I’ve lived long enough now to see what my parents used to smile about. Styles tend to swing back and forth like pendulum. Wide ties, skinny ties. Tight pants, baggy pants. If you have room for storage, just put those out of date clothes away and soon enough they will be hip again. And don’t you wish you still had all those vinyl records from the 60s and 70s? Your kids (and grand kids) do!
In life the one constant is change. Riding the changes can be fun. But at some point you begin to realize like the guy rowing with one oar, “Hey, I think I’ve been here before.” The journey can have value. You never really come back to exactly the same place, of course. And you have changed in the process. But staying put and watching the world circle by again, and again, can be satisfying too. You might be able to divide the world into those two types of folks. I’ve been both, or tried to be.
Confession: part of what drew me to the Anglican way was “trend fatigue.” In a previous pastorate I was under considerable pressure to keep up, and I enjoyed trying, for a while. Then I didn’t. It became monotonous. Boring, tedious, with a lot of anxiety. What a combination!
I found that keeping up with trends also involves keeping up with others who are keeping up with them, and no one seems to move at the same pace. I was not fast enough for some and they felt sure I was lagging far behind the Holy Spirit.
Then in Kenya I experienced for the first time a true Anglican Prayer Book service in all its solid simplicity. The liturgy was BCP 1662. Straight. No ice. No soda.
I have since found out that there are lots of ways to be Anglican, and quite a few volumes bear the title “The Book of Common Prayer”. There’s the 1928 BCP and the 1979 BCP. The ACNA has now produced the 2019 BCP. Interestingly all the newer ones (since 1662) claim to be more ancient, and therefore more authentic.
There are a variety of ways to decorate an Anglican church and for Anglican clergy to dress. I learned that what I experienced at St Francis Church in Kenya was evangelical, “low-church”. The clergy wore black cassocks with white surplices and a black stole, or preaching tippet — year round. We did not cross ourselves. Things were pretty plain and simple and solid–like the stone and beam chapel in which we worshiped. It was just what my soul as longing for.
When we returned to the U.S. in 2006 I encountered the American flavor of Anglicanism for the first time. (I had never been an Episcopalian.) Although the new Anglican expressions in the proto-ACNA were at the time under African leadership, the style and culture were very much Episcopalian. We used the 1979 BCP. We dressed in white albs with stoles of various colors. The altar table was more decorated. There were more gestures to learn.
I encountered a modern English liturgy for the first time, called “Rite II.” And there were four versions of it. The “Rite I” service retained the King James English but had a prayer of consecration three times longer than the one I was used to, and many other things I had never encountered. Most surprising of all was the notion that you could take your pick of whichever service you liked best, or switch ’em around to keep it interesting.
I learned later that Rite I was really pretty much a preservation of the 1928 Eucharist, which was pretty similar to the first American Prayer Book of 1789, which went back to the Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in Scotland, which predates the synthesis and compromise that created the 1662 BCP.
In the last 12 years since I began trying to be an Anglican in America we have seen a lot of changes–and even more ways to be “Anglican.” (I believe it was Wm F Buckley who said that given the breadth of options–even in his day– one could never be quite sure one wasn’t actually an Anglican.)
I confess that I sometimes miss the days when I went to church with my pocket size prayer book (1662) with my sermon notes folded inside. If the sexton had set the table with the bread and wine, we needed nothing more to have an full Anglican service of Holy Communion–and best of all, there were no decisions to make!
We knew that this service would not be attractive to everyone. For one thing we met at 8:00 AM! Meeting at that hour will thin down the crowd almost as much as the Rapture. But for us, happy insomniacs, there is nothing to compare with prayer book worship in the crisp dawn air at 7,000 feet above sea level.
The later 11:00 service would be packed. The sun would be higher, the church a lot warmer and energetic, and the service a lot longer. They would happily use the new Kenyan modern language liturgy–one of the best in my opinion. Clearly it meant as much to them as our quiet, early 1662 service meant to us, but I doubt it could have meant more.
Not surprisingly our 1662 service came under occasional criticism. I remember one Wycliffe Bible Translator missionary came down quite hard on me (!) as I was giving her a lift home after church. It was reprehensible for me to even read such words aloud. “That is not the kind of language people speak anymore!” I knew where she was coming from on that. But I assured her that attendance was voluntary, and the regulars — mostly Kenyans–understood it and found it meaningful.
I did not try to explain to her that people didn’t “talk like that” back then either. The BCP 1662 and King James Version of the Bible would not have been considered “contemporary” language in the sense that we use the word today. It was formal and poetic language that few English speakers even then could have come up with off the cuff, nor would they have tried. It was the language of worship, not the market place. I’m not sure that category of speech exists anymore, except where it is kept alive intentionally.
I believe the days of “contemporary worship” are numbered, just as we see the decline in the contemporary Christian music industry generally. I don’t think that we can anticipate the pendulum swinging back to formal (traditional) worship for the majority of Christians today, though the popularity of “contemporized” traditional hymns is growing. We will see how that goes.
In the unapologetically traditional Anglican pattern of worship and hymnody I found something that felt real and solid and Biblical. It minimized the human (ego) element of worship and it did not mind just being at peace with itself, with nothing to prove. I was so, so tired of trying to prove things! What a relief just to take it as given!
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer Service of Holy Communion was “there” for me, just when I needed all that it had to offer. It was there when I wandered out of the wilderness, when my pendulum began its swing back to sanity. Through it I was reminded of God’s faithfulness, it gave me the words to say what was bottled up in my heart, and invited me to say things that were not yet in my heart but should have been, and would be.
I don’t think we are going to “win the world for Christ” through traditional Anglican liturgy. But I think it is even less likely that we will win the world by trying to keep up with the latest trends. I wonder if people realize how pathetic “keeping up” really is. It is certainly not leadership. And where did we get the idea that Sunday morning was the time and church the place to connect with a lost world anyway?
I will always remember the Sunday morning when it dawned on me that the people who had contributed the most to my faith were Anglicans. I also realized there was a spirituality, a way of being a Christian, in the Book of Common Prayer that would be more than enough to last me for the rest of my life, and that I would miss little of great value by walking that path. It also offered me a way of meeting Christ and communing with the saints in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup–something I had missed all my evangelical life and my soul longed for even before I knew it.
The bottom line for me was the simple realization: “I don’t think I can improve on this. If I try I am far more likely to end up making it worse.” Obviously not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine.
While I am grateful for the “givenness” of traditional Anglicanism, I am also grateful that Anglicans–unlike some churches–do not believe that theirs (ours) is the only way to be a “real” Christian. We know that the faith is way too big for that. But it is our way–those of us to who feel ourselves called by it. We don’t look to vast numbers for validation, though there are 85 million of us worldwide.
And sprinkled amongst those 85 million there are quite a few — more than you might think — who enjoy the forms of reverent space, speech, song, and posture that spoke to us and gave us a home at important times in our lives. We believe that “home” is no small thing. That doesn’t mean we never travel, but we are always happy to see it when we come back, and just knowing that it is still there provides deep consolation, I dare say even to those who may find it difficult to believe anymore.
I am reminded of the atheist who was stopped on his way to hear a famous evangelist preach. His friend said: “You don’t even believe any of that stuff.” “No,” he replied, “but he does.” There was something attractive in unwavering faith and confidence of the preacher. Sincere, whole-hearted affection (for anything) is even rarer and more attractive in our cynical and jaded age.
At my age, I’ve decided to skip the next few trends. A stopped watch is right twice a day. If I hold steady, who knows, I might catch a strategic kairos moment of receptivity in someone’s life. At least they will know who I am and where to find me. I know I’ll get a few frowns and a few condescending head wags, a few rolled eyes and an occasional rebuke. I might be lagging behind the Holy Spirit. If so, I can pray for His mercy for that too.
But don’t imagine I am going to stay put in my chapel or restrict my efforts to infiltrate this dark world for the Kingdom. That is never an option. The liturgy won’t let me–or you. At the end of the Mass we are sent out, empowered and commissioned.
Of course the ranks of traditional Anglicans have always included comfortably hide-bound and smug constituencies, majoring on the minors, mistaking means for ends. But the churches that held firm in the faith, maintaining the baptismal vision “to fight manfully under Christ’s banner,” have produced more trouble-makers to challenge “the world, the flesh and the devil” than their trendy counterparts. Consider John Wesley, John Henry Newman, and the Ugandan martyrs, who dared to defy the corrupt king of the Baganda, and roast slowly over the coals, bound in papyrus mats, singing hymns.
Consider well, and don’t ask the Lord to “cleanse the thoughts of your heart by the inspiration of His Holy Spirit,” and mean it, unless you are ready for something that will disrupt status quo. I’m not sure central Kentucky is ready for a bunch of folks who “perfectly love God and worthily magnify His Holy Name.” What might happen when we truly “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” and begin to “evermore dwell in Christ and He in us”? Imagine the revolution that lies dormant in a community of folks who are truly “in love and charity with their neighbors and determined to live a new life, walking from henceforth in His Holy ways.” This is not historic preservation. These old words contain TNT.