Project Canterbury

Lectures on the First Prayer Book of King Edward VI.

by Morgan Dix
Rector of Trinity Church, New York

New York: Young and Co., 1881.


WHILE listening to what has been said in the lectures heretofore given, some one of you may have asked himself of what practical account they are? and what concern have we American churchmen in these things? I shall try to answer the questions, and so conclude this course of Lenten instruction.

We have been looking back over a history of somewhat more than three hundred years and studying the perils of the faith which is contained in the English Book of Common Prayer, and depends for its distinct enunciation on the integrity of that volume. During the last of those three centuries we American churchmen have had a separate existence and a Prayer Book of our own. We are soon to commemorate the centennial of our autonomous life as a branch of Christ's Holy Catholic Church. Out of the thoughts, experiences, and studies of that period", during which three generations of men have arisen and run their course, much ought to have been gathered that is good and profitable. It would be a disgrace to us if we had not learned anything worth knowing in a hundred years.

Now, the history of the English Prayer Book, carefully studied, shows this: that from the hour in which the first edition came out to light, continued and desperate efforts have been made to deprave it in the interests of a class of men constitutionally and incurably hostile to the ancient Catholic system; that at first, owing to a peculiar and exceptional state of affairs, those efforts were successful; that they were arrested by what men used to call the Act of God; that, ever since, there has been a reaction against radicalism; that this reaction has been strong enough, not only to prevent further damage, but also to effect a gradual reconstruction; that each successive attempt to alter the Prayer Book for the worse has failed; and that each revision has shown a disposition to revert to old positions and to recover somewhat which had been thrown away. Such is the plain story as told from 1559 to 1880.

But it may be objected that the history of the American Book of Common Prayer presents a contrast to this picture, and affords an instance of a marked departure from the Catholic conservatism which we admire in our English brethren. I think that this is not the case; and that, rightly understood, our own book affords one proof the more of the persistent vitality of the truth among us. That history constitutes a singular episode in our liturgical annals. To understand it one must consider the strange, the passing strange features of the era in which our ecclesiastical independent existence began.

The North American colonies were founded, without exception, by English churchmen; they were ruled from a kingdom where the English Church was established by law; their governors were communicants of the English Church, and kings should have been their nursing fathers and their queens their nursing mothers. Yet, strange as it may appear, the condition of English churchmen, in the old colonial days, was generally one of depression and misery, and actually inferior, in many quarters, to that of men in revolt against the Church. No adequate help was given them; and what help they had was from voluntary societies at home. The Government seemed indifferent to their welfare; it made no earnest, vigorous effort to stablish, strengthen, and settle them. It looked on, and made no sign; upon the whole it encouraged Dissent. In New England the Puritan oligarchies, secure in royal charters, savagely persecuted our people, fined them for refusal to attend meeting, and forbade them the use of the Book of Common Prayer. In New York and elsewhere Royal Commissioners were cautioned against giving offence by appearing to show favor to English church people. Among the clergy sent out to the Colonies were many of worthless character, who brought disgrace on our religious system. But the crowning sin of all was this: that the Government withheld from the church in America its complete organization, by refusing to permit the consecration of Bishops for this region; so that it came to this, that in America every kind of religion had whatever it desired for its full organization, except the unhappy children of the Church, to whom was peremptorily denied the one thing which the word "Episcopal" implies as above all others necessary to their working equipment. The Episcopate was withheld; withheld from people who prayed for it loudly and earnestly; withheld for fear of the anger of sectarians who deemed bishops first-cousins to the Pope, and howled against the English clergy as ''priests of Baal." No child of the Church in all that time received confirmation; no man could get ordination except by crossing the wild Atlantic at the risk of his life; no proper discipline could be exercised over clergy or flocks. Such was the state of feebleness and depression in which our people passed their weary years, waiting on the will of an Erastian and latitudinarian government. Who would look, either for sound principles or practical churchmanship in a people under the slow strangulation of such a bondage as that?

Nay more; who would look for anything good in that dreary age? It was the Georgian era, one of the darkest through which English churchmen ever passed. Those were the years when indifferentism prevailed; when the State lorded it over the Church, and the Church acquiesced; when Convocation was silent, and zeal was extinct, and the things that remained seemed ready to die.

The yoke of the Dutch Princes, those low-lived men whom Thackeray has so graphically described, was heavy on the neck of England; and as for the Church, to human eyes it looked as if it were on its death-bed.

When the revolutionary troubles began the Church of England in the American Colonies received another and a tremendous shock. Of the clergy large numbers were loyal to the crown, as, indeed, was natural; for so mixed up were their ideas of Church and State that to break their implied vow to the crown seemed to them nearly, if not quite, as great a sin as to break their vow to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The whole body of the clergy, therefore, lay under suspicion; in many places they were persecuted, their houses being entered, their books destroyed, and their liberty and life threatened. On the completion of the fight for Independence, a great number of the clergy left the country; partly from choice, partly under compulsion, so that there remained in some of the "States," as they were at last called, a mere shadow of the old mother Church, a paltry handful of priests, with scarce a name to live.

Study thoughtfully the history of those times, some hundred years ago, and ask yourself if you can imagine a state of things more unfavorable than that? Ask yourself if it would have been strange had the Church, or the feeble remnant which was left, collapsed then and there? It would not have been strange; it must have been so, but for the interposition of that Sovereign Lord of the Churches, whose will it was that the little flame should continue to burn, that the candlestick of Anglo-Catholicism should stand fast here in its place. And yet how extreme was the peril, how nigh unto death the men who were left! The crudeness of ideas, the density of the ignorance that prevailed in some quarters may be inferred, as from many another instance, so notably from that resolve, in South Carolina, that, though willing to unite with other Episcopal churches, they would do so solely on the condition that there should never be a bishop in their State! But the proof, the crowning and conclusive proof of the low condition of religion among us at that critical time consisted in the appearance of what was known as the "Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies, as revised and proposed to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church, at a Convention of the said Church, in the States of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, held in Philadelphia, from September 27th to October 7th, 1785."

This was the first attempt at an American Prayer Book; and as a low-water mark shows how far the tide recedes, so this intolerable volume exhibits the degree to which some had fallen below the line of Catholic orthodoxy. I believe it is not certainly known who were implicated in the design of putting out most of the light that yet remained by the imposition of so effectual an extinguisher. It is hardly possible to speak of it with patience, though, by way of pointing a moral and clinching our argument, its value is great. It begins with a preface, extolling the abortive attempt at revision made in England in 1688. Of the three Creeds, the Nicene and Athanasian are thrown out, the Apostles' only is retained; even that, however, appears in a mutilated form, one of its articles being erased. The Gloria in Excelsis is altered, apparently to get rid of the idea of our Lord's continued work as the High Priest "that taketh away the sins of the world." Everywhere the word "priest" is rejected, the vague word "minister" being used instead, so that by implication the deacon is permitted to absolve, bless, and affect to consecrate the Eucharist. The offices of Baptism are ingeniously recast so as no longer to affirm the regeneration of the recipient of that holy sacrament; and, with the same intention, some answers in the Catechism are done over. The Psalter is broken all to bits, so that not one psalm remains intact, while sometimes as many as six are struck together into one strange jumble. Get a copy of the "Proposed Book "if you can, and look it through, and you will see in it, as in a mirror, what were some of the perils that surrounded the cradle of the infant branch of the Church at that day.

It would take a long time to show how bad that book was. Nothing so bad was ever proposed before to English churchmen. And yet, humanly speaking, it would not have been strange if, in the confusion of the moment and for the sake of conciliation, enough had agreed to give it sanction and make it the Prayer Book of our people; that would have been no wonder, I say, though with that there would have been an end to the Anglican system in this country. We should have had a "Reformed Episcopal Church" with a vengeance.

But now, behold and adore the providence of Almighty God. Who would have thought--for we walk wonderingly through that period and must continue to use the language of amazement--who would have thought that the poor little American Church, springing up as a tender plant out of a dry ground, and with scarce a name to live, should not only be saved from shipwreck then and there, but actually come out of the dust and darkness of that humiliation with a Liturgy (I use the word here in the exact sense, not in the popular) surpassing, in its primitive beauty and correctness, any in use on this continent or in the entire Anglican Communion to-day? It seems like a dream, yet so it is; and this came about by a strange combination of circumstances, and, perhaps, through the acquiescence of some who did not know or understand what they were doing. I should not dream of calling our American Prayer Book perfect; I do not pretend to deny that it has blemishes, and might be, with advantage, revised. But I do say this: that be its defects what they may, they are, comparatively speaking, thrown out of sight when we weigh against them the Canon of the Holy Communion. In that, as adopted in 1789, there was taken a step backward, in the line of recovery and restoration, and toward the standard of King Edward's first Prayer Book, which liturgists must regard with joy, and which Catholic divines of the Church of England have longed to be able to take, but in vain. The treasure, the jewel, the one best thing in the First English Prayer Book is substantially in ours. It brings us into harmony with the oldest liturgies, and fixes forever among us the doctrine that the Sacrament of the Altar is also a proper sacrifice, the standing memorial before the Almighty Father of that Oblation once offered on the Cross, in blood, and ever since re-presented at the Mercy Seat on high

And so that was the history; the "Proposed Book" vanished like a bad dream; the proposal was rejected, and the volume remains now a mere bibliographical curiosity, for which the collector gives a large price, when, once in twenty years, perhaps, a copy is brought out of the cobwebs and offered for sale in an auction-room. It never came into use; it was dropped at once, as what I have deliberately called it, "intolerable," by men who knew its quality; and, one hardly can tell how, the Book which we now use and love was formally adopted by the representatives of the Church. And, thinking it all over, perchance some of you may be moved to go, as he who now addresses you has gone, to New London, and to St. James' Church in that city, and there, having found out the spot where lie, awaiting the voice of the archangel, the bones of Samuel Seabury, some time Bishop of Connecticut, may kneel, and with a full heart offer thanks to the Supreme Head of the Church, who helped our first American Bishop to carry into effect his solemn pledge to the Scotch prelates at Aberdeen, and gave us, through him, a treasure which many of our less favored brethren longed for but in vain.

And now a hundred years almost are gone; and the power of the American Prayer Book has been felt, and is felt, more and more. The little one has become a thousand; and the book which we use may be counted among the principal conservative forces of society and religion in this country. And during these years men have been studying and learning; and among the sciences is recognized that of Liturgies; and among our clergy there is a growing body of men too well instructed to make blunders, and with too much regard for their reputation to be rash in matters in that particular sphere. It is felt, as the time of our Centennial approaches, that something might be done with our Prayer Book, in the way of enrichment and improvement, of which we may all be glad; and a committee has been appointed with instructions to consider this subject and make suggestions. Here the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries touch; and here it is that the experience gained by study of the days of King Edward VI. and their deplorable events may help us in this far-off place and. under these marvellously altered circumstances. I have to conclude my Lenten Course this evening; I will do so by some reflections on the proposal to enrich the American Book of Common Prayer. What may be done? What must not be done?

Let us first consider what must not be done; what ought not to be done; what, we feel sure, cannot be done. No change shall be made merely for the sake of change. No light, careless tampering with the book can be permitted. No doctrinal statement, no dogma can be touched by adding thereto or taking away. No strong meat of Catholic teaching can be weakened or diluted in the Sacramental offices. No concession can be made to the evil spirit of the age. Apostolic succession, Baptismal Regeneration, the Real Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of the Altar, the Reception of His Body and Blood in Holy Communion, the Office and Work of the Priest, the Mystery of the Sacraments; all these must stand as now they do; there is to be no revision for the sake of pleasing or conciliating unbelievers outside, whatever name they bear. Official assurance has been given that no alteration shall be made touching either statements or standards of doctrine, in the Book of Common Prayer.

Then, secondly, what can be done? Let the answer be given by repeating the words "Liturgical Enrichment." The Prayer Book may be enriched, expanded, strengthened by valuable additions. The word "enrichment "is significant; it opens a vast field. For the chief sources of such enrichment as is contemplated are the ancient treasure-houses, wherein is stored all manner of liturgical wealth. The work to be done is like that of the miner in gold and silver fields. The ore which he seeks is in the mines; hidden under rubbish, concealed by the debris of years of surface waste and change; but there, and nowhere else. Men cannot make gold and silver; by no art or appliance of their own can they create the precious metals. God giveth them; and men must seek them where God hath placed them, and toil to secure them. It is so with liturgical treasures. They are deeply imbedded in their proper place; they are practically lost to us; they must be exhumed, tried, purified. We cannot compose de novo the things that we want. The Lord deliver us from modern compositions, new-fangled rites, and nineteenth-century inventions! The Lord deliver us from such queer tinkering of old collects and drafts of brand new ones as may be found in Archbishop Tillotson's revised Book! The Lord preserve us from carpenter's Gothic, French tinsel, stage-scenery and effects, and devotions in newspaper and magazine English! Enrichment is what we seek; the embellishment, the enlargement of a volume which is itself a fair instance of good old work, and which, if improved at all, can only be improved with materials drawn from the same rocks out of which it was hewn, from the ancient foundries wherein itself was cast.

Therefore, in thinking about liturgical enrichment, we naturally think first of what we have lost. It is with the Church of Christ as with the man in the parable; she has fallen among thieves, who have stripped her of her raiment, leaving her half dead. We can count up old treasures, which have been clean taken out of our house, as a robber carries off the family plate and jewels. Let us have these back to begin with. There, for example, are the Evangelical hymns, "Magnificat" and "Nunc Dimittis." There is the Athanasian Creed, so great a bulwark against heresy that it is likely that New England Unitarianism would never have been the power that it once was if those magnificent statements of doctrine had been heard, in our churches year after year, purifying the air around us. There is the old Order for the Celebration of Holy Communion at Funerals, set forth in Queen Elizabeth's time, with Collect, Epistle, and Gospel; a similar order for the Holy Communion at Marriages--a use which would no doubt have tended to maintain the sanctity of Holy Matrimony in the face of an evil and adulterous generation panting for divorces on any or no pretext. Such things as these have we lost outright; to recover them would be a real enrichment of the Book. And then, there are many other things that may be regarded as desirable; the restoration of some of the minor days of the old Kalendar; the revival of the use of antiphons; a large addition to the number of collects; more selections of psalms proper for divers feasts; shortened daily services for morning and evening, and a third, a Compline, to be said when the two former had been gone through; special offices for such occasions as the laying of a cornerstone; the consecration of a cemetery; the benediction of dwellings, hospitals, schoolhouses; the dedication of altars, fonts, and gifts to God's House; the setting apart of choristers, and members of guilds, brotherhoods, and sisterhoods. I mention, hurriedly, things that have been in my own thoughts as very desirable, by way of enrichment; things which might be added without touching dogma or doctrine; things which, however, must be drawn from the old treasury of the Christian Church. But, meanwhile, there must be no weakening in our dogmatic position. Every truth must stand out like the sun in the meridian heavens. The Glory of the Eternal Trinity; the verity of the Incarnation of God the Word; the genuineness and authenticity of the Holy Scriptures as the true gift of the Holy Ghost to men; the literal truth of statements of fact in gospels; the miraculous in God's dealings with men; the Personality and Providences of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Sacramental system; the Christian priesthood; the threefold Ministry; the Sacrificial and Sacramental virtue of the Holy Eucharist; the visibility and historic continuity of the Church; the expected Resurrection of the Body and Everlasting Life--all these must stand as now; not one jot or one tittle must pass till all be fulfilled. That, above all else, we demand. Each has his special tastes, each his personal wishes and preferences. One of us would like one thing, another of us another. But I trust that all would rather let things go on as they are ad infinitum, than permit the Prayer Book to be weakened or diluted. And for myself, at least, I will say, that I would prefer to have it kept as it is, verbatim, literatim, punctuatim, a hundred years more, than lose one smallest portion of the strong meat of wholesome food which, with all its imperfections, the Book now contains. And I will end, by saying why.

First, then, because, taking it just as it stands, we can teach the people out of it the true Catholic faith. We can do so with a clear conscience, without mental reservation or disingenuous subterfuge. We can show, from the history of the Book, and of the Anglican Communion, that it contains the sacerdotal and sacramental system, and that we, who teach that system, arc in our right, as the correct exponents of its meaning. We, therefore, will consent to no revision or alteration which would throw us on the defensive, and make us appear as men who hold and teach what the Church Catholic does not hold and teach. If our standards of doctrine, our statements of dogma were modified, though but a little, to accommodate them to the cloudy mysticism, the undogmatic vagueness, the rhetorical flightiness so much admired now, the Church would suffer loss, her priests would be thrown into a false position, and the first step might have been taken toward the final overthrow of the faith received from our fathers.

And, secondly, we believe that the Book of Common Prayer has been indirectly the salvation of great numbers in this age, within and outside of our fold; their salvation from rationalism, skepticism, and infidelity, because it keeps before the nation a practical system of positive teaching and plain old-fashioned morality. You can see, in the great bodies around us, a steady drift from ancient landmarks, and a craving after novelty which can be satisfied with nothing but a new religion. Men and women are always eager to know what is "the last thing out," the latest fashion. This passion of restless minds is fed by men in whom the tendency to introspection, to reference of everything to inner tests and standards, to trial of everything by the human reason, overpowers respect for authority and reverence for institutions. Had there been no breakwater against this tide, no barrier to keep back this flood, we should have been oversloughed and deluged; and where once smiled the beautiful gardens and green pastures of the Fold of the Lord would have been seen the outstretchings of a broad, shallow element, taken by the ignorant for a profound ocean, merely because its muddiness concealed its lack of depth. The Book of Common Prayer has exerted, and now exerts, a strong influence beyond our own borders. It is a conservative force, even among people who never use it; there are many not of our own communion who read and love it, and are not unwilling to confess that it helps them. It must continue to exert that power; if altered at all, it must be by being strengthened, toned up yet more, and made to speak even more clearly than now; and this, in tin common interests of Christianity and for the glory and honor of the Blessed and Eternal Trinity, of God the Son, Redeemer of the world, of God the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life. We cannot do without the witness of that little book. While it is what it is, it will help to keep the Church sound in the faith. There may be men among us who fail to teach what it teaches; who have lost their faith in the living Christ of history; whose views of the Incarnation they could not state intelligibly; who reject the Catholic doctrine of the atonement; to whom there are no holy mysteries in religion; who teach a kind of vague Christianity which a man can no more grasp and examine than he could detain the phantasies of the imagination or the dreams of yesternight. But it is impossible that men of that ilk can go on long where they are, confronted and contradicted by the standards of the Church, for conscience and self-respect will make an honest man uncomfortable in that position. Nor will it be possible to conceal the fact from his people if a clergyman shall have lost his faith, and is unable longer to preach what the Church who gave him his orders puts into his mouth. I doubt not that there are, here and there, many inner conflicts in progress in the souls of men in the drift. I wish them safe out of their trouble and pray God to help them. I also see that they are not the men who are to rule the future. The advantage of to-day, the triumph of the morrow are with those who use the plainest speech, who give the clearest message; who teach most distinctly what is, and what is not of faith; who most boldly discard the dubious and the unintelligible, and announce most fearlessly that religion of which the outlines are as clear and sharply cut as those of mountains against the body of heaven. By such men shall we still be kept true to our bearings; through their indomitable perseverance, their contempt for the plaudits of a demoralized age, their devoted love of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, shall God's Promise to that Church be fulfilled. And they who resist must take heed to themselves, lest their end be that of those who strive against the Holy Ghost, and of whom it is written, "BEHOLD, YE DESPISERS, AND WONDER, AND PERISH."

Project Canterbury