Innovation and Tradition
How the New Generation of Anglican Pastors Should See these two Merge
Can we, should we, must we innovate? Is there any allowance to innovate within a proper use of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP)? These are questions, every young, responsible, recently ordained minister might be asking as they assume new roles in the church of Christ. Those who flag the banner of contextualization or are missional wannabes would probably advocate for a loose and flexible use of the BCP (if not a total disregard). Others, especially under the banner of orthodoxy or Anglican identity, may fall into the extreme of imposing old ways into timeless directions; that is to say, some may be confusing the proper use of the BCP with traditions not necessarily prescribed in it. Cranmer himself warns us against both dangers or extremes: ‘too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from [public liturgy]’ (Cranmer, Preface: 1662).
So, is there a middle ground, a way to merge innovation and tradition? We should first remember that the BCP’s primary purpose was to lead a missional church (to use a popular albeit anachronistic term). In the preface of the 2019 ACNA BCP, Archbishops Beach and Duncan describe Cranmer’s original vision, and theirs, as ‘thoroughly Biblical, catholic in the manner of the early centuries, highly participatory in delivery, peculiarly Anglican and English in its roots, culturally adaptive and missional in a most remarkable way, utterly accessible to the people, and whose repetitions are intended to form the faithful catechetically and to give them doxological voice’ (emphasis mine; Beach and Duncan, Preface: 2019).
There is then a traditional encouragement to innovate, and there are also traditional principles to innovate. A careful reading of both the preface of the 1549 and the 1662 BCP will show us clear guidelines for how and when to innovate or apply alternative worship styles. I here propose three of these traditional principles.
1. Necessity. One of Cranmer’s reasons to make the changes and alterations that resulted in the 1662 BCP was that proper authorities deemed them necessary or expedient ‘upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions.’ So, before considering any innovation, we must ask ourselves how necessary such innovation is. Cranmer set this consideration in contrast to ‘such men as are given to change and have always discovered a greater regard to their own private fancies and interests, than to that duty they owe to the public.’ A severe warning to us all who may privilege our preferences rather than the needs of the church and its community.
2. Clarity. The purpose of order is that common prayer should be done clearly: ‘therefore, certain rules are here set furth, which as they be few in number; so, they be plain and easy to be understanded’ (an emphasis made six times throughout the preface; 1549). Many prayers and anthems were left out, and significant priority was given to the ‘very pure word of God, the holy scriptures, or that which is evidently grounded upon the same.’ Language is essential, of course, and everything should be read ‘as is most easy and plain for the understanding, both of the readers and hearers.’ Also, one of the central motifs for the alterations of the 1662 BCP was ‘the more proper expressing of some words or phrases of ancient usage in terms more suitable to the language of the present times, and the clearer explanation of some other words and phrases;’ Will, then, our innovations bring more clarity, especially in the understanding of Scripture? Many innovations may endanger the exposition and reading of Scripture and distract the church as well as unbelievers from the beauty of the gospel. Not all innovations are necessarily clear or missional but drive people’s eyes and hearts away from God and his word.
3. Godliness. The above mentioned emphasis on Scripture reading and ‘exhortation by wholesome doctrine’ is meant to stir up godliness; that is, it ‘should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion’ (1549). Note, also, that the general aim in revising the 1662 BCP was ‘to do that, which to our best understandings we conceived might most tend to the preservation of Peace and Unity in the Church; the procuring of Reverence, and exciting of Piety and Devotion in the public Worship of God’ (1662). Any innovation must promote peace, reverence, and devotion. Nevertheless, we must not confuse solemnity with reverence, nor emotionalism with devotion. Godliness, as defined by J. I. Packer, ‘means responding to God’s revelation in trust and obedience, faith and worship, prayer and praise, submission and service. Life must be seen and lived in the light of God’s Word. This, and nothing else, is true religion.’ (Packer, 1973).
I hope these traditional principles will serve as lighthouses that guide our common worship and illuminate others with the wonders of God’s word. ‘The Book of Common Prayer, from the first edition of 1549, became the hallmark of a Christian way of worship and believing that was both catholic and reformed, continuous yet always renewing’ (Beach and Duncan). As times and occasions make it necessary to innovate, let us lead with clarity and promote true devotion.
Packer JI (1973) Knowing God. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.