bishops that included Archbishop of Canterbury John Moore until 1787).

Is it possible that if we had already secured an American episcopate from the Church of England prior to consideration of a new Prayer Book, the proposed downplaying of historic, creedal Christianity would have been enshrined in the American Prayer Book tradition from the start?

I’m sure that liturgical scholars can weigh in on that question with far more authority than I can, but thinking about all of this leads me to ponder another question.

To what extent does the fact that the Episcopal Church got its “autonomous” grounding in Enlightenment rationalism and deism help explain a tendency – embodied from the beginning in the Proposed Book of Common Prayer of 1786 – towards an innovative if not heterodox theology? Is it really a departure from Episcopal Church tradition, in other words, if our leaders – lay or ordained – publicly question things like the Trinity, the atonement, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation? Hasn’t that kind of questioning and free-thinking been there from the very beginning of our consolidation as a church body? Isn’t that a part of who we are as an American Church?

Anglican theologian James E. Griffiss writes that “our history and foundations [as Anglicans] demonstrate a pattern of continuity and change – continuity with the tradition of the gospel we have received in Christ and, at the same time, a willingness to interpret and understand that gospel as changing situations might require” [The Anglican Vision (Cowley, 1997), p. 101]. As part of my learning from the Prayer Book tradition, I’m led to ask the question, how much conflict and how much innovation is continuous with the gospel we have received in Christ? Are there limits, in other words, to healthy, productive conflict and innovation within our Church? And if so, what are the criteria by which we recognize those limits?

In conclusion, I don’t think that conflict and heterodoxy are necessarily the worst evils that can beset us. Conflict can offer opportunities for insight and growth that would otherwise be lacking. So it’s not by definition a bad thing. It all depends on how conflict is managed and how we respond to it. And, like heresy, heterodoxy can provide opportunities for clarification and differentiation. Again, like conflict, it depends on how we respond to it.

The problem we face today, it seems to me, is that we lack publicly recognized, institutionally grounded ways of adjudicating conflict and responding to heterodoxy (and, for that matter, heresy). And so the forces of conflict that are central to our Anglican tradition, as well as those tendencies towards innovation that push us to challenge the limits of scripture and tradition, can sometimes contribute to the free-for-all of pursuing subjective preferences at the expense of the common good.

Does the Prayer Book tradition offer internal resources to help deal with these matters, or do we need intervention from the outside? Does Anglicanism have the resources within itself to meet the challenges of our time, or will common prayer collapse into cacophony under the weight of our tradition’s internal drive towards conflict and innovation?

Only time will tell.

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