I won't attempt to explain how messy, how flexible, and how far removed we are from a sound and sure notion of Anglicans being Christians who worship according to 'authorised forms of worship'. But I share here a brief paper I wrote concerning the state of things in our church.
Towards review of ACANZP’s approach to liturgy with reference to ‘common prayer’, ‘authorised forms of worship’, and theological and liturgical education of clerical and lay worship leaders:
In the mid to late 1990s our church through its ‘twice round’ procedure approved a change to the rubric on page 511 of NZPB. The effect of this was that a flexible, informal eucharistic service with minimal prescribed wording could be a regular Sunday worship service in any parish church within ACANZP without fear of incurring a charge that it was not an ‘authorised form of worship’. Later our church approved ‘the Template’ which embedded the authorisation of flexible, informal forms of worship more deeply in our legislation, notwithstanding a still later attempt by the General Synod to append some wording to the Template constraining this freedom towards conformity with the prayer book!
I was part of General Synod and a diocesan synod (Nelson) approving these changes. I welcomed the change to page 511’s rubric because at that time the Diocese of Nelson (along with many other parishes in ACANZP) was finding that a key strategy for congregational renewal (i.e. drawing in families, reducing the average age of worshippers) was the provision of a mid-morning service which was not confined to a set form of words, permitted more rather than less singing of modern songs, and enabled quick adaptation to needs of the moment (or, if you prefer, enabled worship leaders to respond to the leading of the Spirit).
Strictly speaking (in my view), especially where the mid-morning service was a eucharistic service, such services prior to the change to page 511 were not ‘authorised forms of worship’ save that they could have been considered ‘experimental forms’ approved by the diocesan. Thus the change offered a way for Anglican parishes to engage with life as it was rapidly changing in the 1990s according to canonical ordering rather than against it. (There were of course a variety of other kinds of regular services in the life of our church which were also helped in this way, e.g. the rising tide of regular Taize services).
While I cannot claim intimate knowledge of all that was going on with flexible, informal services in ACANZP in the mid to late 1990s, my knowledge of such services in the Diocese of Nelson suggested that these services were ‘responsible’ in various ways: e.g. main elements of Anglican services regularly used, including confession and absolution, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, a creedal statement or song, eucharistic prayer drawn from NZPB, and saying of the dismissal. In short, the structure and content of these services had some common, familiar elements across parishes.
Fast forward a decade: I suggest we could profitably engage in review of the present liturgical situation in ACANZP. Anecdotally, and from personal experience, I suggest that the following features of our liturgical life point to a need for review:
(1) There is less rather than more commonality across the flexible, informal services in our parishes. This has the effect of making the vicar or priest-in-charge the chief authorising agent of liturgy rather than the bishop.
(2) There is no guarantee that important Anglican liturgical elements such as a written confession prayed together by the congregation, or intercessions and thanksgivings will be part of the service. That is, taking the example of confession, flexibility has extended from using a few forms in ACANZP to using any one of a thousand forms available in print and electronic media to not having a confession at all.
(3) There is no guarantee that the content of the words used across a whole service conforms to ‘the doctrine of Christ’ as understood in ACANZP. Generally we seem to have arrived at a point where the average educational and training attainment of both clergy and laity is less high than formerly, thus where the content of words for a service are at the discretion of the clerical or lay leaders of the service (i.e. whether considering the content of prayers chosen, or self-composed, or the content of songs chosen) it is likely that the theological depth of a given service will be shallower than that invariably found in an NZPB service.
Nevertheless, there are other aspects to also weigh in review. Many parishes in our church have not followed the pathway to the ‘main’ Sunday service being flexible and informal in style and substance. They have persisted with adherence to NZPB. But here it is often observable that
(a) the congregation is generally older and over extensive periods of time fails to draw in younger families in sufficient numbers to give confidence that ‘congregational renewal’ will take place,
(b) on close inspection the content of the service bit by bit is drawn from NZPB, but such mixing and arranging of the bits has taken place that the service as a whole is not recognisable as ‘one of the services’ of NZPB, and, sometimes it is observable that
(c) the service mostly follows an NZPB service but at an important point, such as the eucharistic prayer, the presiding priest exercises the ‘right’ to substitute another prayer, perhaps drawn from another part of the Communion, or perhaps reflecting other traditions than Anglicanism! Thus I suggest also pointing to a need for review is:
(4) The general state of congregational life across our church, with special reference to aging congregations and to the prognosis for renewal of congregations.
(5) The expectations, or otherwise, that a formal service of our church will follow the order and content prescribed in NZPB for that service.
In summary: our church rightly (in my view) empowered clergy and lay worship leaders in the 1990s to respond to the needs of the time – a time which, paradoxically, began almost the moment NZPB was published – but in the process we created a situation in which the role of the bishop as authoriser of forms of worship has been greatly diminished, any sense that we might be flexible and informal according to an agreed pattern of common worship has rapidly fallen away, and any presumptions that the forms of worship composed would be to the highest Anglican doctrinal standards have been ill-founded.