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The American Episcopal Church Interpreted for English Churchmen

By Arthur Whipple Jenks
Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary

London: SPCK, 1919.
New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter IV. The American Prayer Book

THE service-books of the Church, in their rise, formulation, and revision, are usually an epitome of the history of that part of the Church which has produced them. The liturgical history proceeds much on the same lines as the outward history. The characteristic differences that become permanent reflect analogous characteristics in the Church life itself. Controversies, periods of storm and stress, leave traces upon the liturgy in its directions and strictures. It is usually, then, an advantage to deal with liturgical history as a separate phase of the Church's career. All this is true of the genesis' and subsequent formulation of the Book of Common Prayer in the American Church. Hence the subject is to be considered in a special chapter.

The work of securing a prayer book for the Church in the United States, when independence had been recognized, must have seemed simple at first sight. Why should anything be done except to alter the State Prayers and other references to the civil authorities? The first attempt was indeed entitled: "The Alterations agreed upon and confirmed in Convention for rendering the Liturgy conformable to the principles of the American Revolution and the Constitutions of the several States". The changes made under this proposal were scarcely more than the mechanical altering of the language applicable to King and Parliament into phrases appropriate to a President and Congress.

The leading influence in the direction of a revision, as discriminated from mere adaptation of the Prayer Book of the Church of England, arose from the connection with the Scottish Church through the consecration of Dr. Seabury. It is safe to say at this distance of time, which affords a sound historical perspective, that the most far-reaching effects of Bishop Seabury's consecration came not from the gaining of the episcopate itself but from the turning of liturgical revision in the direction of the type of arrangement of the Communion Office adopted and used in the Scottish Episcopal Church, based upon the form in the first Edwardine Prayer Book, of 1549. The episcopate was reasonably sure to be obtained in the end. How this liturgical standard could have been brought to the front except through the relations with the Scottish episcopate, it is difficult to see.

The Concordat between the consecrators of Bishop Seabury and himself, already alluded to, contained the following article of momentous importance:--

"As the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or the administration of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, is the principal bond of union among Christians, as well as the most solemn act of worship in the Christian Church, the Bishops aforesaid (viz. the Bishops of the Church of Scotland) agree in desiring that there should be as little variance here as possible. And though the Scottish Bishops are very far from prescribing to their brethren in this matter, they cannot help ardently wishing that Bishop Seabury would endeavour all he can, consistently with peace and prudence, to make the celebration of this venerable mystery conformable to the most primitive doctrine and practice in that respect, which is the pattern the Church of Scotland has copied after in her Communion Office, and which it has been the wish of some of the most eminent divines of the Church of England that she also had more closely followed than she seems to have done since she gave up the first reformed liturgy used in the reign of King Edward VI, between which and the form used in the Church of Scotland there is no difference in any point which the primitive Church reckoned essential to the right ministration of the Holy Eucharist. In this capital article therefore of the Eucharistic service, in which the Scottish Bishops so earnestly wish for as much unity as possible, Bishop Seabury also agrees to take a serious view of the Communion Office recommended by them, and if found agreeable to the genuine standards of antiquity, to give his sanction to it, and by gentle methods of argument and persuasion, to endeavour, as they have done, to introduce it by degrees into practice, without the compulsion of authority on the one side, or the prejudice of former custom on the other."

With this agreement Bishop Seabury, from his own studies and predilections, was heartily in sympathy. Accordingly he so persisted in his advocacy of the more complete Prayer of Consecration in the Eucharistic Office that finally it found its way into the American Office and was adopted. The component parts of the Canon, or Prayer of Consecration, are in essentials alike in the Prayer Book of 1549, the Scottish Communion Office and the Order for the Holy Communion in the American Prayer Book of 1789, though the order of arrangement is different, the Book of 1549 reserving the portions applicable especially to communicants until after the Consecration, the American Book of 1789, and the subsequent revisions, distributing these devotional acts over a larger part of the Office, breaking up the great prayer, including the portion called the Prayer for the Church Militant and the Consecration proper, by interpolating the Sanctus and other devotions between the general petitions and the consecration of the Elements. The valuable features retained are the Invocation of the Holy Spirit and the Oblation of the consecrated Elements. Liturgical scholars, rather than Church people in general, appreciate the significance of these retentions.

The direction thus given to Prayer Book revision has characterised later revisions as well. The trend has always been towards the arrangement of the First Edwardine Boot Since many of the features which mark this service-book are derived from Eastern liturgical forms, the American liturgy, along with the Scottish and the first Edwardine Book, approximates to a norm which combines in important details the liturgical uses of both the Eastern and Western Churches.

While a distinct gain was made in the Eucharistic Office by the Scottish influence, in other directions there was a narrow margin of escape from serious maiming of the services, and there were distinct losses. Among the early suggestions made before the English Bishops had consented to consecrate Bishops for America were some which, if adopted, would have brought seriously into question the orthodoxy of the Church. It was proposed to retain of the three Catholic Creeds only the Apostles' Creed and even that was to be maimed by the omission of the Article--"He descended into hell". The English Archbishops interposed a decided demurrer to such departure frpin the standards of doctrine. When the Prayer Book was authorized for use the Nicene Creed was included and the Apostles' Creed left intact, except that the curious permission was given, concerning the clause alluded to, that "any Churches may omit the words, He descended into hell, or may instead of them, use the words, He descended into the place of departed Spirits, which are considered as words of the same meaning in the Creed". So stood the permission unaltered until the revision of 1892 when the licence to omit was dropped, and a great blemish and stumbling-block removed. It should be noted, however, that individual licence to cut out an article of the Creed was never given, but only the action of some indefinite corporate group of people vaguely called "Churches," probably meaning parishes.

The Athanasian Creed has never been included in the American Book of Common Prayer, certainly with the loss of its strong witness to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, but also with the avoidance of such controversies as seem to be periodic, relative to the interpretation of the "damnatory clauses" and the proper liturgical use of the Creed.

Some vague dread of Mariolatry led to the omission of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the canticles at Evening Prayer, which were not restored until the revision of 1892. An interesting use of the Gloria in Excelsis was introduced whereby that anthem might be used at the end of the Psalms for the day instead of the Gloria Patri. Elasticity in the offices begins to appear in the Book of 1789, such as the compiling of "Selections of Psalms "which maybe substituted for the Psalter for the day, and anthems to be used in place of the Venite on certain Holy-days. Not much was done in the way of liturgical enrichment in this first authorized service-book of the Church in the United States, except by the addition of certain Occasional Offices.

For a hundred years the American Prayer Book was in use without further alteration. In 1880 a move was made for a fresh revision of the Prayer Book "in the direction of liturgical enrichment and increased flexibility of use". From that date until the final adoption and authorization of the revised book in 1892 the work of liturgical re-arrangement and enrichment proceeded under the lead of a group of liturgical experts, including Bishops and priests, whose patient and thorough scholarship marked the highest advance achieved up to that period in this department of theological study. Many of the early prejudices had passed away. The reaching out gt the Church into communities living under unusual conditions and environments had made evident the need for a less rigid and invariable arrangement of services in order to meet the manifold needs. Again, there was a marked tendency to return to the standard of the order of choir offices--Morning and Evening Prayer. The old-fashioned and irrational accumulation of services whereby a widely prevailing custom prescribed Morning Prayer, Litany, and the Communion Service, or the so-called "Ante-Communion service," with sermon as the Sunday morning worship, was permissively abandoned. But still the "tyranny of Matins" remained as the usual and almost invariable office for a late forenoon service on Sunday.

Enrichment was marked by the restoration of the "Gospel Canticles" in the choir offices. The Benedictus, which had appeared for a century in an abbreviated form of four verses, was printed in full, certain alternatives were provided in the Communion Office, including the Summary of Law allowed instead of the Decalogue (though the use of the latter was, however, required once on a Sunday), and permission was given to substitute a hymn in place of the Gloria in Excelsis in the Eucharistic Office. The Apostles' Creed at last appeared in its liturgical integrity, the word "again" which had been omitted from the clause--" the third day He rose again "--being restored. The Festival of the Transfiguration, to be observed on August 6, was added to the Kalendar. It is in the cumulative effect of many details of elasticity and enrichment that the underlying principles are discernible, of reversion to earlier types of services and at the same time provision for adaptation to many conceivable parochial requirements. One of the noticeable features which is evident on examining and using the book is the strong stress laid upon the Holy Eucharist as a service complete in itself, and the emphasis upon its unique and high position as the central act of Christian worship.

Blemishes and unliturgical features are, undoubtedly, to be discovered in the Revised Prayer Book of 1892, but on the whole, twenty-five years of testing has increased the perception of its underlying Catholic character and liturgical soundness.

What stands out in a marked way in connection with the alteration and improvement of the service-books is that the Church in the United States is unhampered in such work by the many technicalities and civil sanctions which abound where Parliamentary consent is necessary for the authorization of such changes. Mistakes are capable of comparatively speedy rectification. A revision having been undertaken after laborious discussion does not become stereotyped for an indefinite period because of the numerous canonical conditions to be met, but may be reconsidered as to details at any moment. The danger lies, to be sure, in the temptation to be continually tinkering at the service-book on the part of people who are liturgically ill-trained. That is the danger threatening the service-book of the American Church at the present moment, when a fresh attempt at revision has brought forward drastic and uncatholic proposals side by side with alterations which would be a decided gain. As will be observed again in another connection, changes in the Prayer Book cannot be finally adopted until several General Conventions and the dioceses individually have had opportunity to consider and test the proposals advanced. Conservatism is always the safeguard against dangerous radicalism in such cases.

At present the American Prayer Book is in almost all important details still very near akin to the English Book of Common Prayer, the relationship, however, being better expressed by the term, "sister liturgies," inasmuch as the earlier .service-books of the English Church constitute the parent type.

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