Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Theology and history behind the Anglican liturgy

"I am really interested in teaching myself and the parish more about the theology and history behind the Anglican liturgy. Over this year I want to explain all aspects of the Anglican service - from the initial greeting to the final blessing."

Where to begin with the task of assisting this exciting teaching project? I cannot think of a book which would do this with respect to the key word 'explain' ... can you? Let me know, please. (One book which is very helpful on the 'how' and 'why' of each aspect of the Anglican service is Bosco Peter's, Celebrating Eucharist, which is available electronically here).

Here are some thoughts and sharing of knowledge gleaned here and there over the years.

First, I find it helpful to think about three phases in the history of Anglican liturgy.

Phase One: between the establishment of Christianity in England (Roman [military], Celtic, and Saxon spreadings of the gospel) and the Reformation, liturgies develop which reflect developments in the wider world of Western and Eastern Christianity since the time of the apostles.

Phase Two: the English Reformation brings (a) one Book of Common Prayer (b) services in this book which are revisions of daily office services and of missals, generally simplifying a complex set of services available for use in Phase One. Of particular note is the Holy Communion service, largely Cranmer's doing, which not only revises wording, but also order of prayers, in order to undo centuries of Romanizing eucharistic practice and to cement in its place a new Protestant understanding. To give just one example: the Offering is taken up well before the eucharistic prayers themselves in order to dissociate any sense of the the people offering up a sacrifice to God (and, to reinforce the point, the prayer in which mention is made of a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is placed after the Lord's Prayer, after the distribution of Communion.) This phase begins with the 1549 and 1552 prayer books of Edward VI, is established almost permanently with the final revisions in 1662, and continues more or less till the 1960s (till 1966 in NZ), though the rumblings of change began with the 1928 (modest) revisions which the British Parliament did not accept, but which the Church of England hierarchy authorised for use.

Phase Three: in most Anglican churches liturgical revision has taken place through the twentieth century, especially since 1950. No one prayer book dominates the Anglican Communion like the Book of Common Prayer once did; and for most services in most prayer books there are alternative forms authorised for use. Too much variation some would say. But we should not be fooled into thinking that no commonality exists across these liturgical revisions. One common factor is a reversion to the 'shape of liturgy' before Cranmer's bold revision of the shape (or order of the liturgy). This reversion acknowledges the ancient liturgical traditions of the undivided church. Another common factor is the use of English texts for important prayers which are common to Anglican and other churches such as the Roman Catholic church. (This is part of the reason why Catholics visiting Anglican churches and vice versa come away saying, 'their service is just like ours'). In ACANZP our 'red prayer book' is a Phase Three prayer book.

That's enough for now. Another post soon.

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