I have in other writings suggested that a key dividing line between a traditional and a modernist approach to worship is whether in worship one submits to liturgical and ecclesial authority or follows one’s own impulses in order to express his own personality and preferences.

For Anglo-Catholics the matter is complex.  For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Anglo-Catholic clergy often found themselves in dioceses and Churches not particularly amenable to more elaborate music and ceremonial or to interpolations into the Prayer Book’s rites.  Even when a priest or parish was in a diocese with a Catholic-minded or laissez-faire bishop, the question arose on what authority a particular liturgical practice could be defended. 

Among Anglo-Catholics several theories were proposed, explicitly or implicitly, to govern liturgical practice. 

One such approach, often with admirable consistency, was that of so-called ‘Prayer Book Catholics’.  Desmond Morse-Boycott, author of They Shine Like Stars, is an example of this approach.  Such churchmen were loath to tamper with the text of the authorized Prayer Books but availed themselves of the Ornaments Rubric in the 1662 English Book to alter liturgy in other ways involving, for example, music, ceremonial, and vestments.  By ‘alter’ I mean alter as compared with the typical parish of the day.  The Ornaments Rubric in the 1662 Prayer Book comes before Mattins and reads:

Such Ornaments of the Church, and of the Ministers thereof, at all times of their Ministration, shall be retained, and shall be in use, as were in this Church of England, by the authority of Parliament, in the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth.’  

The second year of Edward VI in turn refers to the first Prayer Book, that of 1549, where one of the rubrics before the ‘Supper of the Lord and the Holy Communion, Commonly called The Mass’ provides that:

…the Priest…shall put upon hym the vesture appoincted for that ministracion, that is to saye :  a white Albe plaine, with a vestement or Cope.

Assisting clergy are to wear albs with ‘tunicles’.  The American Prayer Books were all virtually silent on the matter of vestments.  It would seem, then, that insofar as the Prayer Book provides any direction in the matter, in 1662 it mandates for use the same vestments as were in use in the medieval Church (1549 rubric).  We do not need here to rehearse the long and complex history of litigation and interpretation concerning the Ornaments Rubric.  Nor do we need to consider how a rubric of 1549, referred to by a rubric of 1662 and only concerned explicitly with ‘vesture’, in fact might involve other ceremonial or ritual matters.  It suffices here to say that for Prayer Book Catholics the standard for liturgical interpretation was loyalty in some fashion to the Prayer Book and its rubrics.

Such Prayer Book Catholics claimed to be more loyal to the letter of the formularies of their Church than their Low Church or Evangelical opponents, who dismissed the Ornaments Rubrics as having fallen into desuetude.  The Prayer Book Catholic position was a perfectly respectable approach when the priests or parishes in question were in the Church of England or in another Church officially committed to the 1662 book. 

In the United States and elsewhere, the Prayer Book Catholic approach, with its appeal to standing liturgical authority explicitly established by Prayer Book rubric and ecclesiastical (and even Parliamentary) legislation, was less useful.  Since the official Prayer Book in the United States had no Ornaments Rubric, nor anything equivalent to it at all, some other authority, antecedent or additional to that of mid-17th century English legislation, was necessary.   

Various alternatives to the Prayer Book Catholic approach to the quest for liturgical authority look for an authority higher than that of the English Prayer Books or even higher than general Anglican rules.  This approach in turn takes various forms.  Such alternative approaches tend to treat the Prayer Book and Anglican liturgical books as derivative from a general Western Rite with some antecedent and higher authority.  But this approach in turn begs the question, which Western Rite?  Where does the supposed higher authority rest?  Answers differ. 

  • Some Anglicans chose to emphasize the Prayer Book’s historical antecedents in the Sarum Use of the Western Rite.  Sarum Use was largely derived from Norman and other northern French medieval uses.  In the Tudor period Sarum’s prestige was high, and on the eve of the Prayer Book’s introduction the Tudor passion for uniformity had suppressed other local English uses in favor of the Sarum missal, breviary, and other liturgical books.  Most of the liturgical books associated with Sarum Use are known and some related French uses survived, at least in part, up to the time of the post-Vatican II liturgical revolution in the Roman Catholic Church.  Therefore, while ‘Sarum’ as a 19th or 20th century option was something of a reconstruction, sometimes somewhat arbitrary and based on few living exemplars, it was attractive to some as specifically English.  Insofar as Anglo-Catholicism was a Romantic movement with medievalist tendencies, ‘Sarum’ fit;
  • Nonetheless, the Sarum Use ceased to exist as a coherent, living liturgical system with the introduction of the first Prayer Book.  Even the Marian interlude was shaped by continental influences and, if it had survived, might well in due course have adopted the Tridentine rite rather than a restored Sarum Use.  Since by the 19th century ‘Sarum’ could only be a reconstruction, many Anglo-Catholics, in a search for liturgical authority, looked for a living, existing system.  An obvious candidate was the Roman Rite, particularly as that rite existed between the Councils of Trent and Vatican II.   Undoubtedly the Roman Rite seemed authoritative and attractive because it was the most widespread rite in the world, with a vast array of liturgical books, vestments and hardware, ceremonial guides, and living experts.  That is, the Roman Rite might be preferred for many practical reasons.  Since the Roman Rite was actually in existence, it did not need to be reconstructed or reinvented.    
  • Others, whom we might call principled Romanizers, preferred to follow whatever use was at the time in place in the Roman Church, not so much for practical reasons but more because of the supposed authority of the Roman Catholic Church as such.  Anglicans of this sort would be inclined to adopt the liturgical changes introduced in the Roman Church beginning around 1970.  Of course, as the Tridentine rite disappeared following the imposition of the Roman Novus Ordo, the newer use acquired some of the practical advantages of the Tridentine use in the older period:  it was easy to get books, view living examples of its use, and so forth.
  • In practical terms in fact the governing liturgical authority in many parishes was the current rector.  Either the current rector had on the local level something approaching papal authority, or dissidents in a parish adopted the common attitude that the best priest and governing authority was either the former rector or, perhaps, the rector who had not yet arrived but was eagerly anticipated.  The rector or parish in question might be ‘Sarum’:  which is to say might adopt some peculiar and relatively unusual combination of reconstructed theories of what might have been used in England on the eve of the Reformation.  Or perhaps the parish might be ‘Romanizing’:  which in turn might either mean that it adopted some version of pre-Vatican II Roman liturgical use or that it slavishly followed the revolutionary liturgical changes that roiled Rome after Vatican II and that still are underway.

The ’Prayer Book Catholic’ position rests ultimately on a theory of obedience and authority:  Churchman should obey their Church and should use its duly authorized liturgies, even if those liturgies might legitimately and elaborately be embellished with music, vesture, and ceremonial from ‘Sarum’ or ‘Western’ sources.  This restrained position, however, nears collapse when the ‘Church’ in question has itself ceased to maintain the authority of the liturgical books in question.  If the ‘Prayer Book Catholic’ position rests, in the end, on a rubric in the 1662 common Prayer Book, and nobody involved in the liturgical debate belongs to a Church that in fact asserts the particular authority of the 1662 Prayer Book, the dependent position must collapse. 

Certainly, within the Anglican Catholic Church, and most of the Continuing Churches, the 1662 Prayer Book has no unique or particular authority.  In fact, the 1662 book is not a book directly authorized by the Anglican Catholic Church, and the 1662 Ornaments rubric is of no more than historical significance. 

It does not follow that the ACC (or the Continuing Church as a whole) has no place for Prayer Book Catholics.  The ACC in fact explicitly authorizes the 1549 Prayer Book, whose authority, including its rubric concerning vesture, is not dependent on a rubric in the 1662 book.  Within the ACC a Sarum usage, based on the 1549 Book, is entirely legitimate.  But the fundamental authorization of matters liturgical is not some theory of ‘traditional Anglican’ or ‘Sarum’ or ‘1662’ practice.  The fundamental authority in matters liturgical is the living Church – the Anglican Catholic Church for members of the ACC.  The ACC in turn authorizes the 1549 Book, but also the modern Anglo-Catholic missals:  the English Missal (or Knott Missal), the American Missal (or Cowley Fathers Missal), the Anglican Missal in the American Edition (the Frank Gavin Liturgical Foundation Missal – now the Anglican Parishes Association Missal), and the Anglican Missal in the English Edition.  Since the ACC in fact authorizes the missals just named, the whole Prayer Book Catholic argument from the last 150 years falls away in practical terms.  To use the missals is not disobedient or suspect when the Church explicitly authorizes the missals.  Loyalty and obedience now are not limiting factors, restricting Churchmen to the Prayer Book, but rather are liberating factors authorizing the missals and related liturgical books that the Church has officially and formally adopted.    

The anti-missal position is now maintained mostly by people who belong to Churches which do NOT in fact assert the unique authority of a traditional Prayer Book standard.  For a member of the Episcopal Church or any Anglican Communion Church to oppose the Anglo-Catholic liturgy of any Continuing Anglican Church in the name of an older Prayer Book authority is simply and grossly inconsistent:  they in fact belong to Churches which do not give the traditional Prayer Books such authority.  And certainly for any member of the ACC to oppose the missals, and other similar liturgical books, on the basis of an appeal to some supposedly unique Prayer Book authority, is simply to ignore the actual, official liturgical settlement of the ACC and of most Continuing Churches. 

In brief, then, the liturgical standard of the ACC and of other Continuing Churches is the standard actually established by those Churches, not some theoretical or ideal or romantic or fanciful standard based on some understanding of authority in the Church of England or elsewhere in days gone by.  Liturgies are authorized by living Churches.  In any given case the relevant question is this:  What liturgy is in fact authorized by your Church?    

One thought on “Liturgical Authority

  1. A wise approach. From the very beginning of the church, it was the living church that authorized liturgies, all formal and orderly, all with some similarities and significant differences–the point is that the doctrine implied by the liturgy was similar across the board. Lex orandi [est] lex credendi. There is considerable variety in ACC churches, but most are “middle of the road” and use the Missal, at least from my experience. In every ACC church I have visited the priest has worn Roman style vestments. There are settings, such as the military chaplaincy in the field, in which the priest does not wear vestments, at least in Roman circles. I used to care about such issues greatly; now as long as Christ is honored and the Eucharist is held in highest esteem as the vehicle of the Real Presence of Christ, it does not matter to me what the priest wears as long as it is not ordinary street clothes–the Romans played around with suits and ties in the 60s; probably not a good idea, but I do not think that invalidated the Mass the priest celebrated. Plus, it was a radical innovation in a Roman context, and psychologically, at least, that can weaken the ties to tradition among the clergy and laity. Often, liturgical matters are matters of “fittingness”–if we become overly legalistic about them, we would probably invalidate much of the worship of the pre-Constantinian church. To me, the beautiful and theologically sound words of the Prayer Book and Missal are the heart of the liturgy as celebrated by a priest or bishop in the apostolic succession. No other English liturgy has such a unity of beautiful language and sound theology.


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