Project Canterbury

What is Anglo-Catholicism?
A Response in Six Parts

by the Revd John D. Alexander, SSC
Rector of S Stephen's Church, Providence, Rhode Island
formerly of the Church of the Ascension, Staten Island, New York

Part Five: Liturgical Trends in the 20th Century

So far, in this series, we have concentrated on the origins and development of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism in the nineteenth century. In this article, we look at the several distinct styles of Anglo-Catholic worship, church decoration, and spirituality that emerged in this past century.

Prayer-Book Catholicism

One approach to being Anglo-Catholic was the cultivation of an "Olde English" style of worship. Anglo-Catholics were widely suspected of disloyalty to Anglican principles. So, some sought to demonstrate that Catholic worship was entirely compatible with loyal conformity to the Book of Common Prayer.

These "Prayer Book Catholics" set about researching and reconstructing late medieval English (or "Sarum") ceremonial, vestments, and church decoration. A typical "Sarum Rite" parish might have an altar with a cross and two candlesticks, framed by a cloth dossal and two side curtains. Services would follow the Prayer Book strictly, with congregational singing of English plainsong Mass settings. The clergy would wear full-cut gothic vestments or long, flowing surplices.

The style of worship that Fr. Rogers brought here to Ascension in the 1940s seems to have been inspired mainly by this Prayer Book Catholic tradition (with a few other influences blended in). Photographs of the new church taken after its completion in 1949 resemble textbook illustrations of the "Sarum" style of church decoration.

The Missal Tradition

In the early years of this century, however, not all Anglo-Catholics were happy to go this route. The Prayer Book Catholics were trying to achieve a uniquely English "look," totally distinct from the florid Roman Catholicism of the era. But it was also a time when many Catholic-minded Anglicans were tempted to "go over" to Rome. So, for sound pastoral reasons, many clergy wanted to show that everything the Roman Church had to offer could also be found within Anglicanism.

In place of neo-gothic, adherents of this approach went in for baroque and rococo altars and church furnishings. Clergy used the Anglican Missal instead of the Book of Common Prayer, and wore Roman-style vestments such as "fiddleback" chasubles, birettas, and short cottas richly trimmed with lace. Church services incorporated popular Roman devotions like the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Liturgical Renewal

From the 1930’s on, a third approach, known as "the Parish Communion Movement," or "the Liturgical Movement," started to gain influence. This school sought to reach back beyond both Prayer Book and Missal to recover the liturgical ethos and practices of early Christianity.

Arguing that much Anglo-Catholicism had reduced the congregation to the role of passive spectators, advocates of "the Parish Communion" sought to increase lay participation in worship. They advocated such reforms as celebration facing the people, congregational (as opposed to choral) singing of the Mass, the simplification of ceremonial, and the revision of liturgies to bring them more into line with ancient Christian patterns.

In the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Prayer Book fulfilled many of the goals of the Liturgical Movement. Many Anglo-Catholics welcomed the 1979 book as containing elements they had long sought, such as prayers for the dead, and a form for sacramental confession. But others viewed the new Prayer Book with suspicion, and lamented what seemed to them a loss of dignity and beauty in the language of worship.

Liturgical renewal came to Ascension in stages. Fr. Reed prepared the way by ably guiding the parish through the period of "trial liturgies" resulting in the transition to the 1979 Prayer Book. In the early 1980s, Fr. Moyer’s remodeling of the sanctuary, controversial as it was at the time, embodied many of the Liturgical Movement’s central ideals. Ever since, the Church of the Ascension has been an exponent of that liturgical style known as "Rite II Anglo-Catholicism."

Future Directions

In the 1990s, some of those who had earlier embraced and promoted liturgical renewal began to have second thoughts. A number of thoughtful critics observed that many of the new ways have tended to focus the congregation’s attention on itself, thus making the liturgy more a human-centered "celebration of community" than a God-directed offering of worship. Perhaps our task for the future, then, is to cultivate a style of Anglo-Catholic liturgy that preserves the undisputed gains of liturgical renewal while also recovering something of that sense of awe and wonder at God’s majesty so much more evident in the earlier traditions.

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