Thoughts Concerning the Influence of the Anglican Tradition on Contemporary Reformed Liturgical Practice
Is there an influence of the Anglican Tradition on contemporary Reformed practice?
In spite of the lofty sound of the title, this is not a scholarly essay (in fact, I considered titling it, “All I Ever Really Needed To Know About Worship, I Learned From the Anglican Tradition”). Rather, it is a list of random observations from a lifelong Presbyterian layman. In the interest of full disclosure, a Presbyterian who for a few months was a member of one of the smaller Anglican bodies and who also has a rich appreciation for the Anglican Tradition. The purpose of this essay is to start a discussion on the influence of the Anglican Tradition on contemporary Reformed practice, particularly with regard to new church plants. In contrast to the more entertainment oriented church plants a decade or two ago, it is encouraging to see the discernible Anglican influence on many recent church plants.
By “Anglican Tradition” I have in mind a number of elements that include but are not limited to the following: use of language from The Book of Common Prayer in the worship liturgy; corporate confessions of sin/declarations of pardon/absolution; weekly Communion; kneeling for corporate prayer; beautifully adorned sanctuaries (even if some spaces out of necessity used for worship were not intended for this purpose); marking time with the ecclesiastical calendar. Now it could, and perhaps should, be noted that such elements are much older than the so-called Anglican Tradition (many Reformed writers, such as James Jordan, Jeffrey Meyers, Peter Leithart, Michael Horton, et al. have correctly observed a corporate worship pattern that is the norm throughout the ages of the Church known as “covenant renewal” – the Anglican Tradition is a covenant renewal tradition). Also, there are other traditions that also include such elements in their practice, such as the Lutheran. But for Presbyterians and Reformed, the Anglican Tradition holds a kinship that is much closer than the others. Therefore I am limiting my focus to what I am calling the Anglican Tradition and its influence.
Certainly wars have been fought and much blood has been shed in centuries past as a result of the Church of England’s efforts to impose The Book of Common Prayer on Presbyterians and other dissenters and their resistance to this imposition. This is not to deny that there were many martyrs on both sides that currently reside in Glory with no animosity toward each other. Being a few centuries removed from these wars should allow us to look at these disagreements with greater objectivity than our esteemed forefathers may have had at the time.
Speaking of the kinship between the Reformed and Anglican traditions, there is a common thread in the person of the reformer from Strasbourg, Martin Bucer (1491-1551). Bucer influenced many other reformers, including John Calvin during his sojourn in Strasbourg before returning to Geneva and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer while Bucer lived in England before his death. There is no doubt that Bucer exerted considerable influence on the writing of The Book of Common Prayer.
Another interesting historical tidbit is that when the Huguenots (French Calvinists) voyaged to America (mostly to the Carolinas), most of them joined the Episcopal Church, rather than the Presbyterian, because the liturgy of the Episcopal Church was much closer to the one to which they were accustomed in their native France than the very Puritanized Presbyterian worship of their day.
You may have enjoyed the historical footnotes, but by now are wondering what all of this has to do with the Presbyterian and Reformed churches in the 21st Century. One fairly obvious example of the influence of the Anglican Tradition on not only Presbyterian, but also other denominations, can be found in the “traditional wedding service”. The next such wedding service you attend, please notice the language that will be used by the pastor and the couple being united in matrimonial bliss. When you hear the minister say: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony….” Or when you hear the man vow: “I [Name] take thee [Name] to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.” You can thank the Anglican Tradition, in particular, The Book of Common Prayer that gave us this beautiful matrimonial liturgy that has endured for centuries and will likely endure for many more to come.
It has been my observation that many of the new church plants in the PCA, for example, have adopted a worship “style” (I don’t really care for that word with regard to the Divine Service, but I think you know what I mean) that incorporates many of the elements from the Anglican Tradition in their liturgy. I should also note that this is the predominant pattern of the churches in my own denomination, The Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). Even though PCA church plants may still sing “praise choruses,” hymns and Psalms seem to be making a “come back,” even if they are set to modern sounding tunes performed on instruments other than pianos and organs (the fine work of Indelible Grace Music comes to mind). The atmosphere of these church plants may be casual, but the sense of awe and holiness certainly exceeds that of the entertainment-driven church plants of the recent past (perhaps many of those by now have matured to incorporate some of the elements of their newer brethren). A church plant from the 1980s may have included a weekly drama, whereas a church plant today may include weekly Communion.
The congregational responses, litanies, and prayers of these new church plants may be slightly modernized, but they are still often taken directly from The Book of Common Prayer. After the first hymn or Psalm is sung, the congregation may pray a written corporate confession of sin while kneeling, followed by the pastor pronouncing Christ’s forgiveness (absolution). The Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds may be enthusiastically recited, sung, or chanted. Following a Christ-centered sermon, the congregation may be called to “Lift up your hearts” (the Sursum Corda) and respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Instead of an anemic, overly introspective Communion observance, the congregation may be joyfully singing as they “… eat the flesh of Your dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink of His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. Amen.” [Prayer of Humble Access] as they celebrate that “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”
The blessings of such worship are numerous, but allow me to list three:
- Even the very young covenant children can participate. They will become familiar with the congregational responses, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer and will participate with the rest of the congregation. The day may come in which we will forget all the sermons we have heard, Bible studies, even our own names, but we will most certainly remember the hymns, prayers, Creeds, and responses that we have heard over and over all our lives.
- There is a clear connection with the Church throughout the ages. Churches that have no reference to the timeless, historic, liturgical practice of the church are anchorless ships in a tempestuous liturgical ocean. Why re-invent the wheel when we have a precious pattern of worship passed down to us by martyrs, fathers, and mothers who were themselves nourished by the same liturgy?
- There is a celebratory and festive mood to the liturgy not found in other worship “styles.” It’s difficult to put a finger on it, so I would recommend that you visit one of these churches so that you will know what I am talking about. Perhaps it’s the dialogical nature of the liturgy (Christ speaks and we His people respond). Perhaps it’s a combination of numbers one and two above. Perhaps it’s the reality that our God has been “our help in ages past” and will be “our hope for years to come.” Perhaps it’s the Glorious Feast to which the whole service leads.
Jonathan W. Williams is a member of Saint Peter Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Va.