Project Canterbury

The People's Book of Worship
A Study of the Book of Common Prayer

By John Wallace Suter and Charles Morris Addison

New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter IV. The Three Working Principles

BESIDES the two fundamental principles which underlie the whole structure of the book, there are certain Working Principles which are essential to its intelligent and helpful using. The first of these is the Principle of Interpretation. The necessity for the application of this principle rests in the circumstance that by its very nature, a book of worship embodies within it forms and expressions which are ancient, and which continue unaltered through generations, and indeed centuries. Such forms and expressions are the things which first of all commend the book to the user, and make of it a treasury of devotion. At the same time, their very presence demands, if the ancient utterances are to be realities for modern experiences, that there should be a working principle of interpretation. The principle is based upon the fact that our preservation of ancient forms of expression, which secure to us the historic sense, and the grateful feeling of oneness with Christ's people of all ages, necessitates the filling and re-filling of these forms with the thoughts and experiences and convictions of to-day, the immediate utterances of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Flexibility of interpretation becomes of the essence of creed and liturgy. The principle of interpretation is for us the pledge of reality. It is not necessary to multiply illustrations, but a moment's thought serves to convince us that we are constantly called upon to exercise this principle. A familiar illustration, often referred to, is the clause in the creed, "the resurrection of the body." The original concept of the resuscitation of flesh and bones has become universally untenable. Behind the concept was a faith which endures in the persistence of the individual. There are new concepts, as to the methods of this persistence, and the words are reinterpreted to fit these, and that without great difficulty or embarrassment. The collects use not infrequently legalistic language in regard to God and his dealings, which springs out of Latin concepts. The concepts are no longer ours, but we interpret the language to fit our new and as we believe better thoughts. We turn expressions which belonged to a Calvinistic and outgrown doctrine of original sin, to fit our modern notions of heredity. In the Marriage Service we keep on saying, "Who giveth this woman to be married to this man?"--although we strongly repudiate the chattel notion regarding woman, out of which the words sprang,--because we interpret it as a gracious opportunity for recognition of the father's love and protecting care. The process is familiar to Christians of every name in the use of hymns. We continue to use hymns, just because they are old and familiar, or beautiful in form or expression, or wedded to an appealing and singable tune, which teach a theology or even a morality which we repudiate. We do it, because we interpret the words. By use of the principle of interpretation we get to the heart of the first singer's faith, and cast aside his transient beliefs and dogmas. We love especially the "heavenly Jerusalem" hymns, though other world-liness is not our dominant mood, because we interpret them into promises and determinations of social reform.

It is not to be denied that interpretation is not always easy. Sometimes the process is a strain. We endure it, because of the gain that outweighs, and which is the sense of fellowship with past ages which the persisting words supply, because of the inspiration that comes through realization of our oneness with all saints. When the strain is too great, then we cease to sing the hymn, or strive for amendment and revision of the form of words. But such cases are on the whole few, and even where revision seems most imperative, we patiently apply our principle, remembering that the process of revision is necessarily slow, where the whole Christian consciousness is concerned.


A second principle is the Principle of Rubrication. This principle is based upon the fact that the rubric is not a law, to be obeyed, but a suggestion or direction, to be followed when applicable. Fidelity to the principle consists in a reasonable following of directions where they are appropriate, in distinction from a blind obedience to the letter which killeth. If one enters the great gates of a park he may discover a rubric, or sign board, which says, "Take this path to the lion's den." The form of words is mandatory, but the visitor will not obey the rubric if the lion's den is a place where he does not wish to go. We are not to be misled by the mandatory form of rubrics. They are not laws, requiring obedience, or in relation to which obedience is a virtue. The verb "shall" in a rubric does not connote an order, but an opportunity. It makes a suggestion. When the word "may" stands in its place, there are two suggestions offered, either one of which is good, the choice to be determined by circumstances. Much difficulty might be avoided, if this essential nature of the rubric were always remembered. It would serve to relieve some ministers of a certain false pride in "always obeying the rubrics," by making it clear that this is far from being a virtue. It is obvious that due regard to their intention, and genuine apprehension of the genius of the Prayer Book, will require at times "disobedience." And as for the people, it will correct an unjustly critical attitude towards a minister who has disregarded a rubric, and substitute for it satisfaction in the fact that the leader of the worship is intelligent, and knows the value and purpose of rubrical directions. One illustration will suffice. Let us suppose that the circumstances of a congregation's life and environment make the one service of Good Friday an evening service. The strict rubrical provision will compel the reading of the two lessons for Good Friday evening. But these are appointed on the assumption that the morning lessons, and epistle and gospel, have been read and heard. This is not the case in this instance, and Good Friday demands, if it demands anything, that the people hear the story of the cross. The minister will read this. He will be true to the genius of the Prayer Book. He will disregard the rubric, because it is not applicable. He will recognize the fact that in this case disobedience is the truest obedience.

It was an English bishop who wrote: "I long to see a plain recognition of the fact that rubrics are not canons, i.e., a rubric records simply how things are done (i.e., unless there is valid reason for some other course), and that it is the function of a canon to prescribe how things shall be done." And we are not to think that the definition contained in his words is merely a pious wish, rather than a statement based upon historic and verifiable fact. This is just what the rubric historically is,--a direction in regard to the conduct of the service. It is nevertheless true that the confusion and misunderstanding which have arisen have their roots in English history. Because of the laws of conformity, the rubrics in England have become acts of Parliament, and therefore laws. We in America are free from this unfortunate situation, and may vindicate in our usage the rubric's original character. At the same time, because our church is descended from the English, it has come to pass that included among the rubrics of our Prayer Book,--the true rubrics,--are certain rubrics which are not really rubrics at all, but bits of canon law. Such, for instance, is the rubric forbidding the use of the Burial Office for suicides,--a relic of mediaeval casuistry. Obviously, the presence of such rubrics tends to obscure the rubric's real nature, and to militate against the principle of rubrication. It is also because of the presence of rubrics of this nature that the law of the Church recognizes as an offense for which a minister may be tried "the violation of the rubrics." It is manifest that there could be no such thing as trial for the violation of a true rubric. The situation presents a dilemma which ought to be frankly stated. It might seem desirable to remove from the Book of Worship all fragments of canon law, leaving only the true rubrics. But, on the other hand, to put such fragments of canon law in the law book would deprive them of the innocuous character they now enjoy, and which it may be desirable to preserve. As it is, they necessarily partake of the rubric character, and may be open to such following as is properly given to rubrical directions. To revert to the illustration of the park, there may exist like inconsistencies there; for adjacent to the rubric concerning the lion's den is one which reads, "Keep off the grass," and which, if representing a city ordinance, may well be a law.

One thing is certain. The American Church has an opportunity to rehabilitate and emphasize the true rubric, and users of the Prayer Book must build upon the principle of rubrication, which is a pledge for us of liberty and flexibility.


The third principle is the Principle of Liturgism. Liturgism is a coined word, but convenient and understandable. It is designed to emphasize the fact that users of the Prayer Book to be intelligent must remember that its genius is that it supplies an instrument of worship which is in a special sense liturgical. There are three sorts of worship. There is the "free worship" which characterizes the Protestant Communions generally, and which emphasizes the "word" to the exclusion of the "act." It is that familiar type of congregational service, in which the sermon is everything, the other parts of the service being of the nature of "preliminary exercises." The people are passive. They are ensconced in a sitting posture for the purpose of listening, that being the main object of their gathering. Theoretically, the parts of the preliminary exercises are free, in that they are not appointed or ordered. The minister reads from the "Word" where his instinct, or momentary choice, dictates. He, or the people, "start" a hymn of praise. He, or they, pray as the spirit moves, out of the momentary dictates of the heart.

There is the "ritualistic worship," which characterizes the Church of Rome, and the Orthodox Churches of Russia and the East, and which emphasizes the "act" to the exclusion of the "word." The important thing is that the sacrifice shall be offered. The miracle of the Mass is to be accomplished. The bell rings to announce that the act is done. It does not matter that the words which may be said are in a language not "understanded of the people." It does not matter if there is no sermon. The people are again passive. Their part is to assist by their presence. In Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's," the Bishop says:

"And then how I shall lie through centuries
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!"

This suggests the ideal of the ritualistic service, and emphasizes its materialistic perils, when the "act" is made supreme, and the "word" subordinated.

The third sort of service, which is the normal service of the Book of Common Prayer, is the "liturgical service." Its aim is to emphasize equally the word and the act, maintaining them in their due proportion as complementary one to the other. It seeks to avoid the vagaries and individualism of the "free service," with its loss of the sense of the common Christian consciousness, and its dangers of cold intellectualism, and irreverence, and at the same time to escape the formalities, and mindless-ness, and possible materialism and irreverences of the "ritualistic service." In worship, as in other ways, the Church of the Prayer Book has a mission of reconciliation. It has a "via media" ambition, and strives for a sanity and sweet-reasonableness in worship, which shall preserve what is good in the ideals of both the Protestant Communions, and the ancient churches of Rome and the East, and explain them to one another.

Of course, an epigrammatic definition such as has been attempted above has its dangers of half-truth. It cannot be strictly maintained that either the free or ritualistic service is represented with complete fairness. There cannot be, obviously, complete subordination of act or word, either in the one or in the other. But there is truth, nevertheless, in the attempted distinction, and the ideal and method of the Prayer Book are made sufficiently clear. Liturgism is, when all is said, the Prayer Book's ambition; and an understanding of this principle is a boon to all its users, who would use it with intelligence and effectiveness. Within the Prayer Book church, it is of course true that there will be found, at times and places, services which are purely ritualistic, or purely free. But even these will be "different," in that they will be molded by the essential norm into reticence and reasonableness. Meantime, in the general usage of the Church, the services are consciously and helpfully liturgical. They are liturgical in that the people are active, not passive. In all the services of the congregation the people have a constant and vital part. Something is all the time expected of them. The service is in every instance theirs. Even in listening to the word, their response is anticipated and provided for, and at every phase of praise or prayer, their attitude of participation or response is significant. The New England farmer who testified on the occasion of his first experience, that he "never let on, but riz and fell every time," paid his unconscious tribute to the excellence of a form of worship, which excluded no one, and was not performed for lookers-on.

The careful welding of word and act together has its illustration in every service. The Holy Communion, in the nature of the case, is the service wherein the act has its strongest emphasis, and that is the very service where the solemn reading of the word, in the Gospel, has special prominence, and the only service in which there is special provision for the sermon. Moreover, in this service, too, the acts of consecration and communion are enshrined in a form which is preeminent for its presentation of the great truths of the word, in repeated sequences of supreme significance, in Comfortable Words, and Sanctus, in Consecration Prayer and Gloria in Excelsis. On the other hand, the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, while emphatically offices of the word, and its presentation, look for the expressive act in the people's kneeling and standing, and formal responses, and especially in the Creed climax, where as one body they give the sign of allegiance and loyalty.

By faithful and intelligent adherence to these three Working Principles of Interpretation, Rubrication and Liturgism, the people enter into a deeper understanding of the riches of the book, and its ever-unfolding opportunities, and come to a truer and more vital using of its services in their worship.

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