What Shapes Anglican Worship?
That’s not really very Anglican. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone talk in this way about a particular church service. What do they mean by not very Anglican? Usually, they mean that it isn’t liturgically formal. Perhaps there are no clerical vestments on display, or the service does not have a particular form to it. Perhaps there are no responsorial prayers. Perhaps the church building does not look like a classic church, or maybe it is plainly rather than ornately decorated.
On this view, the word Anglican refers to a particular style of Christian worship that one might expect to encounter when visiting an Anglican church.
Now, there’s something not completely wrong about this contention. Anglican worship is distinct because of the central contribution that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has made to it. For almost four centuries, the BCP and its predecessors (the editions of 1549, 1552, and 1559) were the hallmark of Anglican worship in the Church of England and in all the churches of the Anglican Communion.
In this addition to the Reformation Anglicanism Essential Library, Michael P. Jensen examines how the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, the Sacraments, prayer, and singing all inform not only worship in Anglicanism, but worship as it is prescribed in the Bible.
And the Book of Common Prayer does offer a particular shape to Anglican worship. It is not spontaneous or ex tempore. It works by repetition and not by novelty.
But the idea that a particular form or flavor of worship is distinctly Anglican was amplified in the 19th Century by the emergence of the Anglo-Catholic movement. The Anglo-Catholics re-introduced to Anglican worship more distinctively Catholic elements—more elaborate and distinctly Catholic vestments for priests and bishops, more elaborate church furnishings, a revival of the Gothic style in church architecture, and so on.
One classic example of this is the mitre—the pointed hat worn by most Anglican bishops. This ancient headpiece was absent from Anglican vestments from the Reformation until the late nineteenth century, when under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement, they came back into fashion. And it doesn’t take long before people begin to imagine that they’ve never been absent—that this is the traditional Anglican headdress for bishops.
Which is to say: a lot of what people think is authentically Anglican was introduced to Anglican worship only relatively recently, but it has the appearance of great antiquity. The reality is that Anglicans today worship in a large variety of styles. Even in my own parish in Sydney, we have three services that are very different in style!
But Anglican worship is distinct not because of its form, but because of its content. The genius of the Book of Common Prayer is not in dictating a particular style of worship but in the way it does two things: first, it makes Scripture the centerpiece of the Christian gathering, and secondly, it enfolds the worshiping community in the theology of grace.
What is distinct about Anglican worship? It is a spiritual enactment of the theology of justification by grace alone through faith alone. In Anglican worship we are reminded that we are sinners and we are comforted and consoled by the cross of Jesus Christ.
Now, perhaps the word ‘distinct’ is not quite right—for the worship of other churches may also enact this great truth. But Anglican worship was developed to be distinct in particular from its chief alternative in the 16th century—the worship of the Roman Catholic Church. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the chief author and architect of the Reformation in England, composed the Book of Common Prayer as a deliberate antithesis to the Catholic Mass. He incorporated elements of the old forms, but rearranged them so as to ensure that the theology of grace shines through on every page.
What does this mean in practice?
First: Anglican worship is in intelligible language. Cranmer translated the Latin of the Mass into English. People heard the words of Christian worship for the first time in their own language. This was a direct outworking of the theology of justification by faith alone. If faith comes by hearing the gospel, how can people believe when they cannot understand what is being said? How can people be edified if they are hearing the babbling of another language that is not their own? Was not the Pentecost miracle a miracle of intelligible speech?
This means that Anglican worship is not supposed to be in deliberately archaic language where that is an obstacle to people understanding what is said. And it means that Anglican worship is not wordlessly mystical.
Secondly, Scripture is at the center of Anglican worship. The Bible in the vernacular is to be read clearly and audibly, Old and New Testaments. The Psalms are to be said or sung. Many of the prayers are derived from Scripture. The minister is to preach on a Scriptural text. Anglican worship is unimaginable without the translation of the Bible into English.
In Anglican worship, we not only hear Scripture but we pray Scripture. The word of God in full ministers to us week by week. It inhabits our souls. I’ve worshiped in many different Anglican churches, and what makes them authentically Anglican is that the Scriptures are central.
Thirdly, Anglicans preach the Scriptures. Preaching in Anglicanism has been sadly downgraded since the 19th century. Less and less time has been given to the sermon in many places because of the time given for elaborate rituals and ceremonies—and, I would say, because of the preponderance of a liberal theology with little of value to say.
It is true that the daily Anglican service need not have a sermon since the Scriptures are being read. But preaching is indispensable to Anglican worship and has been since at least the Reformation. The great Reformation bishops were preachers—and they did not preach insipid ten-minute homilies. Bishop Hugh Latimer once protested: “How then hath it happened that we have had so many hundred years so many unpreaching prelates, lording loiterers, and idle ministers?”
Anglicanism has been blessed with many fine preachers—from Hugh Latimer himself in the sixteenth century to George Whitefield in the eighteenth century to John Stott in the twentieth, to name but three.
Fourthly, Anglican worship is sacramental. Anglicans celebrate the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as gospel signs. The sacraments operate as ‘effectual signs’, to quote the language of the Thirty-Nine Articles. In them, the Holy Spirit administers the grace of God to us in Christ by faith, to build us up and nurture us in Christ.
Anglican worship is distinct not because of its form, but because of its content.
The Reformers were very clear that they were making a break from the medieval church in their theology of the sacraments in particular. The great translator of the Bible, William Tyndale, wrote:
The sacraments which Christ ordained preach God’s Word unto us and therefore justify and minister the Spirit to them that believe. . . . Dumb ceremonies are no sacraments, but superstitiousness. Christ’s sacraments preach the faith of Christ, as His apostles did, and thereby justify.
That is to say: if you do not grasp the sacrament by faith, then it is not truly a sacrament. The Reformers together rejected the understanding of the Mass as a substitutionary sacrifice in any way making a propitiation that only belonged to the cross of Christ. They also agreed that the elements should both be offered to the congregation (the practice of offering communion ‘in one kind’ was ubiquitous by the time of the Reformation).
Lastly, Anglican worship is prayerful. The Book of Common Prayer is one of the finest lessons in how to pray in all Christendom. Anglicans are taught to approach the throne of grace with confidence as they confess their sins. Weekly, they are reminded not just of their flaws but of their absolute need for grace. Weekly, they are reminded of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ. Weekly, they are encouraged to go out in the power of the Holy Spirit and amend their lives.
You might say that in teaching us how to pray, the BCP teaches us who God is. His ‘property is always to have mercy’. He is ‘almighty and most merciful’. We are given the Biblical names for the God to whom we pray.
The collects—the special prayers set for each individual week—are gems of the theology of grace. To take one example, the Collect for the Sunday before Easter:
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer ministers to us the gospel of grace by reminding us of the work of Christ for us on the cross and of the incarnation. And yet it also offers us his great example of humility and patience.
The essence of Anglican worship is, then, not a particular style, but a particular story that is telling. It enfolds us as worshipers in the story of God’s extraordinary grace to humankind in Jesus Christ. We are not flattered. Rather, we are reminded of our grave need on account of sin. And yet our hearts are lifted up to the throne of grace, there to receive the assurance of forgiveness and our spiritual union with Christ.
Michael P. Jensen is the author of Reformation Anglican Worship: Experiencing Grace, Expressing Gratitude.
Anglicanism is the third-largest Christian communion in the world, after the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Jesus Christ fills the mental horizon of mainstream Anglican believers; the claim and the purpose is that in all we do, we are seeking Christ’s glory and furthering his kingdom.
Evangelicals who prioritize true piety are as centered and focused on the church as they are on anything—because we know that the church is Christ’s focus.
Any discussion of Anglicanism in our present context must include the rise of neo-pagan Anglicanism in many Anglican churches around the world, especially in the West.