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Anglican Covenant overlooks Liturgy – flawed first draft

The drafters of the proposed Anglican Covenant, intended to hold together a fragmenting Anglican Communion, have failed to include the concept of common prayer – one of the jewels of Anglicanism.

The draft covenant proposes a sort of corporate papacy alien to Anglican (Episcopalian) thinking thus far. Whilst it might be surprising that the draft makes no mention of concepts of subsidiarity, reception, the three legged stool, or the wide tent of Anglican inclusiveness, it is the complete absence of shared liturgical practice that surprises me most.

The genius of the (Elizabethan) Anglican settlement was community formed not by confessional hegemony (as with Continental Protestantism on the one hand), nor by authoritarianism (as with Roman Catholicism on the other), but by a commitment to shared liturgical practice. Participants could interpret this shared practice in different ways (“I will not make windows into people’s souls” – Elizabeth I ) and hence, people of a wide variety of opinions could participate in the same community with integrity. Many today who quickly turn to Buddhism or other traditions need to hear again that Christian spirituality is a discipline of practice not merely intellectual gymnastics without consequence (“believing six impossible things before breakfast” – from that wonderful Anglican cleric Lewis Carroll). Anglicanism offered a shared practice that inserted individuals and communities in a historical heritage going back to Christ and earlier.

In the church in which I serve, the Anglican Church in New Zealand, until 1984 there were two liturgical options available for the community’s celebration of Holy Communion – a traditional (thee, thou, thine), and a contemporary (you). From 1984 quite different contemporary rites were introduced – simple priest’s cues are met with scrambling through pages of books because different rites have quite distinct people’s responses to similar cues. In 1987, rather than encourage all to pray the Daily Prayer of the church (as Cranmer had intended), General Synod removed the ancient requirement for clergy to pray this. The reasoning: some clergy were not fulfilling this commitment and kiwis don’t like to induce guilt. Any clergy who still do pray Daily Services often see it as personal devotional time rather than part of the great corporate common prayer of all, in space as well as time. By 1984 there was also authorised a “Form for ordering the Eucharist”. This was a simple outline and included a eucharistic prayer framework. Borrowed from the BCP (USA), this “Form for ordering the Eucharist” was intended for a particular group (a prayer group, a youth camp) to carefully prepare a shared specific celebration of the eucharist. It was not to be used on Sundays when the community would gather to share common prayer and laity were spared the whim of the vicar’s current fancy. Following the general direction of this brief survey, it will not surprise the reader that General Synod 1998 removed the Sunday restriction of this outline. A eucharist could now, pretty much, take any format – unrecognisable possibly within the tradition – excepting that the eucharistic prayer still had to be authorised by Anglican processes within New Zealand. By 2006, however, that requirement too had been removed. General Synod made the (new) “Worship Template” a Standing Resolution of our church and one can now use a eucharistic prayer authorised anywhere in the Anglican Communion. This finally means that a person can arrive on Sunday at their local Anglican parish church without the slightest idea what might ensue at the eucharist. Common Prayer was finally buried. “Creativity” is the catch-cry. Gathered community has become audience, and “infotainment” the model replacing shared common worship.

Alongside this brief survey another could be told of decreasing clergy training, formation, and study that both adds to and explains the loss of common prayer. The national seminary, which only a small proportion of those to be ordained now attends, handed over its lecturing to the secular university which has little energy for what it calls “parsons’ subjects” (Liturgy, Anglicanism, preaching, and the like). The majority of ordinands are locally trained for ordination – often meeting for a day once a month. And some parishes (including city ones) no longer provide a stipend for a “trained” priest and, instead, have a calling process within their own small community (Locally Shared Ministry, otherwise known as Total Ministry).

In this context the lack of liturgical, ethical, theological, and canonical agility of many in significant positions of Anglican leadership is not surprising. The lack of even a mention in the draft Anglican Covenant of the gem of common prayer as a source and expression of community appears to indicate that the loss of this insight and practice is not merely a local New Zealand eccentricity but part of a wider trend. The Anglican five-fold mission statement is fine as far as it goes (proclaim Good news; teach, baptise, and nurture new believers; respond to human need; seek to transform unjust structures; safeguard creation). These are highlighted in the draft Covenant. But again, previous drafters of this mission statement have failed to underscore, I would argue, the primary mission of Christ and hence of Christians and of us as church: the worship of God.

The unique gift of Anglicanism to the wider, divided Christian community, and possibly as a parable for the world, was that of being able to hold together a wide diversity of perspectives through shared spiritual practice – common prayer. That gift appears to be being lost.

See also:
Goodbye common prayer?
The Worship Template and blessing same sex relationships

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