Against Treating the Prayer Book as Theology

4F80E739-7A47-4C7C-BFC0-2AFC64D9C313One of the latent questions in  discussions around prayer book revision centers on the Book of Common Prayer’s theology, or theologies. The claim might be that Episcopalians haven’t lived into the theology of the current prayer book sufficiently, or that this theology has harmful consequences. Revision can be an opportunity to alter, augment, or newly introduce certain aspects of prayer book theology; preservation can retain a concrete and clear theology that has stood the test of time. In the midst of this, I want to argue that the prayer book shouldn’t have a theology at all.

One cannot, of course, have a prayer book without theology. How the Eucharist is ordered will depend in large part on the text’s understandings of atonement and the Incarnation, and so the Trinity, God’s creation, the character of sin, and theological anthropology as well. Likewise, the centrality of the Eucharist itself, or other forms of worship, or the role of the Bible, or the particular passages of the Bible chosen to be echoed; each of these will have theological implications for the character of prayer, participation in grace, and inspiration. Finally—and here the case is slightly different, because of how bound up ordination is to worship—to make sense of the work of priests, deacons, and lay-people in worship, one requires a theology of lay and ordained orders.

It is also important to note that the BCP has always actually had theological leanings, one way or another. 1549 and 1552 were heavily reformed documents, with the 1559 edition slightly altered to mollify traditionalists. 1662 was, at least in certain respects, a final balancing against Puritan thought. And so on—whether books of common prayer book should have a theology or not, they typically have had something along those lines.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to claim that the prayer book should not have a theology, in the sense that it should not be treated as a source or expression of any particular theology. It must work within a broad theological scheme, and one should be able to bring theology to worship. But this is a different thing to structuring worship in a way that implies or expresses a particular theological scheme. It is a different thing to treating the way one worships as a primary source for one’s theology (as a side note, I’m aware that the earliest doctrinal assertions recorded in Christianity were forms of worship. I’m not convinced this means we should cleave doxology and doctrine so closely together, even if they mustn’t be divorced from each other: the fact it once was the case at least does not necessitate that all doxology should be theology, or vice versa).

My reasons for thinking this aren’t sophisticated. Regarding whether the prayer book should be a source for Christian theology, this role should be played by the Bible.1 This is first, of course, because of its status as canonical Scripture. One way the Bible serves as the source for theology, however—a functional quality quite apart from any question of inspiration, though theologically motivated—is that it is not amenable to any single theological scheme. As most any theologian writes, the Bible performs a double role for theology. First, it provides the raw material for systematic theological life. Secondly, it prevents the closure of theological systems, since this raw material is constituted by a surplus of polyvalent voices which refuse single interpretation. This in turn impacts the character of theologies as they are lived and written. Each can be held up to Scripture—even as they offer modes of scriptural interpretation—and shown to fail in encompassing the whole, in such a way that another theology, and then another, and then another is required to supplement any one particular account (and so on, ad infinitum).

I do not think a prayer book, in order to be useful, can do this. To provide a rubric for common worship, it must evince a regularity which—though not precluding, and ideally encouraging, multiple interpretations—cannot foreclose the possibility of a final theological system being bound up with worship.2 There can certainly be different rites and rubrics which express different theological claims, but this is the kind of diversity which leads to siloing, not one which disrupts the possibility of monadic theological existence. If one approaches a liturgy as a source for theology, then one can be seduced into treating the source as entirely consistent with the expression. That is to say, what is expressed comes to be entirely consistent with the source which grounds its expression, forming a closed circle. One’s performance of the Eucharist according to a theologically inflected rubric, for example, will come to justify one’s Eucharistically inflected theology, which will in turn legitimate the rubric. Though the Bible speaks through and within the liturgy, moreover, the pattern of its reading can then be subordinated to a source other than itself. That is to say, the liturgy becomes the framework for interpreting Scripture, the theology the criterion of Scriptural interpretation, which blunts the critical force of the Bible over theology.

This is not to say that all Biblical theology is good, all prayer book theology bad. After all, the same cycle can be formed with the Bible too (c.f. Footnote 2). Nor is it to say that one can never do theology with or through the prayer book. It is just to argue that the prayer book should not be treated as a source for theology, since it cannot evince certain disruptive characteristics ineradicable from the Biblical witness. It is also to say that the prayer book should not be related to scripture in the same was as, say, Calvin’s Instituties, Thomas’ Summa, or Hooker’s Laws. Though prayer books should be open to Biblical critique, the relationship between the Bible and prayer books should not be the same as that between Bible and doctrinal reasoning. After all, Anglican prayer books typically provide ways of engaging with Scripture as part of a weekly rhythm of prayer centered around communal participation in the Eucharist (whether or not everyone participates in every beat of this rhythm is another matter—this is its underlying pattern). There is something amiss in this pattern if its rituals cannot be practiced apart from concrete assertions which require Biblical critique in the same fashion as a work of systematics.3

As to whether the prayer book should implicitly or explicitly entail a particular theology, the same arguments apply. If one’s worship is tied to a particular version of atonement theology (let’s say Christus Victor), a specific iteration of Chalcedon (let’s say Calvin’s, which is bizarrely Anglican), or an overdetermined account of the Trinitarian relations (perhaps a concrete rendering of Augustine’s self-collapsing analogies to human subjectivity), then one situates the interpretation of Scripture in worship inside an already determined theological scheme. The Scripture proclaimed is thus interpreted according to the theology one prays or worships within, which can oh so easily inoculates the theology from Scriptural disruption.

Now, the caveats. I write all this as someone who believes wholeheartedly that Christian worship should stick within the bounds of conciliar orthodoxy, including (but not limited to) the affirmation that God is Trinity, Jesus Christ is very God and very human, salvation is the work of grace, and so on. As above, we cannot have a prayer book without theology, and there are good reasons aplenty for taking these basic propositions for granted as the bounds and axioms of Christian theology, patterning its space. Now, one might say that this is to make the prayer book express a theology. Part of the point of this orthodoxy, however—in Rowan Williams’ argument at least—is that the space limited by these bounds is a rather wide one indeed, not only open ended, but practically demanding multiplicities within itself (after all; three in one, one person with two natures). To situate the prayer book within this theological space, then, does not require framing worship according to any one iteration of Christian theology. It requires something far harder than that; namely, framing a rubric for worship that avoids both a) drifting into vague waffling and mistaking the open-endedness of Christian orthodoxy as license for meaninglessness platitudes, and b) over-specifying one’s claims to try and avoid such wooliness, leading to theologically inept formulations which, though it is a secondary matter, tend not to stand the test of time. In this, the prayer book mustn’t avoid particular iterations of Christian orthodoxy (on pain of vapidity), but it must avoid fixing itself to them (on pain of rigidity and hermeneutical enclosure). It must do all this in a way that brings people together, irrespective of their particular doctrinal commitments whilst itself remaining within the bounds or orthodoxy, to worship God. And it must do so in a way that allows the Bible to speak through the liturgy, simultaneously providing the grounds for and disrupting the character systematic theological life. This is no small feat.4

To claim that the BCP should not be read as an expression or a primary source for theology does not mean it has nothing to do with theology, then. It is just to claim that for a prayer book to be within theology is a very different thing to its being a theology. A Christian prayer book must be within Christian theology. I am inclined to think this is nearly impossible if it is treated as a theological text.5 It must instead speak and exist inside the space traced by conciliar orthodoxy, neither hedging so much that it says nothing nor saying so much that it comes to depend on a particular interpretation of that orthodoxy. It must be read as theologically minimalist without being theologically vacuous.

All of which is not to say very much. Just that if the prayer book is to be revised—and even if it isn’t—it is dangerous to treat it as if it should be the source or expression of a theology more specific than the conciliar orthodoxy already gives us.6 It should be a resource for theologically informed practice, certainly, and never free of meaningful theological content. But it should not be read a theological handbook, nor an implicit theology, nor a primary source for theological reflection.

In any case, this is not too much of a loss—for Anglicanism has plenty of theology apart from the prayer book. Honestly, a part of this post is motivated by the wish that we were arguing about the import of Richard Hooker’s genuinely revolutionary account of divine law for contemporary Christianity, or the relevance of his Chalcedonian Eucharistic theology to these debates, or how Kathryn Tanner’s Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity could inform the wider work of General Convention, before (or at least as grounds for) arguing about what our prayer book should be. Katherine Sonderegger and Graham Ward are two of the few English-language theologians working on a full blown systematic theology this decade. Are Kelly Brown Douglas’ extensive writings, from The Black Christ to Stand Your Ground, being thought with at GC79? And what about Douglas MacKinnon? Or Kenneth Kirk and Austin Farrer, both of whom I think I vehemently disagree with, but are well worth the read? These are 20th and 21st century thinkers who should be read as doing theological work (I would love to know how many of them have come up in debates on the floor). Without implying that Anglicans should only read Anglicans, there are Anglican theologians, and several of them work hard to write accessible and affordable books (some of them even argue that the prayer book should have a theology!). In this light, I think it does a disservice to a rich and still breathing theological heritage to treat the prayer book as Anglicanism’s locus for theology—rather than a resource which provides the open-ended yet still concrete space for theologically inflected lives to be shaped in the worship of God.

  1. It’s worth flagging how ‘source’ being used here. I don’t want to deny that there are other sources for theology that the Bible, and I don’t want to utterly preclude the idea that the prayer book could play such a role. What I do want to say is that any theology must articulate itself in relationship to—and this can be critically—the particular set of texts which constitute the canonical Bible. The Bible meanwhile, though it must be read in context to be read theologically, does not depend upon any particular context in order to be a source of Christian theology.
  2. It can be argued that any text is always open to multiple interpretations. This is certainly true, but there is a difference between being open to multiple interpretations and precluding a closed systematic interpretation. It is possible, for example, to give a closed, coherent interpretation of certain texts which does not preclude the possibility of other people reading them differently, does inoculate itself from having to deal with other readings. Other texts preclude the possibility of such readings. I would argue that prayer books are of the formed type, the Bible of the latter. (This is, of course, a normative argument more than anything else; clearly it is possible to read a closed system out of the Bible, as people have been doing so for centuries. The difference is that such readings cannot—I believe, at least—be legitimate, even on their own terms, whereas there need not be any inadequacy entailed by the character of the particular text in other cases, as opposed to the more general linguistic claim.)
  3. This puts me in mind of a comment of Wittgenstein‘s, along the lines that we don’t frame mathematical equations on our walls. I think this touches on part of the point I’m trying to argue for here, though the reasons are different.
  4. For a concrete example, I think Morning Prayer in the 1979 prayer book (both Rite 1 and Rite 2) does this astonishingly well. The fact so many Anglo-Catholics love the oh so Reformed Cranmer also speaks to the nimbleness of his collects, which really do (for the most part) manage to focus worship in a theological manner without ever becoming works of theology.
  5. Again, I want to make an explicit exception to the question of lay and ordained ministry. Whether this ruins the whole argument, on the basis that one’s theology of ordination is thoroughly bound up in the rest of doctrine, I’m not sure. I’m inclined to think that one can assert a particular theology of the laity and the priesthood without having to lock all the other doctrinal loci into place.
  6. This is not, I should add, an argument against non-masculine language (at least, it doesn’t strike me as being one). It is just an argument against tying the use of such language to any specific iteration of Christian theological thought, and so over-concretizing modes of prayer and worship.
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