Columns from the Episcopal Journal

By Gordon Graham

I From National Church to Global Communion

Coming up on 500 years ago, the King of England fell into dispute with the Pope. Though this took place at the time of the Protestant Reformation, it was not part of it. There was no deep theological issue at stake, and no major theological thinker on a par with Luther or Calvin figured in it. The dispute was a purely political matter – on both sides. The result, however, was something quite new -- a branch of the Christian Church that was still Catholic in its beliefs and practices, but self-governing, with the King as its head instead of the Pope.

In the first decade of this ‘English Church’, a simple and obvious step was taken. If this was the English Church, it should worship in the language of the country. If it was the national church, its worship should be uniform across the nation. And so, in 1549, for the first time ever, a ‘Book of Common Prayer’ in a local language was published. The bishops who put it together and authorized it had not been appointed by the Pope. Nevertheless, they were consecrated in the historic line from Peter, and most of the material they used was simply a translation from the old Latin prayer books.

The population of England at the time was small -- around 2 million people – and not everyone liked the change. Indeed the ‘new’ church was so weak and vulnerable, that it barely survived.  Soon it reverted to Rome, then it allied itself with the Protestants, before it swung back in a Catholic direction, only to be abolished under Oliver Cromwell. In fact, it took an amazing 130 years just to become securely established within a single nation. Fast forward another 300 years and we find this ‘English Church’ surviving, but now as just one, and by no means the largest, of 38 churches comprising the Anglican Communion that it spawned.

St Andrews Cathedral, Aberdeen

How did a small church for one nation, become an international communion of 70 million or more, spread across the globe? A key moment in this extraordinary development is magnificently commemorated on the ceiling of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Aberdeen, Scotland.  Running the full length, side by side, are two sets of crests painted in glowing colors and set against a brilliant white background -- on the one side the crests of the ancient bishoprics of Scotland, on the other the arms of the founding States of the USA.

The event they commemorate took place close by, but in much humbler surroundings. On November 14, 1784, a small gathering witnessed the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first bishop for the ‘English’ church in post-revolutionary America. Seabury had travelled to London in the hope of consecration, so that the worship and witness of the Anglican Church could continue, despite the political break with England. His request was denied, because he could not swear allegiance to a King who alone had the power to appoint bishops. A solution lay north of the Border. There, Presbyterianism was in the ascendant so that, strangely, though the two countries were one Kingdom, the King became a Presbyterian as soon as he crossed into Scotland (as Queen Elizabeth does to this day).

A Presbyterian King cannot appoint bishops, or authorize a single prayerbook. This meant that those who clung to episcopacy in Scotland, had put themselves beyond the law. Yet a faithful few continued to consecrate bishops in historic succession, and even (in 1764)to authorize their own prayer book, a slightly modified version of the original book of 1549. It was to this tiny, illegal, Scottish Episcopal Church that Seabury made his request, which was granted when three of its bishops and few other clergy gathered with him on a dark November day.

At that point something wholly new in the history of the Christian Church came into existence – a ‘communion’ of three churches, none of them under the authority of Rome, all of them able to claim historic episcopacy, each of them authorizing a Book of Common Prayer. In the century that followed the number grew, mostly for political reasons – the rise and fall of the British Empire, trouble in Ireland, the development of Australia, Canada, South Africa -- though American missionary endeavor also took Anglicanism to Latin America and the Far East.

No originating plan or overarching purpose lies behind this serendipitous history. Even at the most important points, ‘stuff just happened’. This does not make it any less the work of Providence, however. On the contrary, the Bible confirms again and again the truth that God uses the vagaries and contingencies of human history to bring about the work of our redemption.  This means that, after many centuries, and in unpredictable ways, Anglicans have been entrusted with a unique manifestation of the Body of Christ.

There is a lesson to be drawn from this, perhaps. In the debate that currently dominates the Communion  -- inclusivism versus Scriptural authority, modernity versus tradition, liberalism versus orthoxdoxy – there is a danger of forgetting what is truly at stake. Almost inadvertently, we might reject God’s providential gift.

 II The Impact of the Oxford Movement

The previous issue of Episcopal Journal recounted how, in the course of almost five centuries, a small national church – the Church of England – spawned a global denomination -- the Anglican Communion. The story of this transformation is one of accident, not design. Its outcome, nevertheless, was a unique branch of the Christian Church that cannot be fitted into any of the standard divisions. It is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Orthodox or Pentecostal, but a curious blend of elements of all of these.

There was a moment in this history, though, when a concerted effort was made to restore the essentially national nature of its origins. In 1833, the Revd John Keble, an English churchman and poet, delivered a famous sermon in Oxford at an event of public importance – the annual service of the Judges of Assize. Keble used the occasion to denounce the British government for ‘national apostasy’, a very serious charge, prompted by a proposed reform of the Anglican Church of Ireland. His aim was to chastise England’s political leaders over their failure to uphold and defend a uniquely national church.

The cause of Keble’s wrath is of no interest or significance nowadays, and while it created a great stir at the time, its ultimate significance was quite different to anything he intended. Far from leading to national retrenchment, it brought into existence a movement whose influence extended far beyond England, and into the independent Anglican churches of Scotland, South Africa, the United States and Canada.

This was the ‘Oxford Movement’, so-called because its leaders mostly comprised energetic young clergy who had been educated at the University of Oxford. The most famous of them was John Henry Newman, who with others authored a series of Tracts for the Times. These tracts systematically explored Anglicanism’s pre-Reformation inheritance, and thereby emphasized its place in the ‘one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’ of the ancient Creeds. In the end, Newman despaired of the movement’s success, and converted to Rome. Indeed, it is as Cardinal Newman that he is best known, and as such that he has recently been beatified by Pope Benedict. Yet, in a curious way the final impact of the Oxford Movement was to make Anglicanism just the kind of church that Newman hoped to find in Roman Catholicism – an international communion deeply in accord with its Apostolic inheritance.

The Oxford Movement looked back to the past in the hope of renewing the present. It sought to recover the accumulated spiritual wisdom of a centuries old faith by restoring the ancient practices of the Church. The principal aim was to re-assert the importance of the sacramental, and especially the centrality of the Eucharist; the principal means lay in renewed use of vestments, music and ceremonial. Their re-introduction was highly controversial at the time. It led to accusations of ‘ritualism’ and even to acrimonious trials in the courts, initiated by people for whom such ‘Romish’ ways ought to be anathema in a church created by a break with Rome.

The movement finally proved triumphant, however. The neo-Gothic style of church architecture that it prompted is now almost universally regarded as characteristically ‘Anglican’ , and many of its most ‘controversial’ practices are ones that today we take for granted. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of its ultimate success than the extent to which its influence is evident in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, a revision that set the standard for new Prayerbooks across the Anglican Communion as a whole.

Early critics of the Oxford Movement were wrong in one crucial particular. The new liturgical and ceremonial practices that it called into use were not ‘Romish’. Rather, pre-Reformation Christian liturgies and ceremonies were integrated into a post-Reformation musical and literary tradition, and this gave them a distinctively ‘Anglican’ flavor. The result was a style of worship quite unlike that of any other branch of the Church. The Oxford liturgists were not in the business of aping old ways, but renewing them. And they did so in ways that made them both enriched and enriching.

The essence of Anglicanism is often said to be captured in the Latin tag ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’, which might loosely be translated as ‘it is our worship that best embodies our belief’. If this is true, then despite the tensions that currently threaten the unity of the Communion, there is this hope. Whatever other divisions might arise, so long as something of the spirit of the Oxford Movement lives on, Anglicans can call upon a deeper spiritual unity.

III The English Hymnal

As I noted in last month’s column, an important aspect of the movement that so influenced the Anglican churches in the 19th century was its integration of pre-Reformation Christian liturgies and ceremonies with a post-Reformation musical and literary tradition. It is this that gave Anglican worship a distinctive character. Another 19th century innovation – the hymnal -- stamped this character indelibly on Anglicanism, and set a standard that gradually came to transform the worship of other denominations also.

The practice of singing hymns goes back to the earliest Christians. Jesus and the disciples, the Gospels tell us, sang a hymn before they made their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. Surprisingly, though, it was many centuries before popular hymns came to be collected, and even longer before anything like the familiar modern hymnbook came into existence.

The Roman church before the Reformation made use of two types of music. In the ‘cathedral’, the mass was set to elaborate – and very beautiful – music that required accomplished composers and performers. In the monasteries, the simplicity of Gregorian chant allowed the most humble voices to join in the daily offices and the ceaseless round of the Psalter. The Protestant Reformation was marked in part by a change in musical style. To make worship accessible to ordinary Christians, Luther turned popular tunes into sacred chorales, a practice that was followed by gifted Lutheran composers for centuries thereafter. The Calvinists also used attractive tunes and easy meters to make the Psalter God’s own worship book for his chosen people. In England, the rather different break with Rome presented the Church’s professional musicians with a new task – to set English language liturgies to music.

Eighteenth century England brought yet another element into play. Evangelical revival prompted religious leaders with poetic gifts to provide the faithful with hymns of praise, and powerful tunes were composed or commandeered for this purpose wherever they could be found. The most prolific of these poets was an Anglican priest – Charles Wesley – who with his more famous brother John created the Society of Methodists with the aim of re-vitalizing the Church of England from within, though eventually Methodism took an independent path.

Nearly a century later, this long period of development finally found a special focus. W H Monk, a professor of music, set about compiling Hymns, Ancient and Modern. The title brilliantly captures the aspiration – to put in the hands of congregations a single collection of hymns drawn from the vast storehouse built up by centuries of Christian worshippers. To this inheritance Monk added the talent of John Bacchus Dykes, an Anglican priest and prolific composer of now famous hymn tunes. Arranged to make it a musical mirror image of the Book of Common Prayer, Hymns Ancient and Modern set the pattern for almost all the huge number of hymnbooks that have been published since.

One of these books can be said to have taken Anglican worship to new heights. First published in 1906, The English Hymnal deliberately mined the combined resources of Gregorian chant, folk tunes, Lutheran chorales, medieval carols and metrical psalms, while striving at the same time to raise congregational singing to new heights of musical excellence. Gaps were cheerfully filled with new music – most of it by Ralph Vaughan Williams, at the time unknown, but subsequently one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

Recovery and renewal are the key concepts behind both these hymnbooks. They look to previous centuries, not as history, but as a treasure house whose old lamps may once again be made to shine. Their aim is to unite the voices of past and present in a single song of praise to the God who made us, came among us, and redeemed us. By transcending particular times and places, they give real expression to the communion of saints, and thus an intimation of eternity.

The Episcopal Church’s Hymnal of 1982 follows the very same pattern. The preface expressly declares that it “retains the best of the past and sets forth many riches of our own time”. Its own distinctiveness derives from the explicit use of “tunes whose roots lie deep in the treasury of American folk hymnody”.

This deliberate unity of past and present has been so successful, we often think of a hymn and its tune as inseparable, not realizing that the editors frequently combined elements whose origins were centuries apart. Ironically, the contemporary Church’s obsession with ‘relevance’ risks this kind of renewal. ‘Contemporary’ and ‘traditional’, are set in opposition and become rallying cries for division. But the dichotomy is a false one. The most famous of Christmas carols, ‘O Come all ye faithful’, is a Latin hymn translated in the 19th century, set to an 18th century melody, with harmonies and descant added in the 20th.  So every year, across the world, this Anglican hymn wonderfully renews the Christmas message by compelling the ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ to unite.

IV Theology in Stone

The architectural variety in Christian churches, historically as well as geographically, would be hard to exaggerate. Some, like Canterbury Cathedral or St Peter’s in Rome are massive ornate structures that rank among the finest buildings in the world. Others are very modest constructions, not much more than simple protection against the elements.  Even more modest are the disused showrooms and gas stations adapted for worship by fledgling congregations in poor places. This variety is more marked in some denominations than in others. Eastern Orthodox churches have a greater uniformity of style than, for example, Lutheran churches. Yet, even when there is great variation within one denomination, it is often that case that a single style has become dominant, not because it is commonest, but because it has become the denomination’s identifying ‘image’.

So it is with the Anglican Church. In reality, Anglican churches across the world vary greatly in appearance. Yet the dominant image of the ‘English’ church is of a brown stone building in the shape of a cross with a spire pointing heavenwards. For many Episcopalians, indeed, this is what a ‘real’ church should look like. The style is known as ‘neo-Gothic’, and it is a relative newcomer – a product of the 19th century in fact. Before that, a different style was thought characteristically Anglican. Known as “English baroque”, its greatest exponent was Sir Christopher Wren, the 17th century polymath responsible for re-building more than 40 churches after the Great Fire of London (in 1666), including most famously St Paul’s Cathedral.

St Paul's Richmond
Wren’s London churches set the style for the colonial churches in North America. Some very fine examples are still in use – St Paul’s Richmond VA, for instance, and Christ Church, Philadelphia. The use of classical columns -- features redolent of the world of Plato and Aristotle – was intended to affirm the compatibility of faith and knowledge and thereby give visual expression to the threefold Anglican invocation of ‘Scripture, Reason and Tradition’ as authoritative sources for Christian belief and practice.

Trinity Church Wall Street
By the late nineteenth century, however, this style had been almost totally eclipsed. Many magnificent, and subsequently famous, Episcopal churches were commissioned in this period – Trinity Wall Street, St Thomas Fifth Avenue, Washington National Cathedral in DC are just the best known among a great many cathedrals and smaller churches. With some notable exceptions, the architectural style chosen was almost invariably neo-Gothic. This change was part and parcel of the Oxford movement which had led to the restoration of pre-Reformation practices, and with it a renewed emphasis on ritual and vestments. In line with this emphasis, the architects of new churches inspired by the movement -- first in England and then further afield -- looked back beyond the Reformation also. Powerfully influenced by the architect Augustus Pugin, their eyes came to rest on the medieval world in which the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe had been built– hence the name ‘neo-Gothic’.

The contrast between English baroque and neo-Gothic is not simply a matter of artistic fashion. Behind it lies a deeper theological difference. What is a church building? Is it a sacred space, or is it a meeting place? The Protestant reformers tended towards the meeting place, since for them the Church (with an uppercase C) is not a place at all, but a fellowship of people bound together by the preaching of the Word. For this purposes they needed ‘preaching boxes’, not the ‘sacrament houses’ of the Catholics. Wren’s baroque churches, though beautiful in many ways, gave pride of place to the pulpit and the pews. In the absence of a preacher and congregation to fill them, they seem empty spaces waiting to be used. That is why they attracted the derogatory description ‘preaching box’. The alternative conception of the ‘sacrament house’ (also a term of abuse originally) sees value in a consecrated space set quite apart from mundane purposes. Its purpose is to be a place where the presence of God may be encountered by anyone at any time, and draw them into prayer and worship. Its beauty and grandeur, though, may mislead them into the idolatrous worship of art.

The vacillation from the ideals of Wren to the ideals of Pugin (and subsequently back again) is a tangible manifestation of the spirit of Anglicanism – a perpetual aspiration to integrate worship and doctrine in a way that steers a satisfactory path between the twin dangers of religious superstition and theological dogma.