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The New Canons and Obedience to the Book of Common Prayer.

By A. F. Smethurst.

London: A.R. Mowbray, 1950.

In his very interesting book The High Church Tradition in the Seventeenth Century Canon G. W. O. Addleshaw shows that three great principles were expounded by the great Anglican Divines of the seventeenth century, upon which, they maintained, the worship and life of the Church of England was based—Order, Edification, and Uniformity. Of these, two, Order and Uniformity, can only be achieved by means of some form of discipline and authority. Order, orderliness, form, design, intelligibility, and rationality in liturgy and worship can only exist if the unrestrained impulse of the moment and the personal idiosyncrasy of the individual are controlled by and subordinated to the will and experience and wisdom of the Church and the tradition and developed Form of the Catholick Liturgy. Thus Uniformity is essential if anarchy, disorder, and chaos are to be avoided, and the Pauline exhortation—‘let all things be done decently and in order’—is to be carried out. Again and again in the Prefaces to the Book of Common Prayer this ideal is put before us, coupled with the equally important Anglican criterion of interpretation—namely, moderation and common sense.

The ideal of a sane and reasonably flexible uniformity and a due and intelligible Order in the worship of the Established Church of the English nation is one which very naturally commended itself to the civil authorities as well as to the ecclesiastical; for it would (they hoped) tend to prevent religious dissension, national disruption, and civil [1/2] strife; and the experience of the period of the Commonwealth emphasized both the dangers of religious individualism and the miseries of internal national contention.

Thus it came about that between the reign of Edward VI and that of Charles II a series of Statutes was enacted by Parliament with the intention of enforcing uniformity of worship. To-day we should consider it a mistaken policy and even a spiritual error to attempt to achieve uniformity by the method of legal compulsion; but to men who had known the anarchy and regicide of the Cromwellian period this was less evident.

It is necessary to recognize that the primary intention of these Acts of Uniformity was not to impose upon the Church obedience to a Prayer Book and Liturgy which was drawn up by the State, but rather to lend to the National Church the power of the State to enforce obedience to a form of worship authorized by the Church. There is strong evidence, cited by J. W. Joyce in his Acts of the Church (1886), that the Prayer Book of 1549 was considered and authorized by Convocation, the ancient Sacred Synod of the Province, and the proper constitutional organ for the expression of the will of the Church of England through its Bishops and the appointed and elected representatives of its clergy. Some doubt has been cast upon this by modem historians; but none has attempted to question the fact that the Prayer Book of 1662 was considered and agreed by Convocation before being put before Parliament.

Thus in enacting the Acts of Uniformity the civil authorities were endeavouring to carry out what appeared to them to be a service to the Church of England, and a religious duty.

Perhaps I may be permitted to quote a paragraph from Cripps’ On the Law relating to the Church and Clergy, one of the two standard works on the Ecclesiastical Law of England, in which, quoting Sir J. Nicholl in the case ‘Newbery v. Goodwin’ (1811), the author shows the intention behind the law in this matter: ‘The law directs that a clergyman is not to diminish in any respect, or add to, the prescribed form of worship. Uniformity in this respect is one of the leading and distinguishing principles of the Church of England; nothing is left to the discretion and fancy of the individual; for if every minister were to alter, omit or add according to his own taste, this uniformity would soon be destroyed; and though the alteration might begin with little things, yet it would soon extend itself to more important changes in the public worship of the Established Church; and even in the Scriptures themselves, the most important passages might be materially altered, under the notion of giving a more correct version, or omitted altogether as unauthorized interpolations.’ It is perhaps significant that in the classic case of ‘Newbery v. Goodwin’ the minister was claiming the right to omit verses of the Bible if he did not personally approve of them.

But in thus seeking to secure the great virtue of uniformity—a principle which they rightly saw to be a visible expression of the unity of the Church and the corporate union of all individuals and congregations in the worship and service of the one Lord—the legislators fell into a corresponding danger inherent in any legal test of uniformity, namely, a rigidity and fixity which was totally inadequate to provide for the vitality of Christian worship or the development of Christian spiritual and liturgical experience. Thus it came about that before long strict and absolute obedience to the Book of Common Prayer and exact observance of the Act of Uniformity became impossible in practice. In no single parish to-day is every single word of the Prayer Book of 1662 used without alteration or omission, or every single rubric scrupulously observed. It was this circumstance which led to the relaxation of the original Acts of Uniformity by the Act of Uniformity Amendment [3/4] Act of 1872; and in spite of this the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline which issued its famous Report in 1906 declared that in its opinion ‘the existing law of public worship was too narrow for modern needs’. Some means must therefore be found by which reasonable flexibility in forms of worship can be achieved without destroying the essential general principle of uniformity.

The obligation of every priest to obey the Book of Common Prayer and to use the services therein contained in Public Worship is expressed first in the Acts of Uniformity. The Act of 1662 is still in force except in so far as the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act of 1872 makes provision for a shortened form of Morning and Evening Prayer and for the authorization by the Bishop of special forms of service (but with the proviso that in the latter case all the material save hymns and anthems must be drawn from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer). The Act of 1662 states: ‘All and singular Ministers . . . shall be bound to say and use the Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Celebration and Administration of both the Sacraments, and all other the Publick and Common Prayer, in such order and form as is mentioned in the said Book annexed and joined to this present Act, and intituled “The Book of Common Prayer”.’ This Act lays down the law and prescribes penalties for offences against it; but the obligation laid upon, and to be accepted by, every minister of the Church of England is prescribed only in general terms in that Act. It is in an earlier document, the Canons Ecclesiastical of 1603-4, which set forth in 141 Canons the rules or regulations of the Church of England for the ordering of its life and worship as drawn up by its own constitutional Synods, the Convocations, that a form of oath to' be taken by every minister is to be found.

Canon XXXVI of the Canons of 1603 provides that ‘No person shall hereafter be received into the Ministry . . . except he be licensed by the Archbishop, or by the Bishop [4/5] of the Diocese; and except he shall first subscribe to these three Articles following.’ The second of these Articles is: ‘That the Book of Common Prayer, and of ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, containeth in it nothing contrary to the Word of God, and that it may lawfully so be used; and that he himself will use the form in the said book prescribed, in publick Prayer, and administration of the Sacraments, and none other.’ An earlier Canon, number XIV, declares the duty of every minister ‘likewise to observe the Orders, Rites and Ceremonies prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, as well in reading the holy Scriptures, and saying of Prayers, as in administration of the Sacraments, without either diminishing, in regard of preaching or in any other respect, or adding anything in the matter or form thereof.’ Thus the statutory obligation contained in the Acts of Uniformity does but confirm what is already expressed in the Canons Ecclesiastical; and the Convocations, which enacted and promulged the Canons with the Royal Licence and Assent, cannot escape the responsibility for amending these Canons in the light of the recognized inadequacy of this rigid conception of uniformity.

Meanwhile, however, the situation has been further complicated since 1603 by the Clerical Subscription Act of 1865. Even before this, provision had been made for a certain discretionary power in liturgical matters to be vested in the Bishop of the Diocese. The Preface of the Book of 1549, later entitled ‘Concerning the Service of the Church’, declares: ‘And forasmuch as nothing can be so plainly set forth, but doubts may arise in the use and practice of the same; to appease all such diversity (if any arise) and for the resolution of all doubts, concerning the manner how to understand, do and execute, the things contained in this Book; the parties that so doubt, or diversely take any thing, shall alway resort to the Bishop of the Diocese, who by his [5/6] discretion shall take order for the quieting and appeasing of the same; so that the same order be not contrary to any thing contained in this Book. And if the Bishop of the Diocese be in doubt, then he may send for the resolution thereof to the Archbishop.’ Again the Act of Uniformity of 1662 had included a provision ‘That in all those Prayers, Litanies and Collects, which do any way relate to the King, Queen or Royal Progeny, the Names be altered or changed from time to time, and fitted to the present occasion, according to the direction of lawful authority.’ The Clerical Subscription Act of 1865 took up this phrase, and included it in a revised form of the declaration enjoined by Canon XXXVI. This Act lays it down that ‘Every person about to be ordained priest or deacon shall before ordination, in the presence of the archbishop or bishop by whom he is about to be ordained, at such time as he may appoint make and subscribe the declaration of assent’; and it applies the same condition to every person about to be instituted to a benefice. The declaration is as follows: ‘I assent to the thirty-nine articles of religion, and to the book of common prayer and of the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons. I believe the doctrine of the church of England as therein set forth to be agreeable to the word of God, and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments I will use the form in the said book prescribed, and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority.’

As was pointed out in Parliament when this Act was debated, the use of the phrase ‘lawful authority’ in this Act, without any definition of its meaning, was bound to lead to trouble. In the Act of Uniformity of 1662 its meaning is clear enough, for it refers only to the authorization of the Royal Titles by the authority which is responsible for such matters, which is unquestionably the King in Council. But the Act of 1865 is in no way parallel with this. Consequently endless legal argument has ensued as to the precise meaning [6/7] (if any) of the phrase, and even the House of Lords in ‘Rossi v. Edinburgh Corporation’ (1905) professed itself unable to define ‘lawful authority’. Meanwhile the clergy are at a loss to know to what their Declaration of Assent commits them.

It is with this twofold problem that Convocation has to deal as it sets to work to revise, for the first time for 350 years, the whole body of the Canons Ecclesiastical of 1603, including Canons XIV and XXXVI. First it has to re-state the principle of uniformity in such a way as to allow of a reasonable and flexible interpretation of it; and secondly it has to clarify and define the term ‘lawful authority’. By the use of this term it may make provision for the authorization of alterations to, deviations or omissions from, or additions to, the Book of Common Prayer, so long as these are made by ‘lawful authority’. If a way can be found to define ‘lawful authority’ so as to permit the Church to exercise its inherent right and spiritual freedom to order its own worship and amend or modify its liturgy so as to meet current needs and profit by the spiritual experience and development of the past three centuries, then the dilemma will be resolved. The attempt made in 1927 and 1928 to achieve this liberty by the parliamentary enactment of a Revised Prayer Book failed; now another method of solving the problem must be found. The Prayer Book of 1928 may perhaps be said to carry the spiritual authority of the Church, since the Convocations endorsed the book, which the Church Assembly had passed by large majorities, and commended it to Parliament as the considered judgement of the Church of England. Though the book, owing to its rejection by Parliament, did not receive the formal authorization of Convocation as it would have done by proper canonical procedure, it did express the mind and attitude of the majority of the bishops and clergy of the Convocations, when discussed by them in the preliminary debates. The [7/8] Convocations, as the Provincial Synods, are by ancient custom the proper ecclesiastical bodies to promulgate forms of worship; but whether, their sanction constitutes ‘lawful authority’ in the legal sense is very much open to question. The Book of Common Prayer is a Schedule annexed to a Statutory Act—the Act of Uniformity; and only Parliament can revise or rescind a parliamentary enactment.

When the Canon Law Commission made its Report to the Archbishops in 1946, the Report contained a most valuable memorandum on the question of the definition of the phrase ‘lawful authority’ by Mr. Justice Vaisey. In the light of this essay, and of the suggestions made in it, the Commission proposed to substitute for the portions of Canons XIV and XXXVI dealing with obedience to the Book of Common Prayer and ‘lawful authority’ two new Canons, numbered XII and XIII in the proposed new body of Canons. The Convocation began the great and long task of revision by considering these two Canons.

Canon XII, as agreed in preliminary form by the Upper House of Canterbury Convocation, runs as follows, the Lower House concurring except that it omits the word ‘Orders’:

‘Of Conformity to the Book of Common Prayer.

Every Minister shall follow the Use and observe the Orders, Rites and Ceremonies prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, as well in Public Prayer and reading of Holy Scripture as in administration of the Sacraments, and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority.’

It will be seen that this Canon repeats the essence of the old Canons XIV and XXXVI of 1603, and follows closely the wording of the relevant sections of these Canons.

But if this Canon is to be of any value, the term ‘lawful authority’ with which it concludes must now at last be precisely defined. Canon XIII seeks to do this.

[9] It endeavours to distinguish four possible sources or types of ‘lawful authorization’. The first is that clearly laid down in the Act of Uniformity—namely authorization by the King in Council by means of Royal Warrant or Proclamation. But it is stated that services authorized in this way must be issued only with the concurrence of the two Archbishops (both Houses substituted the term ‘concurrence’ for the rather questionable phrase ‘sanction or approval’). The Lower House also stipulated that such services should only be authorized ‘for special occasions’.

The second section, like the first, deals with services having statutory authority; but in this section are included only those changes in services in the Book of Common Prayer prescribed by Act of Parliament. The new Canon as originally drafted defined the Acts concerned; but it was subsequently pointed out that one or two Acts which ought to have been included had been omitted; and section B was finally adopted by the Upper House in the form: ‘such changes in the form prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer as (i) have been required or sanctioned by any statutory enactment previous to the promulging of this Canon, or (ii) may hereafter be required or sanctioned with the assent of the Convocations of Canterbury and York by Act of Parliament or Measure of the Church Assembly.’

The wording of this new version of section B might suggest that in the past services or changes in services have been imposed by Parliament without the consent of the Church through its Convocations. But, in fact, since the Elizabethan Settlement no change in the liturgical forms of the Church of England has ever been imposed upon the Church by Parliament—except during that strange aberration known as the Commonwealth when the use of the Prayer Book was forbidden. This fact ought to be more recognized than it is. For example, when in 1689 a proposal was made in the House of Lords for the issuing of a Royal [9/10] Commission to consider the revision of the Liturgy of the Church of England, the House rejected this proposal, and in the House of Commons an address was carried asking the King to summon a Convocation for the deliberation of ecclesiastical matters, in which address the House of Lords joined. As a result the Convocations were summoned; and when it soon became evident that they would reject the proposals of the Commission, the project was dropped. Thus Parliament refused to attempt to revise the Liturgy without the sanction of Convocation.

In 1871 and 1872 cases arose where Parliament, somewhat impatient of Ecclesiastical Order, was about to break this long ‘gentleman’s understanding’ by passing the Prayer Book (Table of Lessons) Act of 1871 and the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act of 1872; but fortunately the vigilance of the Lower House of Convocation resulted in a formal protest being made when the Prayer Book (Table of Lessons) Bill was under discussion in the House of Commons; and as a result the consent of Convocation was secured before the Act was finally passed, and care was taken to obtain the general approval of Convocation to the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act of 1872 before it was debated in Parliament—a fact to which reference is specifically made in the Act itself. In addition, Parliament passed an Act in 1859 to allow the omission from future editions of the Prayer Book of services relating to the Gunpowder Plot and other such occasions, and permitting their disuse; but this merely relieved ministers of their statutory obligation to use these services, and did not interfere with their liberty to use them if they chose to continue to do so.

Thus the second part of section B of Canon XIII, in which it is stated that any future parliamentary authorization of changes in the Book of Common Prayer must have the assent of Convocation, does not introduce any new principle. It simply states clearly what has in fact been the [10/11] tacit agreement and invariable custom since 1559, a typical sensible British arrangement which puts into practice the theory of the proper spheres of authority of Convocation and Parliament as expounded by the great Edmund Gibson in the eighteenth century.

Section C of the new Canon, which deals with the third type of authorization—that by Convocation—is designed to allow reasonable liberty for liturgical development and change. In its main outline it follows the recommendations of the Archbishops’ Commission on Church and State of 1935. The effect of it would be that whereas hitherto no ‘addition, omission, or alternative use’ could lawfully be employed without parliamentary sanction, it would now be possible for Convocation to authorize such changes without consulting Parliament. Parliament would thus be delegating a part of its authority to Convocation. It goes without saying that before Canon XIII could receive the Royal Assent and Licence the substance of it would have to be accepted by Parliament, either by including it in a Measure sent by the Church Assembly to Parliament, or by embodying it in an ordinary Act. But there is reason to hope that Parliament, recognizing the justice of the Church’s claim to order its own worship, so long as- this does not in any way interfere with the rights of the State or the liberties of the citizen, or adversely affect the community, would be prepared to give this power to Convocation.

Section C gives complete discretion in this matter of liturgical revision to Convocation, leaving it to that body to decide what is ‘convenient’ and to ensure that nothing so allowed is ‘contrary to or indicative of any departure from the doctrine of the Church of England’. But the right of Convocation to decide questions relating to the true doctrine of the Church of England is no new conception; for in the Royal Declaration prefixed to the Thirty-Nine Articles occur the words: ‘if any difference arise about the external [11/12] policy, concerning the Injunctions, Canons or other Constitutions, the clergy in their Convocation is to order and settle them, having first obtained leave under our Broad Seal so to do ... and ‘that the Churchmen may do the work which is proper unto them, the Bishops and Clergy, from time to time in Convocation, upon their humble Desire, shall have Licence under our Broad Seal to deliberate of, and to do all such Things as, being made plain by them and assented unto by Us, shall concern the settled continuance of the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England now established.’ Thus Section C only asks that the Convocations may use this authority, already given, to determine the fitness of proposed changes in the forms of worship.

In the course of discussions on Section C it was felt necessary to emphasize that the intention of this section was not to enable Convocation to authorize such extensive and permanent alterations in the Book of Common Prayer as to amount in effect to a revision of the Prayer Book carried out by a devious route behind the back of Parliament. Rather its purpose was to permit Convocation to give temporary authorization to forms of worship or changes in the Prayer Book for experimental use, or to meet special needs or abnormal occasions.

It is felt strongly that a grave mistake was made in 1927 and 1928 in attempting to obtain permanent authorization for a revised Prayer Book which had not been tested or tried out in practice in the worship of the Church. Had that book been given twenty or thirty years’ experimental trial before it was put into final form and presented to Convocation and to Parliament, it would have commanded a wider assent and affection than it did, and have stood a much better chance of passing through the House of Commons. Never again does the Church of England intend to present to Parliament a revised Prayer Book until it has had twenty, thirty, or even fifty years of experimental use and modification. [12/13] The purpose of Section C is to provide for the lawful authorization of such liturgical experiments, so long as they involve no departure from the doctrine of the Church of England and are fitting and convenient. Such deviations from the Book of Common Prayer would be optional; and the intention would be to benefit from the spiritual and liturgical experience of those who use them. To emphasize that the use of such changes would be optional, both Houses have eliminated the word ‘ordered,’ retaining the phrase ‘such deviations as the Convocations may allow or sanction’. There is some disagreement as to whether one Convocation should be allowed to authorize a form of service for experimental use if the other Convocation has not authorized it. An important addition or qualification was made to this section by the addition of some such words as ‘The Laity by their representatives in the Church Assembly agreeing thereto’, or ‘Provided that no such sanction shall be given until the House of Laity in the Church Assembly has given its concurrence’.

It is clear that if this section were passed the Convocations would have to define what deviations from the Book of Common Prayer were in fact ‘convenient to be allowed or sanctioned’. The power given to the Convocations might be used to authorize new changes; but it might also be used to regularize the use of existing deviations which have proved useful and acceptable, notably various parts of the Book of 1928, such as the Occasional Offices. Thus it would be necessary as soon as possible after the passing of the Canon for the Convocations to issue a list of permitted variations or deviations. All items included in this list, issued with the official authority of Convocation and with the legal power delegated to Convocation by Parliament, would henceforth become unquestionably legal, and any clergyman could use them without incurring even the slightest suspicion that he was breaking his solemn oath given in the Declaration of Assent.

[14] Section C concerns alterations to or deviations from the Book of Common Prayer. But there is also need to make provision for the legal authorization and issue of services or prayers for occasions for which no form is given in the Prayer Book. Such power belongs of ancient right and custom within the Church to the Bishop as the Ordinary; and so in Section D we pass to the fourth source of authorization—the Bishop or Ordinary. The Bishop’s right in this matter is not absolute or uncontrolled; in this as in all else he ought to act constitutionally, with the concurrence of his Diocesan Synod and in accordance within the Acts or Regulations of Convocation, the Provincial Synod. To meet this point, it has been agreed by both Houses that Section D should begin ‘Subject to any regulations made from time to time by the Convocation of the Province, a form of service which shall have been sanctioned by the Ordinary. . . .’ But within these bounds his jus liturgicum is of ancient force. At the same time, it is obvious that some sensible latitude must be left to the individual priest; it would not be reasonable or practicable to insist that every little ad hoc service or the introduction of some short prayer for a special emergency should be submitted to the Bishop. Room must be left for reasonable and unimportant occasional actions of the clergy on their own responsibility. And the same need for reasonable flexibility exists in regard to the Prayer Book. For example, authority must formally be given to the minister to do what in practice is done in most churches in this, country—namely, to use discretion in the choice of prayers after the third collect at Mattins or Evensong, allowing him at least to use prayers from the 1928 book. Thus the Canon, while not claiming to be a finally exclusive list of those things which have lawful authority or affording evidence that any one particular deviation is unauthorized or illegal, would set out for the benefit of clergy and people certain things which definitely possess ‘lawful authority’.

[15] The final clause, 2, which safeguards the power given in the Book of Common Prayer to the Bishop and Archbishop ‘to appease diversity and resolve doubts’, has been accepted unaltered by both Houses.

Such then is the proposed new Canon XIII, in its present very preliminary state. Its effect is to retain still the fundamental requirement of obedience and loyalty on the part of the Minister to the Book of Common Prayer, but to allow reasonable latitude and opportunity for liturgical experiment and development, under proper constitutional control. It seeks to put an end to the present condition of confusion and anarchy, in which the obvious impossibility of maintaining or enforcing strict and rigid adherence to the Prayer Book and the extreme doubt as to the interpretation of the term ‘lawful authority’ have united to produce unbridled individualism in place of that general order and uniformity which are nobly characteristic of the best Anglican tradition. In the Middle Ages there were diverse ‘Uses’, but there was a common form to them all, and there was no uncontrolled idiosyncrasy on the part of individual ministers. Moreover, at the time of the Reformation the Breviary of Sarum was ordered to be adopted generally throughout England; and the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer makes it plain that one of the chief objects of the issue of that book was to establish uniformity. So Canon XIII seeks to put into practice an ancient Anglican principle in a sane and reasonable way. Whether it will be passed by Parliament and receive the Royal Assent it is impossible to foretell; but at least it appears to offer a chance of solving the age-long problem of authority and of loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer on sane and reasonable lines, and of setting at rest many doubts and scrupulous consciences, without imposing too narrow a limit upon liturgical richness and variation. One cannot but hope that it may secure the assent of the great majority of reasonable members of our Church.

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