Project Canterbury

Our Prayer Book Heritage: Sermon Delivered at the General Convention Service for the Anglican Society on September 14, 1952, in St. John's Roxbury, Boston, Mass.

By G. Ashton Oldham.

New York: The Anglican Society, 1952.

Psalm 16:7. "I have a goodly heritage."

In a well-known English novel, the tutor of the son of a noble house takes his charge periodically into the family Art Gallery and shows him the portraits of his ancestors in the hope of stimulating in him a greater loyalty to his family traditions. It is in some such spirit that I invite you to take a pilgrimage with me this morning to view some of the treasures of our beloved Church.

We of the Episcopal Church have indeed a very goodly heritage, a very precious tradition. One aspect of this was impressed upon me some thirty years ago when on a preaching tour of the Cathedrals of England. My first visit was to Durham, whose massive Cathedral has been well described as "half Church, half castle 'gainst the Scot," because in its early turbulent days it served as a sanctuary and, with its armed retainers, as a fortress against the savage tribes of the North. Impressive as was the great Cathedral, my chief interest lay in a little Parish Church, St. Peter's Monkwearmouth, known as the Church of the Venerable Bede, where I was baptized and where I preached that day on the 1252nd anniversary of the Parish.

Later, I went to Canterbury, where I was deeply impressed when shown the marble steps worn down several inches by the knees of the multitudes of Pilgrims, made familiar to us in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

But here again, the spot that interested me the most was the little Church of St. Martin's outside the walls, where I saw the Font in which King Ethelbert was baptized by St. Augustin in the year 597. Thus, not only in great Cathedrals, such as York and Lincoln, Winchester, Salisbury and Canterbury, but in innumerable Parish Churches throughout the land, one gets the impression of age old beauty, charm, stability and permanence. Truly a very precious heritage.

Throughout this experience, I found myself saying—"These are mine. I come not as a visitor from outside but as a member of the family." And it was a satisfaction to feel that I belonged to a Church, not of the yesterdays of the American Revolution or even that of the Reformation, but to the Church of the ages.

For the Episcopal Church of America is an integral part of the Anglican Communion. After the war of Independence, we were a tiny body along the shores of the Atlantic coast, with no Bishops and bereft of most of our parish clergy. Considering all the circumstances of those days it seems nothing short of providential that, despite the difficulties and dangers involved, the Apostolic Succession was continued. This achievement is noted by the poet Wordsworth in the following lines:—

Patriots informed with Apostolic Light
Were they who, when their country had been freed,
Bowing with reverence to the ancient Creed,
Fixed on the frame of England's Church their sight,
And strove in filial love to reunite
What force had severed.

Thus we are members of a Church that has deep roots, stretching back through the Mother Church to the beginnings of Christianity.

In these late days it ought not to be necessary to disclaim Henry VIII as founder of the Church of England. True, in 1534, he had a quarrel with the Pope, a not unusual occurrence in those days, but he never thought he was founding a new Church. In fact, the formal breach with Rome did not occur until 1570. During those 36 years thousands of people were Baptized, Confirmed, Married, Shriven and received Holy Communion, and during this period there were seven successive (supposedly infallible) Popes, who continued negotiations and never intimated that a new Church had been founded. When these negotiations failed, the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and bade his followers withdraw from the ancient Church of the land; so that today the modern Churches and Cathedrals in England are Roman Catholic. Be it noted that it was Rome that withdrew from the Anglican Church, not the reverse. The Church of England is perhaps the only Church in Christendom which has never seceded from any.

The important point of all this is that through all the turmoil of the Reformation period the Church of England persisted. Says the eminent historian Beard, himself a Unitarian:—

"There is no point at which it can be said, here the old Church ends, here the new begins .... it is an obvious historic fact that Parker was the successor of Augustine, just as clearly as Lanfranc and Becket."

In similar vein writes Bishop Bramhall—

"We do not allocate to ourselves a new Church, or a new religion, or new Holy Orders . . . our religion is the same as it was; our Church the same as it was; our Holy Orders the same as they were in substance; different only from what they were formerly, as a garden weeded from a garden unweeded."

Through all the changes and vicissitudes of history the Anglican Church has retained the essentials of the Catholic faith of the ages, as witnessed in its Creeds, Sacraments and Apostolic Order.

But it retains this Catholic faith in a definite framework, which is both scriptural and primitive.

It insists, as against unverified tradition, on the supremacy of Holy Scripture as interpreted by the Councils of the undivided Church.

It asserts the right and duty to accommodate its teaching to modern knowledge and in this endeavor it has a proud roster of scholars, such as, Andrews and Law, Cranmer and Ken, Keble, Pusey, Moberley, Scott-Holland and the late William Temple. These and others have been loyal and able exponents of the Catholic faith in such manner as to commend it to intelligent and thoughtful men of today.

3. It claims the right of national Churches to govern themselves and to decide for their own members all questions of doctrine and discipline within the limits of Holy Scripture and the decrees of the Councils of the un-divided Church. In the words of Magna Carta—"The Church of England is and shall be free."

4. It protests against the invasion of the Anglican Church by the Counter Reformation and the Council of Trent, which sets Tradition alongside of Scripture and makes all local Churches and hierarchies subservient to Rome.

In brief, this Church has a character of its own and as such has a distinct contribution to make to the whole of Christendom. The Lambeth Conference has defined the Anglican Communion as, "A fellowship within the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of those ... who uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic Faith and Order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer."

Thus it is the Book of Common Prayer that identifies as and binds us all together. Different parts of the Church have different versions of the Prayer Book, but in essentials, all agree; and next to the Bible it is the most wonderful book in Christendom. With its Daily Offices, its Litany, woven in the black and purple threads of life's tragedy and tears, its prayers of the Saints, its Altar Service where we plead the great Oblation and receive the Bread of Life—truly it is a very precious book for the possession of which we should be profoundly thankful.

But we must show forth our thanks "not only with our lips but in our lives" and we do this by being true to its ethos and character. To water it down in the interest of Protestant rapprochement, is as great disloyalty as to enrich (save the word) it with the importation of matter from alien Catholic sources. In the words of Shakespeare we say, "A plague on both your houses," for both do dishonor to the spirit and essence of the Book of Common Prayer.

Loyalty to the Prayer Book demands that ceremonial shall be in full accord with rite and that we do not superimpose on our simplified and reformed Rite the ceremonial of an alien body which was deliberately renounced. The two simply do not fit together and often give a false and misleading emphasis. As said a noted English theologian, "While you stick to the old Church of England ways you are respectable—it is going by a sort of tradition; when you profess to return to lost Church of England ways you are rational; but when you invent a new ceremonial which never was, when you copy the Roman or other foreign rituals, you are neither respectable or rational. You are sectarian."

One of the dangers of copying the Roman ceremonial is that it seems to cast a doubt on the catholicity of our own Rite. It appears to say "The Roman Church is the real or perfect thing and we are just as good." But if we are not in some ways better, then what excuse have we for our separate existence? Moreover, why should we slavishly copy the Roman use when at this very time there is a growing demand for change in that Church itself? One of their leading scholars, Father Fortescue, describes some of their practices as, "18th Century bad taste." And the Abbe Duchesne, the greatest liturgical scholar of his day, after a long conversation with a British Anglo-Catholic said, "Oh, I see now. You are trying to get into your Church some of the things we are doing our best to get out of ours."

The Constitution of the Anglican Society states its twofold purpose as follows:

1. To promote and preserve the Catholic faith in strict accordance with the principles laid down in the Book of Common Prayer.

2. To uphold and appreciate the Anglican use both in rite and ceremonial.

Hence, its chief concern is doctrine. But since doctrine must express itself in some sort of ceremonial, it is concerned that such ceremonial should be appropriate and set forth truly and clearly the doctrine held. It is not interested in details but in principles, not in aesthetics but proprieties. We are not enamoured with the Sarum Use or any other, but do want our ceremonial to be our own and not borrowed.

The Anglican use is not something provincial or insular. We are not out to propagate a specially English version of the Faith. We do not want to make the whole world Anglican or to impose the English use on other countries. But we do want Do be ourselves, to be true to our own heritage. Primarily, we are working for God and the salvation of souls and not merely propagating our own opinions or preferences. We are fighting for God's truth, revealed in Holy Scripture and expressed devotionally for us in the Book of Common Prayer.

In this connection and this place I cannot do better than quote from the former Rector of this Parish, the Rev. Frederick W. Fitts who was a great protagonist in this cause. He writes as follows:

"The main thing to remember is that the Anglican Use is more a principle than a code of laws. The principle is to interpret the spirit of the Prayer Book in rite and ceremony. There is a Prayer Book spirit and it is this spirit we are bound to express outwardly. Being a principle and not a code of laws, it does not hold us to rigid uniformity in ceremonial practice, and must in minor particulars be interpreted by common sense and adapted to circumstances and local conditions . . . The Anglican use has no party labels attached to it—Moderate, Extremist, Modernist, Liberal, Evangelical, Low Church or High Church—it is the Prayer Book use for Prayer Book Churchmen."

What our Church most needs today is to be itself, and neither an anemic copy of Rome nor a reduced accommodation to Protestantism. We must use the word Catholic to mean what is primitive, Eastern and Anglican and not Tridentine—in opposition to what is Puritan and what is Romanist. We must be ourselves, stand on our own feet and glory in our precious heritage. We must be constantly teaching, positively not controversially, the greatness and the splendor of the Anglican position, the romance of Anglican history. We must never suffer the contempt of anything as "merely Anglican."

Multitudes of people who are a bit bewildered by the many voices of a divided Protestantism and to whom Christianity in its Roman form does not appeal, can be impressed and helped by the spiritual beauty, ancient, as well as modern, of our Book of Common Prayer. Some one has truly said, "it is its own best missionary." And just here may be indicated the role that God would have the Anglican Communion play in the evangelization of the world. He has forged here and placed in our hands a powerful instrument for His purpose. Let us prize it, trust it and use it to the full and may God give the increase.

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