Admirable Simplicity

Admirable Simplicity

by Georg Wayne Smith, George Wayne Smith


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An overview of the nature of Anglican worship and the inherent simplicity within the rites and rubrics gleaned from primary and secondary sources in the tradition, combined with a good dose of reason.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780898692617
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 10/01/1996
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 924,060
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.38(d)

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Admirable Simplicity

Principles for Worship Planning in the Anglican Tradition

By George Wayne Smith

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 1996 George Wayne Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-89869-261-7


The Anglican Way

THE REMARKABLE VARIETY OF LITURGICAL PRACTICES in the Episcopal Church leads many observers to assume that most decisions about worship have to do with taste or personal preference. Subjectivity often rules, and even when planners keep subjectivity in check, suspicions of subjectivity abound. Parishioners frequently surmise that the proclivities (and even idiosyncrasies) of their priest, more than anything else, set the agenda for the parish worship. Clergy of every sort—evangelicals, anglo-catholics, charismatics, liberals, and even rubrical fanatics—often presume to have a right, based in the worship canons, to superimpose their preferences on a parish, with little or no regard for the traditions of that worshiping community or the greater Anglican heritage. Does anyone expect to find a definable core for Anglican liturgical practice beyond these subjective bases?

Moreover, the aesthetic issues often determine many of the decisions about parish liturgy. A passion for "the beauty of holiness" has marked the Anglican way, but even this norm becomes problematic in an age when a common language for describing the good, the beautiful, and the true has collapsed. The worldwide community of Christianity called Anglicanism lacks a consensus when it comes to aesthetic concerns, and this lack of consensus plagues our conversations when we gather to plan our liturgies.

In many parishes the liturgy becomes a focus for pastoral conflicts of every sort, a microcosm of other struggles around issues of authority, taste, propriety, and necessity. Many are the battles fought over music (renewal or traditional? hymnal or song-book? guitars or tracker organ? choir or congregation?), ceremonial (restrained or fulsome? modest or elaborate?), and language (Rite I or Rite II? Prayer Book or supplemental texts for inclusive language? or missal? or earlier Prayer Book?). The parish and the wise pastor learn together to navigate these unsettled waters and even to direct the energy from the storm into a kind of creativity. The unwary pastor, ill-prepared or thinking it possible to navigate the waters alone, will sink. Anglican liturgy depends heavily on the priest and pastor having a sense, even a charism, for planning the liturgy and presiding in it. But Anglican liturgy is more about the people than about the presider. From the first Prayer Book in 1549, the liturgical quest of Anglicanism has been to recover worship as truly leit-ourgia, a "work of the people," which is the root meaning of this Greek word. The most recent American Prayer Book invites us to take the next step in this movement of recovering the liturgy for all God's people, a movement begun in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's remarkable sixteenth-century reforms, the first step in this continuing Anglican quest.

One of my assumptions for this work is that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer brings to fruition some of the fondest ideals of the early reformers. Cranmer's notions about weekly celebration of eucharist as a norm for worship, for example, never took root in practice, with but rare exceptions. Morning prayer, litany, and antecommunion comprised the usual routine of Sunday worship until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the weekly celebration of eucharist became more common (though nowhere universal) in the parishes. BCP 1979 recovers Cranmer's assumptions about weekly communion and articulates them more clearly than any previous Prayer Book, making the implementation more practical. Now, nearly everywhere in the Episcopal Church, people have agreed that the chief act of worship on Sunday will be the celebration of the eucharist. This widespread consensus of practice represents not only something entirely new but also a reasonable progression from our origins. The practice is thoroughly Anglican.

Another assumption in this work is that the Anglican tradition in worship often suggests paths for finding creativity through controversy. Let us admit that the history of Prayer Book worship has brought alternating waves of accommodation and serious conflict, showing Anglicans as a contentious lot from time to time. Riots broke out in Cornwall and Devon after the introduction of BCP 1549. One of the numerous causes of the English Civil War in the 1640s was the introduction of the ill-fated Scottish Prayer Book of 1637. Physical violence, thankfully, has seldom typified liturgical conflict in Anglicanism, despite these early examples. Still, the conflicts have not been without serious theological and personal rancor. Thus we see Richard Hooker's monumental work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, answering the puritan rancor against the Elizabethan settlement and the settlement's liturgical expression in BCP 1559. Ironically, the settlement undertaken by Elizabeth, a firm compromise seeking to make it possible for the English church to be both catholic and reformed, gave little satisfaction to those who thought it went either too far, on the one hand, or not far enough, on the other. Those who argued that the settlement lacked the appropriate fervor for reformation (the puritans) spoke most loudly and contentiously against it. But out of this acrimony came the most sublime of Anglican arguments in favor of Prayer Book worship, Hooker's Book 5 of Ecclesiastical Polity.

Other turning points in worship—the non-juring controversies, the work of the evangelicals John and Charles Wesley, the freedom of the American church after the Revolution and its subsequent divergent liturgical tradition (that is, divergent from the English tradition), the controversies surrounding the ritualist movement in the nineteenth century, to name but a few—have come through conflict. All this is to say that conflict is no anomaly in our tradition; in some ways it is our very lifeblood. At times Anglicans have bungled their way through the conflict. Was it necessary, for example, to imprison non-jurors in the seventeenth century or ritualists in the nineteenth? Conflict, nonetheless, forms a part of the Anglican ethos. We hammer out what is important to us through conversation-become-controversy. Without allowing it to become oppressive or violent, abusive or hurtful, we can learn from the tension. And we should not be surprised when controversy comes our way in the wake of liturgical change—or through a refusal to change.

The tradition of Anglican worship, shaped as it is by such conflict and change, brings forward to us a substantive, dynamic, never static core of practice. Accordingly, a faithful response to this living tradition shies away from dogged mimicry of the past. Thus, for example, attempts to imitate BCP 1549, its style, its rubrical demands, and its ethos, would lead us astray. No single moment in the tradition constitutes the norm for Anglicans, and we do harm to our identity and vocation if we romanticize any such moment and try to recapture it. Perhaps the catholic renewal in nineteenth-century Anglicanism, with all the gifts it brought to the tradition, erred most clearly in its sometimes exaggerated attempts to recapture the practices of the late medieval era, a normative period for the so-called ritualists. Their looking back to this period made them miss the mark in two regards. First, the ritualists assumed a static rather than dynamic norm for the liturgy. "If the medieval catholic church did it this way, then we should do it also." One immediately wonders, why this period and not another? This question brings us to the second point. The ritualists typically failed in their attempts to bring forward authentic medieval practices; rather, they often formed their liturgy around what they thought the church did in the middle ages. Their thinking about the middle ages derived from the spirit of their own age, the age of romanticism. And their liturgies often tell us more about the aspirations of nineteenth-century England than about the late medieval church. The ritualists frequently had more in common with Sir Walter Scott and his Waverly novels than with actual liturgical practices in English cathedrals during the middle ages. They thought they were recovering these latter ideals.

The tractarian movement and its successors forced a major turning point in the Anglican tradition of worship. Anyone who worships in a parish where there are eucharistic vestments, candles on the altar, a vested choir, acolytes, and weekly eucharist must acknowledge a heritage from the tractarians. In the Episcopal Church, we are all heirs of the catholic renewal. I point out this misjudgment in method taken by the movements of catholic renewal in the nineteenth century to sound a warning to us, not to deride an important source of renewal for all of Anglicanism. Any time we try to freeze a moment from history and look to that moment as the norm, we miss the point of continuity and change within tradition. Tradition is a living organism, and we learn much about its current life from examining what has gone before. But the quest to recover for the present all the practices and customs of an earlier age results in something very artificial. We cannot mimic the early church, the medieval church, the Reformation church, the colonial church, the Victorian church, or the church of the BCP 1928. We cannot do that because we are the church of our age, in our cultural setting, with our knowledge about the Bible and the past, with our peculiar ways of knowing and our limitations. We cannot pretend that we are the Reformation church, fighting the battles fought then. We have our own battles to fight. Mimicry of the past may make the church look like those bands of middle-class folk who dress up in Union or Confederate uniforms on weekends and "reenact" battles. Such action might be quaint or interesting or even commendable to those who delight in all the details. The ability to re-enact, however, is not the quest of history, nor is it the passion of a living tradition. Such a tradition lives to empower people to act in their own age, not to recapture a fleeting moment from the past. Jaroslav Pelikan writes eloquently: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."

The Anglican tradition hands over to us riches of great substance, and we rightly treasure these riches. But even more, the Anglican tradition shows us a method, an approach to living the liturgy. BCP 1549 may seem foreign to us, distant, almost in another language, especially if we read it in an edition preserving the archaic ways of spelling familiar words. Yet even this odd book (odd, that is, to moderns) sets forth principles that continue as hallmarks of our way of Christian worship and life: worship in the vernacular; a book for priest and people, not just priest; word and sacrament; simplicity, directness, plain speaking wherever possible; worship as a source for learning how to be Christian; continuity with the past shaped to meet current needs. These broad principles more than the details provide insights necessary for shaping Anglican liturgy in our own day. If we study the early Prayer Book tradition closely, we will also find further hints of a methodology to inform our current needs and practices. One example has to do with an approach to the resources of Christian antiquity, as Thomas Cranmer writes in the preface to the first Book of Common Prayer 1549, a preface included in the section called "Historical Documents" in BCP 1979:

There was neuer anything by the wit of man so well deuised, or so surely established which (in continuace of time) hath not been corrupted: as (emong other thinges) it may plainly appere by the common prayers in the Churche, commonly called diuine seruice: the firste originall and grounde whereof, if a manne woulde searche out by the auncient fathers, he shall finde that the same was not ordeyned, but of a good purpose, and for a great aduancement of godliness.

Cranmer sets forth in this first substantive paragraph in his first Prayer Book what would become a crucial approach in the Prayer Book tradition—the need to "searche out by the auncient fathers." But Cranmer cites the ancients not for the sake of mimicry but that he might join his purpose to theirs, that is, that he might ordain the liturgy for "good purpose" and especially for "a great aduancement of godliness." And indeed, Cranmer did draw on sources from antiquity, insofar as they were available to him, but his quest was for the liveliness of the church in England, not for a point-by-point correspondence to the practices of the ancients.

Following the same approach, we might look to the ancients for insights around a crucial and timely issue such as the renewal of the rites of baptism. The ancients (Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyril, Ambrose, and many others) write about a means of Christian formation called the catechumenate, a lengthy and complex process leading to baptism. Hippolytus in particular assumes a catechumenate lasting perhaps three years, and the movement of the process effectively sets the believer apart—radically apart—from the surrounding and increasingly hostile world of the Roman empire in about the year 215. We, perhaps sensing a culture growing less hospitable to Christian living, might look to Hippolytus and the others for insights about living through such times. But in our cultural setting, it might not be appropriate to insist on a process culminating in a radical setting-apart from the world. An assumption about a three-year period for the process of formation might also be misplaced in the contemporary setting. Similarly, post-baptismal sermons of the sort preached by Cyril and Ambrose—ponderous, lengthy, and high-flown in rhetoric—would sound odd, if not boring, in twentieth-century America. Nonetheless, the ancients' general approach may suggest a template for our needs in "a great aduancement of godliness." Perhaps there is, from Hippolytus, the possibility of a serious and profound liturgical progression culminating in baptism; perhaps, from Cyril and Ambrose, there is a template for substantive post-baptismal formation of some sort. A three-year process and lofty rhetorical flourishes do not meet the needs of the church now. But perhaps the methodology does, and it is the methodology that has been adapted pastorally in the catechumenal processes available to us in The Book of Occasional Services.

Purpose and Sources

The purpose in writing this work is two-fold. My first design is to ferret out and describe broad principles from the Anglican tradition that might enliven ordinary parish worship in the Episcopal Church today. The second, related to the first, is to provide for planners (clergy, musicians, and members of worship committees) an introduction to the peculiarly Anglican tradition from which their decisions about the liturgy must arise. I do not intend to list answers from the tradition, as if to suggest simplistically that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way, but I hope that a basic familiarity with the Anglican heritage will help planners know the various options before them and (most important) the necessary questions to ask. Three sources inform this endeavor. The first and most important is the most recent Prayer Book, BCP 1979. This book provides a liturgical norm for the Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Yet this norm itself is evolving, leaning toward a next Book of Common Prayer. And if we continue in the Anglican heritage, we must assume that there will be a next one. The preface to BCP 1662 reads:

The particular Forms of divine Worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be vsed therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged: it is but reasonable that vpon waighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein as to those that are in place of Authority, should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.

BCP 1979 is a thoroughly Anglican book. Its departure from Cranmerian language in Rite II in no way undercuts this Anglican identity. This book represents but the most recent distillation of the very ideals held dear by Cranmer and the other reformers. The practices of BCP 1979 define the norm for the Episcopal Church, for the book represents a consensus for the time being wrought through controversy. New controversies no doubt will test the margins of the current book and require a new consensus. But for now, BCP 1979 gives the Episcopal Church the definitive core for its worship. The Prayer Book, then, deserves our respect (although not our undying allegiance, which becomes uncomfortably akin to idolatry) not simply because of its liturgical merit, rich in its own right, but most of all because respect to the Prayer Book becomes a way of respecting brothers and sisters whose consensus and assent the Prayer Book represents. In reality, it is not the Prayer Book to which we owe respect; instead, our respect is rightly directed toward the larger community, the Episcopal Church, from which the Prayer Book takes its current expression.

A second procession of sources comes in the historic Prayer Books, from 1549 to 1928. These books—in their similarities and differences and (especially) in a deeper underlying purpose that cuts across the entire history of Anglican worship—inform our understanding of the Anglican way. The structures of meaning from the Prayer Book tradition give us a provisional norm, always accountable to the current Prayer Book and its expressions.

Excerpted from Admirable Simplicity by George Wayne Smith. Copyright © 1996 George Wayne Smith. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



Chapter 1: The Anglican Way          

Chapter 2: The Daily Office          

Chapter 3: Baptism and Confirmation          

Chapter 4: The Eucharist          

Chapter 5: The Pastoral Offices          

Chapter 6: Planning the Liturgy          


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