On not taking advantage of lawful liturgical flexibility

There’s an interesting post over at Anglican Down Under exploring what is required of people leading Anglican services in New Zealand, where, it appears, there is a rather confusing mishmash of practice going on (Bosco Peters has frequently weighed in on this situation).

I’m sure we have a certain amount of confusion in Canada too, although I don’t think we’re quite at the level of the Kiwis (but then again, I live a sheltered life, so i may be wrong!).

We Anglicans are kind of attached to our liturgies, because they are the way we express our deepest beliefs about the God we believe in and the Gospel we proclaim. We tend to operate on the principle of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’; in other words, we don’t feel compelled to make up new stuff on the back of a cigarette packet, but rather, we assume that the Christians who went before us knew a thing or two, and the worship traditions they evolved probably have a lot of wisdom embodied in them. When we want to make changes to our liturgies, we discuss them for quite a lengthy period of time at meetings of our General Synod, and such changes usually take a number of years to come into effect.

Clergy make promises around this sort of stuff. In the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land (to which my Diocese of Edmonton belongs) we make the following promise when we are ordained and/or inducted into a new parish:

I, A.B., do solemnly make the following declaration: I assent to the Solemn Declaration adopted by the first General Synod in 1893 (as printed in the Book of Common Prayer), and to the Book of Common Prayer, and of the ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons; I believe the Doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada as therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God; and in Public Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the said book prescribed and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority. (italics mine)

‘Lawful authority’ is understood to mean (1) the General Synod, which has authorized other liturgical texts along with the Book of Common Prayer (principally the Book of Alternative Services 1985, and also some supplementary Eucharistic Prayers and Services of the Word, and a few other things), (2) the diocesan bishop, who has authority to authorize the use of additional liturgical material in his/her diocese (as our own bishop has recently done with respect to materials from the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’ book).

All well and good, and in fact I’m not particularly infected with what C.S. Lewis called ‘The liturgical fidget’, and I’m not constantly looking around for improved liturgies and prayers, as I’m inclined to think that the atmosphere in which the service is conducted is perhaps more important than liturgical perfectionism.

However, I also think that there is a lot more freedom embedded in our current liturgies than people tend to think. Let me give some examples from the most frequently used service in the Anglican Church of Canada, the Holy Eucharist in (more or less) contemporary language beginning on page 185 in the Book of Alternative Services. Let’s give careful attention to the letters in red; we call them ‘rubrics’, and they give what you might call ‘stage directions’ for the use of the texts.

Firstly, on page 185 ‘the president’ greets the community using the form on the top of the page. Then follows a prayer traditionally called ‘The Collect for Purity’, which begins ‘Almighty God, to you all hearts are open…’ But note the rubric above it, which says ‘The following prayer may be said’. 99% of the time, in my experience, it is said. We are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Note what comes next. The rubric at the bottom of the page says, ‘Then may follow an act of praise: one of the following hymns, or a canticle or other hymn’. The rubric then goes on to suggest non-binding guidance as to what might be appropriate for certain seasons of the year. The ‘following hymns’ are not actually hymns in rhyme and metre as commonly used today, but translations of ancient hymns: ‘Glory to God’, ‘Kyrie Eleison’, and ‘Trisagion’. But it seems to me that the most logical way to read the direction of the rubric is that this is the place in the service where the opening hymn should be sung, whether it is one of the ones printed, or ‘a canticle or other hymn’. In our church, we simply sing the opening hymn in this spot. However, most other churches don’t; they have an opening hymn right at the beginning (perhaps a processional), then the opening greeting, then another opening hymn (usually one of the three printed on pages 186-7). So once again, we are given flexibility, but we don’t use it.

Throughout the service there is great flexibility with regard to words of introduction, a flexibility which is rarely if ever used. So, for instance, when we come to say one of the two authorized creeds, the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, we are told ‘the celebrant may invite the people, in these or similar words, to join in the recitation of the creed’. But in practice, the words used are almost invariably the ones set out on pages 188 and 189. And again, when the people are invited to confess their sins, we are told ‘the people are invited to confession in these or similar words‘ (p.191), but I rarely hear anything other than the printed invitation used. We’re also told that the form of confession and absolution on page 191 need not be used at all if penitential intercessions were included in the Prayers of the People (as they often are in the forms on pages 110-128).

Ah yes, the Prayers of the People. I love this part of the service – the part where the people of God fulfil their priestly responsibility of lifting up the needs of the whole world to God in prayer. Note the directions in the rubric on page 190:

A deacon or lay member of the community leads the Prayers of the People after the following model. Intercession or thanksgiving may be offered for

the Church
the Queen and all in authority
the world
the local community,
those in need
the departed

A short litany may be selected from pp.110-127. Other prayers are found on pp.675-684. These prayers may be modified in accordance with local need, or extempore forms of prayer may be used.

It seems clear to me that the closest we have to a required form in this rubric (and the language of permission, rather than prescription, is used throughout) is the outline of suggested subjects for prayer. Litanies are not meant to be the norm; they are one option among several. And yet, when we Canadian Anglicans gather together, those litanies on pages 110-127 are the form we tend to use, I would say, over 90% of the time.

Well, I could go on, but I won’t. I believe that every priest and lay reader should give careful reading to the rubrics in the BAS. We have been given a huge amount of freedom and flexibility in this wonderful liturgical resource-book. We should not allow our worship to get stale! The BAS gives us freedom to adapt for a wide variety of situations, without even examining the various supplementary texts authorized by General Synod or the local bishop. Let’s use our imagination and the freedom that has been given to us, in order to offer regular worship (using an authorized form) that will truly reflect the character of our own worshipping communities and help people to lift their hearts and minds to God and to hear and reflect on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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Published by

Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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