Vol I No. 7
Anglican Communion

“Worship Wars” Are in the Past—the Prayer Book Tradition is the Future

by The Revd. Fr. Gavin Dunbar

St. John’s church in Savannah was the host of our Anglican Way conference, sponsored by the Prayer Book Society of the USA, called “The Once and Future Liturgy”. As the rector of St. John’s and President of the Prayer Book Society, I would like to talk about why this conference is so meaningful for our parish and why the Prayer Book Society remains the focal point of faithful Anglican practice in the western hemisphere.

Our conference was a notable success: high quality papers on different aspects of the history, faith, and worship of the Prayer Book, in the setting of liturgical beauty and warm hospitality which is St. John’s special gift. The papers were filmed, and will be released soon on the Anglican Way website for subscribers to the magazine (subscriptions are kept very inexpensive at $20 per year).

It occurred to me, however, that there is a backstory that needs telling. The Prayer Book we use at St. John’s is the American edition of 1928, though the meat and substance of it can be traced back to the English editions of 1662, 1552, and 1549. Not just this edition but the entire tradition came under increasing attack in the 1950’s, and in the 1960’s the American church was actively experimenting with revisions that departed ever more radically from this tradition of worship at the heart of Anglican identity, a travel which led to the foundation of the “Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer.”

At one point the Prayer Book Society was the largest voluntary association in the history of the Episcopal Church. Yet the groundswell of protest was all for naught: the Standing Liturgical Commission of the General Convention was stuffed with opponents of the classical liturgy, and a new Prayer Book was approved in 1979, threatening a tradition more than four hundred years old with extinction.

In most places the bishops ruthlessly stamped out resistance to the new rites. William Ralston, a priest of passionate conviction, learning, and eloquence, would have none of it: and under his leadership, St. John’s bucked the trend, defied the pressure to abandon its birthright for the 1979 mess of pottage, and flourished in doing so.

When I was baptized as a young adult in 1981, the Canadian Anglican church was getting ready for its own version of the 1979 Prayer Book, the 1985 Book of Alternative Services; a similar attempt to extirpate the Anglican liturgical tradition. A similar grass-roots resistance was mounted by the Prayer Book Society of Canada, in which I became active. For various reasons, the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962 (cousin of the 1928 American book), was not officially abolished, and to this day remains in use in Canada, to the great annoyance of the progressive establishment.

It was through this attachment to the old Prayer Book that I first came to know Fr. Ralston, and came to St. John’s. The initial mass protest was more of a gut reaction than anything else – a cry of outrage at the inexcusable trashing of cherished forms of public prayer. Inevitably, much discussion focused on the change in language, from the sober dignity of the old to the banality and vacuity of the new.

Those who dismissed this as a superficial matter of style only showed how superficial their understanding was: it was language that bore the weight of conviction, as the bland and bureaucratic idiom of the new rites did not. Yet along with obvious differences in style, there were also critical differences in theological substance. The historical scholarship on which the new rites were founded was gravely defective. In matters where precise statement is necessary – on matters of sin and salvation – the newer rites were studiously vague. Though patient of an orthodox reading, they did not require it, and the theological tendency they enabled was increasingly at odds with orthodoxy. In a denomination with pretentions to intellectual sophistication it nonetheless espoused theological vagueness and biblical illiteracy. These defects were often unnoticed, but they contributed to the continuing decline of the Episcopal Church, and laid the foundation for further departures from Biblical teaching.

More than forty years later, the worship wars of the 1970′ s and 80′ s are a distant memory; the vitriol hurled at Prayer Book Episcopalians and the Prayer Book itself is now thankfully rare. Under Bishop Benhase and Bishop Logue, the Diocese of Georgia has reconciled itself to the persistence of two 1928 Prayer Book parishes in its midst (the other is All Saints, Thomasville). The Prayer Book Society itself has moved from a political protest movement to an educational organization, one that fosters the study and understanding of the Prayer Book’s faith and worship, through conferences like the one we held last week, and in its (print and digital) magazine, The Anglican Way.

Though it is unlikely that the Episcopal Church as a whole will ever repent of its liturgical follies, the appreciation for the excellence of the old Prayer Book is growing. St. John’s, a rare survival of the old order, may be on the cutting edge of something new.