The New Prayer Book


IT would be hard to imagine the book-stores of any American city reporting that a revised edition of the liturgy of the Protestant Episcopal Church was the ‘best seller’ of the day. A few weeks ago, however, the machines of the Oxford University Press, the Cambridge University Press, and the King’s Printers were all working at high pressure to meet the public demand for the new Book of Common Prayer. This does not imply, of course, that there is a keener interest in religion in England than in the United States. The Church of England has been much more closely interwoven with the national life than its daughter Church across the Atlantic, and it is only natural that widespread attention should be attracted by any proposal to alter the forms of worship that, to most Englishmen, have become almost as familiar as the words of Sacred Writ.

It is no wonder that the cry, ‘Why can’t you let it alone?’ should have been raised at once by many for whom the old Prayer Book ranks second only to the Bible as a lifelong means of spiritual nurture. But the task of revision was inevitable. A manual of public worship reflecting the troubled conditions at the end of the seventeenth century must fail in many respects to meet the needs of the present generation. During the interval political changes, social changes, and religious changes have profoundly modified the life and thought alike of the Church and of the nation, and the new wine is in danger of bursting the old wineskins. The publication of the book that has just appeared is the culmination of an effort that started with the appointment of a Royal Commission in 1867, but it is the fruit of the diligent toil of the Bishops during the last few years. For many weeks they sat together continuously, listening to every suggestion that came to them from any quarter, and weighing every sentence with scrupulous care. ‘Never before in the history of the Church of England,’ says the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘has there been a corresponding perseverance in laborious work on the part of virtually the whole Diocesan Episcopate.’

When the completed revision was set before the public the feature that jumped at once into the newspaper headlines was the deletion of ‘obey’ from the bride’s pledge in the marriage service. One may remark in passing that this recognition of the altered status of woman in modern times had long ago been anticipated in most of the Free Churches. Among other changes of more or less interest to the ‘man in the street’ are the excision from the same service of much of the introductory disquisition on the purposes of matrimony, the shortening of the Morning Prayer and the Litany, the provision of several new occasional prayers and thanksgivings (for example, ‘for universities and other places of learning,’ ‘for use at time of an election,’ and so on), the addition of a special service for the burial of a child, the permission to omit imprecatory passages from the Psalter, the abolition of compulsion to recite the Athanasian Creed at certain festivals, and the sanctioning, under certain conditions, of extempore prayer.

Most of these changes have been generally welcomed as manifest improvements, and no controversy worth noting has arisen with respect to any of them. A few criticisms have been offered on the literary side, but they have mainly shown how soon a man of letters may get out of his depth when he tackles religious and ecclesiastical problems.

Thus, Mr. George Saintsbury complains that ‘that magnificent motto of all true love and marriage, “With my body I thee worship,"' has been ‘watered down’ into ‘With my body I thee honor.’ To which Bishop Temple replies that Mr. Saintsbury can never have attended a wedding in a slum parish, or he would have realized how much of the magnificent language of the old Prayer Book is unmeaning or even misleading to people of our day who have not received an advanced literary education. Mr. J. C. Squire, again, does no more than betray his own lack of theological instruction when he raises the objection that ‘for a reason impossible to conjecture’ the word ‘everlasting’ has been cast out of the Athanasian Creed in favor of the word ‘eternal.’ The reason is simply, as the theologians have since been telling him, that ‘everlasting’ and ‘eternal’ have not the same meaning. As Archbishop Lang reminds us, ‘the Prayer Book, after all, is not a literary legacy,’ but is, or ought to be, ‘the expression of the mind and spirit of a living society, reflecting the needs of generations as they pass.’


It is the changes involving points of doctrine that are causing the only serious trouble. ‘I wish to say emphatically,’ declared Archbishop Davidson in laying the new book before Convocation, ‘that in my deliberate judgment nothing that we have suggested makes any change in the doctrinal position of the Church of England.’ Four, at least, of his colleagues in the Diocesan Episcopate do not agree with him, for they have registered their dissent on doctrinal grounds. One of them complains in addition that there has not been sufficient frankness in letting the people understand the doctrinal changes implied in the revision. The attack has come mainly from the Evangelicals, who regard these changes as a concession to the Romanizing section in the Church. The controversy rages especially around (1) Prayers for the Dead, (2) the Prayer of Consecration in the Communion Service, and (3) the Reservation of the Sacrament.

1. The Anglo-Catholics have long been agitating for the inclusion of Prayers for the Dead, but the Evangelicals object to them as not sanctioned by Scripture and as postulating a belief in Purgatory. Such prayers are now to find a place in the alternative Communion service, and the practice of offering them receives particular sanction in the provision of a special collect, Epistle, and Gospel for All Souls’ Day, whose observance, the Evangelicals point out, originated with, and has always been associated with, the doctrine of Purgatory. There is a further provision that this service for All Souls’ Day may be ‘used on any day when desired.’

2. It is alleged by the Evangelicals that the alternative Prayer of Consecration provided for the Communion office brings that service nearer to the Roman Mass, and will give color to the belief that a particular form of words effects a miraculous change in the bread and wine over which they are said. ‘The present prayer,’ says Bishop Knox, ‘ is consistent with the idea that no change is made in the bread and wine, and that the only sacrifices offered are offered after the elements have been consumed, and are sacrifices of ourselves and of our praises and thanksgivings. The new prayer is consistent with the idea that a change is wrought in the elements by the action of the Holy Spirit, and with the idea that a sacrifice is offered by the priest for the remission of the sins of the living and the dead. This idea is reënforced by the introduction of the anamnesis, — the words of thankful remembrance, which are defined by liturgiologists to be the offering of the Son to the Father, — by the use of vestments associated with that sacrifice, and by the failure to forbid elevation, genuflections, incense, and sacring gongs, all of them recognized as accompaniments of the Mass.'

3.Provision is made for reserving the consecrated bread and wine for the Communion of the sick — an innovation which Dean Inge pronounces to be the ‘crucial question’ of the whole controversy. The Sacrament so reserved is to be used for no other purpose. It ’shall not be brought into connection with any service or ceremony, nor shall it be exposed or removed except in order to be received in Communion, or otherwise reverently consumed.’ It is to be kept under lock and key in an ambry set in the north wall of the sanctuary, ‘or in some other place approved by the Bishop.’ Moreover the right to reserve is to be granted only under episcopal license. These restrictions, however, appear to Evangelicals an inadequate safeguard. They maintain that, once reservation is allowed, it will practically be impossible to prevent worshipers from praying before the consecrated bread and wine, and an opening will thus be given to the whole cultus of adoration of the elements. They point out that ‘some other place approved by the Bishop’ will mean, in some dioceses, that the elements will be kept in a tabernacle on the altar with a red lamp burning before it. The Evangelicals protest further that the demand for reservation in the professed interests of the sick is almost entirely artificial and fictitious. What is really behind it is the desire to legalize the practice of adoration of the Sacrament.

On the whole, then, the proposed changes will mainly inure to the advantage of the Anglo-Catholics. At the least, they will give a more ‘catholic’ tinge to the worship of the Church of England. The Church Association, the Protestant Alliance, and most of the other Evangelical and Protestant organizations already in existence are therefore loudly beating the drum ecclesiastic, and their propaganda against the new Prayer Book has been assisted by the formation of an ad hoc ‘Committee for the Maintenance of Truth and Faith,’ which is supported by many influential clergy and laymen. On the other side, the Anglo-Catholics are by no means satisfied. Large as are the concessions made to them, they demand more. A memorandum of their English Church Union declares that many of them cannot accept the rubrics concerning Reservation, and that these restrictions ‘could only be enforced, if at all, by a widespread and determined use of ecclesiastical discipline.’ Middle-of-the-road opinion has been mobilized by the creation of a ‘League of Loyalty and Order,’ which serves as a rallying point and propagandist agency for those Churchmen, of varying schools of thought, who are anxious to see the new Prayer Book adopted.

‘This alternative book is permissive only,’ said Archbishop Davidson in laying it before Convocation; ‘it is in no sense forced on those who do not wish to use it.’ This general statement seems to need some qualification. A parish priest will have the right to continue the use of the old Prayer Book if he so desires. If he wishes to adopt any of the alternative services provided in the new one, he must first lay the matter before his parochial Church Council. In the event of their objection, the question must go before the Bishop, whose decision will be final. The option, therefore, as Mr. Ronald McNeill has pointed out, is a purely clerical one, in connection with which the parishioners have no right except that of being consulted. Attention has further been drawn to the misleading implication of the term ‘ optional ’ when applied to country parishes. In the cities every worshiper can attend the church which offers him the kind of service he prefers. But in the villages the only option allowed to worshipers who do not like the Prayer Book used in the parish church is the option of staying away altogether. And it is notorious that in a large number of country parishes the incumbent has already strained to the utmost his opportunities of introducing an advanced ritual with which the bulk of his parishioners have no sympathy.


There is a widespread apprehension that the Anglo-Catholic party will by no means be content with the gains they have secured in the Revised Prayer Book. One of the main arguments used to induce Evangelicals and moderate men to accept the book is that it will restore law and order within the Church; that it will put an end to the unauthorized revisions — in other words, the illegalities — that are at present practised by individual clergy and groups of clergy in all parts of the country, and will thus bring in a condition of peace in place of perpetual internal controversy. But thoughtful people are doubting whether they can have any assurance that the acceptance of the book will really have a pacifying effect. Do the Anglo-Catholics honestly intend to observe the new rubrics — the limitations, for instance, imposed in connection with the Reservation of the Sacrament? Note has been made above of the manifesto of the English Church Union, to which may be added the declaration of Lord Halifax, the most distinguished leader of the Anglo-Catholics, that they are bound to insist that rigid obedience to the Revised Prayer Book ‘cannot rightly be enforced by ecclesiastical discipline.’

What have the Bishops to say to that? In a letter addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir William Joynson-Hicks has put some plain questions on this point. What steps, he asks, do the Bishops propose to take in order to secure obedience to the provisions expressed or implied in the new book? Will they, in the event of its adoption, cease in future to appoint or to institute clergy who disregard these provisions? ‘We shall do our best,’ says the Primate in reply, and ‘we shall act, I hope, unitedly, or at least shall endeavor to do so,’ but he declines to give, either on his own behalf or on that of his episcopal colleagues, any undertaking to carry out, such measures of discipline as his correspondent suggests. ‘It is foolish,’ declares Bishop Pollock, ‘to alter the book with no certain guaranty that the clergy will follow the new ruling. What power is there to maintain the new book which did not exist for the maintenance of the old one?’ Dean Inge takes very much the same view. ‘The weak point in the whole scheme,’ he says, ‘is the absence of machinery for dealing with lawbreakers.’ He anticipates that the spirit of lawlessness will not easily be exorcised. ‘There are scores of clergymen,’ he tells us, ‘who manage to combine an almost superstitious reverence for the episcopal office with an entire readiness to slap the face of the particular Bishop to whom they have promised canonical obedience. Especially in the diocese of London, where for many years there has been no discipline at all, it is most unlikely that the rule restricting Reservation will be observed.’ (The Dean, by the way, ought to be well informed as to the condition of the diocese he specifically mentions, for it happens to be his own.) And, while there is no certainty that the new rubrics will be obeyed, there is perfect certainty that the concessions now made will be used as a stepping-stone for a demand for further concessions. Dr. Darwell Stone, the Principal of Pusey House, has not hesitated to tell Convocation that, if certain parts of the Revised Prayer Book become law, he will deem it his duty never to rest until he has done everything that he rightly can to obtain their alteration. It is evident that, if that example is widely followed, the new liturgy, instead of bringing about peace within the Church, will increase the existing strife and confusion.

As the discussion proceeds, this phase of the subject is becoming more and more prominent. At first, attention was concentrated on the doctrinal changes involved in the revision, but the practical question of administration is now being recognized as of no less importance than the theological issues. One may safely predict that it will receive increasing emphasis during the later stages in the process of legislation. At the time of writing, the Revised Prayer Book has been endorsed by the Upper and Lower Houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York — bodies that, are wholly clerical in composition. It will next come before the Church Assembly, which includes not only the members of Convocation, sitting as a House of Bishops and a House of Clergy, but a House of Laity also, elected by the lay members of various diocesan conferences. If it runs this gauntlet, it will be presented to Parliament, which will submit it to the scrutiny of a special Ecclesiastical Committee, consisting of fifteen members chosen by the Lord Chancellor from the House of Lords and fifteen chosen by the Speaker from the House of Commons. If the report of this committee suggests any alterations, these will be laid before the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly for its consideration before the bill authorizing the Revised Prayer Book comes up for discussion in the national legislature. Parliament has no power to amend, but can only pass or reject the measure as it stands.

When the controversy is thus finally transferred from the clerical to the lay arena, it may be anticipated that a determining factor in the decision will be the question, ‘How will the new book work?’ On this matter, M. P.’s will vote regardless of party ties. The Administration takes no responsibility whatever for the measure. Indeed, some distinguished members of it, including Sir William Joynson-Hicks (Home Secretary), Sir Thomas Inskip (Solicitor-General), and Mr. Ronald McNeill (Financial Secretary to the Treasury), will on this occasion be leaders of the opposition. The hostility of such men to the new book will be based on their devoted attachment to Protestant principles, but the attitude of the majority of M. P.’s will probably be decided by the view they take as to the prospect of its effecting a real and permanent settlement of the ‘ disorders’ which for many years have amounted to scarcely less than a scandal.

The upshot of the whole matter is that the controversy over the Revised Prayer Book has emphasized the lines of cleavage within the Church of England and made it imperative to face seriously and honestly all that is involved in the ‘comprehensiveness’ to which her leaders point with pride as her chief distinction. It has raised in an acute form the problem of uniting within a single religious home two groups separated by such fundamental differences as those that divide the Anglo-Catholics from the Evangelicals. Is it really possible to combine these discordant elements happily in one body? ‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed ? ’