The BCP as Anglican Covenant

Centrists / Religion

People have always asked Episcopalians to describe what sort of Episcopalians they are. That’s because there’s a very diverse lot of us under the Episcopal Church’s umbrella. Gosh, there’s a very diverse group of us under my own Cathedral congregation’s umbrella. There are High Church Anglicans, Ultramontane Anglicans, Calvinists, Low Church, Charismatic, Broad Church, Deists, Theists and cultural Anglicans. To name just a few.

Lately thanks to the writing of folks like Christopher Evans and Derek Olsen (see sidebar) I think I’ve come to understand my own place on the spectrum as being a “Common Prayer Anglican”. Our genius within Anglicanism is our decision to find our unity in prayer, not in a binding Confession or in a Teaching Magisterium. And we find that unity by agreeing to pray the words of Book of Common Prayer with each other.

The wise folks over at Anglican Online have taken this idea a step further than I have in my own thinking, and I like where they’re headed. They suggest that rather than the proposed Covenant for the Anglican Communion, we circle back and look at what we already do have, The Book of Common Prayer:

“At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this concept of BCP-as-covenant as a conceit: really, some will say exasperatedly, the 1662 BCP was book of liturgy, not a covenant. But within a empire that crossed continents and oceans, where postal mail took months and news could be delayed by years, it was theological framework of the 1662 BCP that shaped the understanding of English Christianity. The two great sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist — as well as the lesser sacraments — were defined within an Anglican understanding. Their definition was sufficient for most to read, mark, and inwardly digest. The catechism was the school book for millions of children — and what is the catechism other than a theological FAQ? The rubrics, if not quite canon law, were observed diligently for the most part and provided additional theological guidance. Lex orandi, lex credendi was perhaps truer during the hegemony of the 1662 BCP than it can ever be again.

We might now argue that the use of Elizabethan English in, say, the Sudan was absurd; part of a misguided, wrong-headed attempt to ‘civilise’ the world and produce Victorian gentlemen and ladies rather than promote the spread of Christianity. But English Christianity was spread by Victorian (or Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolinian, or Regency) gentlemen, by word and sometimes weapon. And the vector* was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. All these little oases of English Christianity — Elizabethan thees and thous in the Mongolian desert, ‘The Day Thou Gavest’ heartily sung in Delhi, clergy dressing for dinner in Zanzibar — eventually joined together in strangely named dioceses such as Mashonaland and Ruwenzori and became the building blocks of the Anglican Communion. But the ties that bind were pages of the 1662 BCP bound in morocco, cloth, or paper. They held the communion together before any covenant was a glimmer in any disaffected bishop’s eye.”

Read the full article here.

Obviously such an idea isn’t a panacea, and it glosses over the real differences between the prayer books in use in different Provinces. The Book of Common Prayer in Sudan is very very different than the one in use in New Zealand. But at least this idea takes us back to our foundational roots and the fundamental defining characteristic of our polity.

I like this idea very much. Good on ’em.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Amy Real Coultas+ says

    Love the asterisk on vector. Good stuff.

  2. A friend asked me a question on Facebook that I think it worth posting here as well:

    So, a question then comes up, with many churches using EOW, and others changing and rewriting BCP liturgies to suit local need/theological persuasion, how much are we actually covenanted to the BCP? Or is it a kind of “spiritual” BCP that exists in our hearts and minds, even if we print up our own service bulletins with adapted language and forms each Sunday…

    My response: Okay – that’s a fair question. The thing is that liturgically authorized texts within the Episcopal Church are the product of diverse theological reflection and compromise wording so as to allow individual consciences the opportunity to fully participate in common prayer.
    It’s that process that I believe really reflects our genius.
    At least that’s where my thinking is now.

  3. Okay. Sure. But.
    The Prayer Book in current use in our country is so widely generous (and to your point, geniusly so) about what constitutes sacramentally framed community that it becomes a bit of a farce to suggest that our worship is fundamentally the same kind of experience wherever you go, and that that therefore is the basis of identity – or at least it would be a pretty sloppy kind of identity.
    I refer — again, in the present, American case — to permissive rubrics and to loose-framework creations such as “orders for” various kinds of services. In other words, it would seem our province’s Prayer Book is based on the giving of goodly amounts of latitude to contextualize worship in whatever fashion seems reasonable.
    Perhaps it’s fairer to say that it’s the fact of a Prayer Book, rather than what’s in it, that is constitutive of a province’s willingness to participate in the Anglican covenant, small “c.” Of course, no one would ever go for this because anyone can print up a Prayer Book, and the current Covenant-making process is about getting ‘opted-in’ on juridical principle.
    In short, to our great consternation, few of the gatekeepers of the Anglican Covenant (big “C”) making process are interested in what may be written in our hearts.

  4. Torey – I’ll take a sloppy kind of identity over one that desires to vote people off the island if they don’t measure up to pre-decided norm.
    That way leads to madness. Do not ask me how I know this.

  5. I have already expressed my support for this idea of the BCP as a source of our Anglican Unity. I agree that the specific tests of the prayerbooks are not as important, however, perhaps as the fact that we are organized around prayerbooks and that our corporate liturgical experience is a center of our identity and source of inspiration. There are a lot of “sola scriptura” Protestants for whom a more or less literal biblical reading is at the center of their identity, but that is not us. The RC church has centered more on the magisterium as the center of their identity, but again, that is not us. Although one finds many “uses” of the prayerbook liturgy, it is the mere fact that we commit ourselves to a common liturgical experience in an English and Western (and somewhat Celtic) tradition that distinguishes us.
    Karen Armstrong, in her most recent books, has spoken of the need to experience the Bible not as a literalistic text and religion not as a set of propositional statements that we must affirm but an experience that we have both corporately and individually. The prayerbook is, I think, our vehicle for this experience, again both corporately and individually. In this sense, it is the deliberate practice of our spirituality that is so essential for us. We “live” as it were, our religious experience together liturgically. It is this “unity” that can be a haven from so much discursive argument and divisiveness.
    I found one Karen Armstrong quote from her new book,The Case for God, particularly apt about this issue of “practice” and the nature of God and religious experience:
    “People practice their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could be known only by dedicated practice. We have lost sight of this important insight, and this, I believe, is one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today.”
    This emphasis on “Practice” as opposed to “principle” or “proposition” could perhaps prove salvific for us and others in a very divisive time in our religious history.

  6. It is my understanding that first century Christianity was known simply as “The Way.” That certainly implies the priority of practice over proposition.

  7. Bruce Robison says

    I’m not sure, Nick. It seems to me that common prayer might well be an instrument that over a long season, over generations, might shape a common identity–something like a corporate culture, a sharing of vocabulary, perspectives, values.
    I think, agreeing with Cynthia, that such an implicit “covenant” may well have pertained through the Anglican world so long as 1662 and its nearer cousins (as per ours through ’28) was in the air we all breathed.
    But I think the simple fact is that whatever 1979 gives us as Episcopalians–and my own view is that the jury is still out, but that the results are mixed at best–one thing it clearly hasn’t given us is a deeper sense of common *life*. Unless we want to say that what we have in common is our sense of exceptionality, difference. “What we have in common is our diversity.” ’79 and its sidekick EOW services and our multiple hymnals etc. more an “anthology of different prayers.” My own approach to liturgical practice is to do everything I can within the rubrics to emphasize Anglican heritage, following traditional texts, music, and ceremonial that would be, I think, or would have been, easily recognizable across the wide range of our common past. But that’s just one choice among many possible, which in a sense means that tradition itself exists only as a kind of eccentricity.
    It seems to me, pace the AO essay, that it is increasingly the case that there is no such thing as a general Anglican identity, no coherent shared theological or doctrinal frame, no coherent shared vocabulary of public worship or private devotion. We’re not totally loose from one another yet, but the trends all are moving us apart.
    This of course builds out from other deconstructions: the move from “melting pot” ideals to the “mosaic” of contemporary American and global life generally, the redefinitions of relationships via the internet, etc., –and within the Episcopal Church for one more example the loss of any kind of common curriculum in preparation for ordained leadership.
    My sense is that the Anglican Covenant idea–which, as you know, I support–is pretty much a last-ditch experiment, to see if it’s possible to design a tool that would, over long seasons and generations, turn the curve back. Mend the unravelling net. Though I support the effort, I actually am skeptical. Not because I don’t think the goal is worthwhile, but because in real life among real people these kinds of efforts are rarely successful. I think it may be like trying to stop the coming-in of the tide.
    As a true-blue American baby boomer, I grew up believing that anything we broke we would be able to fix, if we just tried hard enough. Now in my mature years, I guess, and with a little bit of a track record in the world of our human family, I have come to understand that many things get broken that can’t ever, per Humpty Dumpty, ever get put together again. Anglican identity may just turn out to be one of those things. Thus I think, well, let’s give an Covenant a shot, sure. But odds are, my guess now, that a century or so from now “Anglicanism” will be mostly a topic for historians.

  8. Christopher says

    Fr Nick,
    I recommend reading Fr Robert Hale’s “Sister Churches”. It reads Anglicanism through the lens of a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk. He recognizes in Anglican Churches this pattern: Office, Mass, liturgical-scriptural-devotion. This is the core pattern of our Prayer Books. I remind again that our Province and Scotland among others are not primarily patterned by 1662. But there is a shared relationship among the Prayer Books even today, even in diversity.
    What is exciting about this now old book is that he points out our ecclesiology looks Benedictine as well. And that has been my large resistance to the pushes to centralize in ways that look Roman rather than Benedictine. We look an awful lot like the networking relationship of monasteries rather than the central Roman model when we get past trying to impose outside ecclesiologies on oursleves. What if the Archbishop of Canterbury were conceived of as the Anglican “Abbot Primate” on the model of the Benedictine Abbot Primate? Fr. Haller has suggested as much. What if the Covenant itself was reconfigured as a sort of minimal Rule with the Prayer Books as enfleshment rather than as juridical?

  9. Christopher says

    I would add, the pattern he notices in our Prayer Books and hence our shared piety across parties is the Benedictine pattern.

  10. Thanks Christopher, I’ll add Hale’s book to my list of books to be read. I do know that we’re not patterned after the 1662, having much more scottish influence in our own early Prayer Books.
    As I mentioned above, what I particularly find compelling about the act of Common Prayer is that its’ text is primarily determined by a discerning community rather than by individual clergy or parishes. (At least in principle.) But certainly the liturgical structure that we all basically share in the Communion can be traced back to the Monastic office pattern as you rightly restate.
    I like your last point about the role of Primate as Abbot. Very much.

  11. Christopher says

    Here’s a teaser Fr. Hale wrote for a journal:
    Our own Scottish influence has been instrumental to revisions by the way. Many of the Liturgical Movement changes were forecast in the Laudian/Scottish Non-Juror trends. Massey Shepherd noted this in a lecture in 1949.
    It is precisely that it is a common text that makes it powerful. It cuts across clericalism or parochialism, and yet is flexible enough for Provincial, parish, and homely use.

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