By the Rev. Gavin Dunbar
One of the most impressive aspects of the Anglican Church of North America has been its recognition that the “formularies” of the Episcopal Church in the late 20th century would not provide a sure foundation for the institutional realignment and spiritual revitalization of Anglicanism in North America. The last several months have seen the publication of alternatives to the liturgy and catechism printed in the 1979 Prayer Book – a book which for many former Episcopalians now in ACNA has been the only liturgy and catechism which they have known and used (at least for many years). The recognition that ACNA Anglicans require alternatives to 1979 is itself a very important development: it is the contemporary formularies that need revision, not the historic ones. And it is against the weakness of the formularies they replace, rather than against the strength of the historic formularies they respect, that they should be measured.
The catechism is a noble endeavor; and has attached to it the name of the eminent J. I. Packer; but it looks like the compilation of many different contributors, and lacks the theological incisiveness and rhetorical cohesiveness of his own writing. The results, as one might expect of so many authors, are uneven: and in places, such as the questions on the atonement, it is disappointingly vague. Credit is due for trying; but the writing of catechisms is harder than it looks. This is a good start, but needs further work. Clearly, an enormous amount of work has gone into a demanding project, and there is much here to commend. Yet overall, this has the feel of an initial draft – which I believe it is – rather than a finished work. ACNA Anglicans might do well to study the Heidelberg Catechism, much used by Anglicans in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is a model of concise elegance in its formulations, and displays a concreteness and clarity of true conviction.
With the revision of the liturgies of the Eucharist, however, there is much more to applaud – perhaps because Anglicans have had more experience in liturgy than in catechesis. Albeit rendered in contemporary language (whose limitations I will pass over) they represent a significant recovery of the classical texts, with some of the usual non-controversial trimmings (additional greetings, proper prefaces, Benedictus qui venit, Agnus dei). Even better, in some places – notably the Prayer for the Church and the Prayer of Consecration – they not only return to the historic tradition, but also make significant advances upon the form of those texts as received in the most recent American Prayer Book of 1928. Thankfully, the Prayer of Consecration abandons the Byzantinizing eccentricities of the Scottish church, imposed in 1789 as a condition of Seabury’s consecration as bishop: the Invocation of Word and Spirit is restored to its original and logical place, just before the institution narrative. The Prayer for the Church replaces the odd American commemoration of the departed with one more in line with historic formulations, and adds petitions for mission in appropriate places (a development anticipated in the 1962 Canadian Prayer book). If I have one complaint about the new Prayers for the Church and of Consecration, it is that it is not available in “traditional” English!
There remains, however, the problem of the Peace. For pastoral reasons, of course, some provision has to be made for the group dynamics associated with the “exchange of the sign of peace”, especially by charismatic Anglicans who constitute such an important element in ACNA. A merely theological declaration of the peace, such as Cranmer provided in the blessing, will not satisfy their hunger for immediate experience! But must it be placed in the most disruptive and least logical location of all, just after the Confession and Absolution? Reconciliation with neighbors is required of those who come to the sacrament, and it may take some time and effort – it is not something that can be effectually accomplished in a group hug shortly before the Sursum corda!
There are three reasonable alternatives: at the beginning of the service; orat the end of the service; or immediately after the Prayer for the church (with its petition for the peace and unity of the church), and just before the Invitation to confess and receive the Sacrament, made to those believers “in love and charity with their neighbors”.
Naturally, if the Peace is moved so should also the Offertory, and its historic place just before the Prayer for the Church makes a lot of sense, where the offering of intercessions may be united with the offering of alms and oblations, and the presentation of the elements. Perhaps the next revision the able revisers of the ACNA liturgy will make this momentous step, and provide an order of worship in which classical Anglicans old and new can find a measure of liturgical common ground.
Gavin Dunbar is President of the Prayer Book Society and Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, Savannah, Georgia. This piece was originally published in the quarterly Anglican Way magazine.