Or, in the vulgar tongue, “the law of what is prayed is the law of what is to be believed” – in short, your liturgy expresses your theology. Which is by way of an introduction to the third of my little pieces on the Book of Common Prayer.
It’s a commonplace (which is why I and so many use it, commonplaces are good) to say that the Church of England, and by extension the Anglican Communion, has no doctrine of its own. Of course it doesn’t. What we hold is in common with the “one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” we affirm our membership of in the Creed. Getting into discussions with those who don’t agree that we are does no good. I respect their conviction and ask merely that they respect mine and that of millions of others like me.
There is no Luther or Calvin in Anglicanism, neither do we have a Magisterium as the Roman Catholics do. (My apologies to those who find the adjective objectionable, but in the English language as spoken by the English, it’s the easiest way to express my meaning). If I say the decisive influence for Anglicanism was Cranmer, that’s not because he expressed some wonderful theological insights, it is because he is the father of the Book of Common Prayer. Since the BCP was for so many years the definitive version of the Anglican way of prayer, and thus belief, it is worth dwelling for a moment on Cranmer’s work.
What did he do? First, Cranmer selected, arranged, and in some cases composed, the prayers we still pray to this day. Second, he drew up the rubrics which stipulate permissible variations in prayers and practice. Finally, he drew up the lectionary which sets out what portions of Scripture are to be read in Church throughout the liturgical year. To this might be added the fact that his original 1549 Prayer Book was in effect experimental in that it reflected reaction in the parishes to earlier versions. That, in itself, reflects one main feature of Anglicanism, which has been called the “English ethos.” Like it or not, and those with a fondness for strict order and logic won’t, there is an assumption that consensus and comprehensiveness are good ways of running things. It’s one reason we have tended to avoid civil wars since the seventeenth century. The second aspect is a tendency to pragmatism. We’re not hot on speculative approaches to the human condition. It is surely only of England that anyone could say that its Socialist Party owed more to Methodism than to Marx!
The 1549 BCP was a perfect example of pragmatic consensus. There were those who wanted to continue the ways of the (reforming) medieval church, taking their lead from Rome, and there were those who wanted to transform things in a major manner as in Geneva, and what we got from Cranmer was a sensible compromise. There was no speculative theological discussion of salvation of doctrine or dogma, there was the practical matter of how people would worship from week to week.
The downside of this is plain. Things change, a national church interacts with the culture within which it embedded, and it can be easy and pragmatic (which is why it has been done so often) not to update expressions of our common tradition in ways which make them more comprehensible to new generations, which then tends to lead to bitter arguments when change cannot be avoided.
What is clear though is that for Cranmer and therefore Anglicanism, God is worshipped primarily in terms of his love, grace and mercy. If we look at some of the Collects, this shines through. Take the Collect for today, the 12th Sunday after Trinity:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
This theme, the mercy of God, occurs again and again in our Collects, and is often linked to God’s forgiveness of sin. The first example of this is the earliest, which is the Collect Cranmer composed for the BCP of 1549 for the first Sunday in Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light …
We see the same emphasis here for the fourth Sunday in Lent:
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of Thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
God’s mercy and grace are brought together in the forgiveness for sinners. The doctrine of God revealed in our worship is not that of a distant being unconcerned with human pain, or a mighty Lord whose merit we might just be able to win if we behave ourselves, but a God who is near to us, loves us, cares for us and will hear our prayers.
It is this emphasis on God’s love which I first met in the BCP which infuses my own faith. It is expressed to perfection in the Collect for Palm Sunday:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
If we look at what Cranmer did to the Latin original, we see he added the phrase “of thy tender love”, and he removed the petition that “we might merit to be partakers of his resurrection”, and substituted a petition that we might “follow” Christ’s “example.” This was at the heart of the Reformers’ concerns. There can be no question of Grace being “merited,” or “earned.” The grace and mercy of God are given lavishly and freely as expressions of his love, they are not rewards to be extracted from him in some way by our actions.
What is prayed is what is believed. What I pray in the BCP is what I believe.
[Renewed thanks to C451 for help here. JH].