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No. 29: Anglicanism

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 29
Copyright (c) 1993 Biblical Horizons
October, 1993

I am often asked why I am not an Episcopalian, since I like liturgy so much. My answer is that if I had a call to serve in Episcopal circles, I would certainly entertain it. When I have looked into such groups as the Reformed Episcopal Church, however, I have not found any such call, and so I have continued to labor in Presbyterian circles; and I have come to believe that this is where God wants me to labor, at least for the foreseeable future.

Recently I was at a Calvinistic seminary, and a Canadian student spoke to me about some of the back issues of Rite Reasons. He felt that I was assuming that all Episcopalians and Anglicans are caught up in the semi-idolatry of Anglo-Catholicism. I assured him that I knew that this was not the case. He told me that while Anglo-Catholicism had largely swept the American scene, it was not at all so well entrenched in other places. His bishop, for instance, never bows when he crosses the chancel, since he (rightly) believes that there is no special local presence of Jesus on the altar. His bishop, he assured me, does not wear Eucharistic vestments, believing that they are associated with the Anglo-catholic milieu, which he dislikes. The Episcopal circles in which this student travels (in Canada) do not believe in consecrating bread and wine, but simply give thanks for them, as the Anglican Reformers taught.

It was nice to hear this, though I already knew it. I believe the reason for this difference between England-Canada-Australia and the United States lies in the fact that there is no viable Presbyterian church in these other countries. Thus, evangelicals are “low church Anglicans” in these countries, whereas here in America, they tend to become Presbyterians. Evangelical Anglicans like Philip E. Hughes and J.I. Packer travel in Presbyterian circles when they labor in America. There seems to be far more Anglo-Catholicism in American Episcopalianism than elsewhere, at least in terms of percentage and influence.

I have expressed my criticisms of Anglo-Catholicism in Rite Reasons 9-12, “The Liturgy Trap.” Here, in answer to questions, I want to set forth my reservations about orthodox Anglicanism. I have about as many reservations about evangelical Anglicanism as I have about evangelical Presbyterianism, and I guess I’m about half-way in between (with a decided preference for Lutheran music and liturgical flow). Since I usually write critically of Presbyterian and Continental Reformed liturgics, it seemed right to me to address myself, for once, to Anglican liturgics.

I basically have four problems with Anglican liturgics. First, while I believe in sung worship and prayerbook worship, I don’t see that the Bible teaches the use of a fixed liturgy as an extremely important thing. We are often told that using a prayerbook liturgy week after week helps disciple a congregation, and I believe this is true. But the Bible does not say this. It is like fasting. We are told that fasting is a good discipline, but the calendar of Israel had 80 feast days and only one fast day. Similarly, on the scale of things, using a prayerbook liturgy should not be made into something more important than it is. The prayerbook helps the congregation participate in worship, but the Bible does not make the use of such a liturgy as important as most Anglicans and Episcopalians do. The Bible clearly teaches a form and structure of covenant renewal worship, but does not teach a set of unchanging prayers to be used within that structure each time, and does not indicate that a great deal of value should be put on such a thing. The book of Revelation shows congregational participation in worship, and of such a sort that indicates familiarity and repetition; but the epistles do not contain injunctions like, “Do not neglect to participate in the liturgy.” I think Anglican liturgics makes too much out of the fixed liturgy.

Second, I have a problem with the fact that the service does not change. I believe it is a good thing to set up a liturgy and use it for several months until the people get used to it, and begin to memorize it, but to set up one liturgy and use it century after century is, I believe, an error. This is particularly the case since it is the man-composed parts of the service (the prayers) that do not change. We ought to have a number of liturgical forms and prayers than can be changed out from time to time.

Third, like all the Reformation liturgies, the Book of Common Prayer service has long, wordy, preachy prayers. Moreover, it focuses on sin and justification to the extent that the entire service feels more like a penitential vigil than a celebration of redemption. The entire service, it seems, is conducted kneeling, a posture of penitence. The penitential air of the Anglican service continues up to the Supper, and only afterwards is there the joyous singing of the Gloria in Excelsis (an unhappy liturgical change from the ancient service). Thus, what is communicated at the psychological level is that it is the Supper that confers special grace and forgiveness. It is no accident, I believe, that Anglo-Catholicism could arise in this context. By way of contrast, the Lutheran service has continued to be reformed according to Biblical principles, and thus has come to have many short prayers and collects, confesses sin and pronounces forgiveness at the beginning of the service, and has a joyous atmosphere thereafter. This is why Westminster Presbyterian Church, in Tyler, Texas, used a basically Lutheran structure while I was one of the pastors there. When the church changed to an Anglican form, it felt like a giant step backward and most people did not like it.

Finally, I find no justification whatsoever for kneeling for communion. Every meal in the Bible is pictured as sitting or reclining, in a relaxed posture, save for the very first Passover. The whole point of the meal is that it affirms our peace with God, our sitting down with Him at table. Not to sit is to call into question our forgiveness and acceptance by Him. Sitting shows that we do accept His gift, and that we understand what it means. Almost all the Reformers understood this, and it is a sad accident of history that the Church of England did not reform herself in this area.

Anglican traditionalists come up with all kinds of justifications for kneeling at communion, but they all fall to the ground before the Biblical facts. Sitting at table with God is a sign that our peace with Him is absolutely secure. Jesus has finished the work, and sits with the Father; in union with Him, we also sit. If we do not sit, it shows that we do not understand our union with Him correctly. Standing and kneeling are not relaxed postures, and are most inappropriate for communion. If I visit a church that kneels, then I also kneel; but the Bible teaches otherwise and such churches need to work for reformation in this area.

One of my gripes is that I occasionally hear about somebody who has left the Reformed faith and gone into Rome, or Orthodoxy, or Anglo-Catholicism, and then has said, “Well, Jim Jordan led me in that direction, and then he didn’t go in himself!” This is completely untrue. Anyone who wants to study the matter can go back and listen to every lecture on worship I have ever given and will find that I have always expressed antipathy for the idolatrous character of the worship of these three groups. Without exception, those people who go into such groups have never phoned or written me to ask what I think. The few that did contact me were told that I was utterly opposed to going into any of these three groups. (Of course, those people know better than to say that “Jim Jordan pointed me to this”!)

It seems that some people think liturgical worship is by definition Anglican or Roman. For a decade in Tyler, Texas, I pointed out that Calvin, Knox, and the other Reformers were equally liturgical. The liturgy we used in Tyler was Calvinistic in structure and mainly used Lutheran music (since Lutheran music is the best). There was very little from the Anglican heritage used in it (though we used some, and would not have been opposed to using more). We stood for prayer and sat for communion. When the church switched to using an Anglican style of worship, sitting for prayer (since we did not have kneelers) and coming forward for communion (making it a rushed event), the people were very unhappy. It felt as if the church had made a hard right turn. There was no logical progression from what we had been doing to what we now were doing. The service went from being joyous to being more solemn, and the enthusiasm went out of it. This is not to say that Anglicanism is evil, or any such thing, but just to say that the “Tyler liturgics” were not Anglican, and did not tend in an Anglican direction.

Thoughts From Stibbs

To be sure, we did speak favorably of the Episcopal tradition from time to time, but what we had reference to was the evangelical wing of Anglicanism, not to Anglo-Catholicism. Indeed, within the evangelical wing of Anglicanism there is much interest in reforming the liturgy to make it more Biblical. I am going to quote at length from a book I read years ago, Alan M. Stibbs, Sacrament, Sacrifice, and Eucharist (London: Tyndale Press, 1961). Stibbs, an evangelical Anglican, is writing against Anglo-Catholicism. I don’t completely agree with the main argument of his book, but it is his last chapter, on “Scriptural Administration” of the Lord’s Supper that I am going to quote from. I do so to show that the kinds of concerns I have expressed in Rite Reasons are fully shared by progressive evangelicals within the Anglican tradition.

One point that I have made in Rite Reasons is that there is no prayer of consecration in the Biblical rite of the Supper. Instead there is simply a giving of thanks followed immediately by partaking of the bread, and then another giving of thanks followed immediately by partaking of the wine. Archbishop Cranmer understood at least part of this, and its implications. Stibbs quotes from Bishop Stephen Neill’s discussion of the matter: “`Cranmer saw that Christ’s words of institution . . . (words of distribution some have called them) were immediately followed by reception on the part of the disciples. This was the pattern he determined to follow. Consecration [which here means the giving of thanks�JBJ] and communion were to become a single act, separated in time by a brief moment, but not separable in thought or understanding.’ Bishop Neill than adds this discerning and decisive comment: `The moment this principle is grasped an immense number of difficulties in Eucharistic theology simply vanish.'” Stibbs adds: “For instance, let us add at once, that simple loyalty to this principle makes both reservation and Godward offering of the consecrated elements alike impossible.” (p. 82)

In other words, the historic Anglican liturgy formulated by Cranmer eliminates any possibility of Anglo-Catholic perversions. Immediately after the prayer of thanksgiving, the elements are to be served. There is no consecration of the bread and wine in the sense of putting Jesus inside of them. Thus, there is no possibility of “reserving” the elements, that is, keeping them afterwards as holy objects to be revered or to be served later on to other people. There is also no possibility of holding them up to be gazed upon, because as soon as thanks has been given, the elements are served.

Now Stibbs, following other evangelical Anglicans, makes some suggestions of his own. The following is taken verbatim from pages 84-85:

“Cranmer’s form of service is deficient in thanksgiving. Blessing God the Giver is the proper way to consecrate material things for men’s use. So new extended thanksgivings are desirable, first, for the bread, and later for the wine, similar to those regularly offered in some Free Church forms of service. Also, these thanksgivings should be regarded as the consecration of the bread and of the wine for their use; without any introduction at this point of the decisive words which indicate their sacramental significance.

“In the second place, our Lord’s declaratory words, `This is My body given for you,’ `This is My blood shed for many,’ should be removed from the introductory consecration, and, in accordance with the pattern of our Lord’s institution, made an essential and simultaneous part of the actual administration. For what makes the elements used sacramental, whether in baptism or Holy Communion, are the words and action together of the movement of administration. To keep them separate stands condemned as a wrong putting asunder by man of what the Lord Himself joined together. The truth or principle which we here need to appreciate is that the sacrament exists only when and while the administration is taking place. It cannot, therefore, be reserved, or half-done beforehand to the elements for administration to recipients later.

“In the third place, in order fully to follow the pattern of our Lord’s institution, and to preserve the vivid witness to His death which we thus dramatically remember, the bread and the wine ought deliberately to be kept apart and administered separately, first the bread to all, and later the cup to all. This again is a use already common in many non-Anglican congregations; and so, by becoming ourselves more scriptural in practice, we should make fellowship with others at the Lord’s table more easy to realize.

“Such proper scriptural practice of administering the separated elements singly makes the association of the localized presence of the glorified humanity of Christ in or under either of them unthinkable. For the present living Lord cannot be thus divided. `This bread’ and `this cup’ speak of His death. Also, such awareness of the true character and meaning of the sacrament which our Lord ordained makes intinction (or the administration of both kinds together by the dipping of the bread into the wine first) theologically undesirable; and it makes administration in one kind only completely improper.”

End of quotation from Stibbs. Stibbs does not make this point, but let me point out that if everyone is served the bread, and then everyone is served the wine, then coming forward to receive communion becomes more problematic than ever. Everyone has to come forward twice. We cannot do this “by tables,” since the covenant renewal is with the whole congregation, and Stibbs rightly says that all should be given the bread, and then all given the wine. How much simpler to follow the Biblical pattern and serve everyone seated, first the bread, and then the wine!

Now Stibbs makes that point that any male member of the congregation should be able to serve communion: “Since some one person present in any congregation must take the lead in administering the Lord’s Supper, the question still needs to be faced�by whom may the Holy Communion be administered? The proper Christian answer is surely, in principle, by any member whom the body of believers may entrust with this ministry. There is no doctrinal necessity with Holy Communion, any more than there is with baptism, that one class of special ministers alone may administer it. Also, while it is, on the one hand, important that, as a corporate activity of the local church, its administration should be carefully ordered, and entrusted only to responsible elders, yet there is, on the other hand, great practical need for an increase in the number of those who are thus allowed to do it. Why, for the lack of a bishop or presbyter [clergyman�JBJ], should congregations be deprived of the Lord’s Supper, when they have in their midst mature and godly members who could, if given the opportunity, worthily fulfil the necessary ministry? . . . It is time that, by practice as well as by words, we found ways to confess our conviction that there is in the New Testament no indication that proper administration can be performed only by someone who has been admitted to a special sacerdotal order of ministry” (pp. 85f.).

Stibbs does not make the point, but such administration by laypersons should always be under the oversight of the elders of the church.

I’ve quoted at length from Stibbs to show that many evangelical Anglicans are concerned about the same things I have been concerned about in Rite Reasons. Worship renewal crosses all denominational lines, and persons who are concerned for Biblical reform are not caught up in banging the drum for denominational traditions.