Thursday, April 28, 2011

1979 and All That

Between the approach of Easter and the general slouch of the national church towards diminution and "inclusion" (which is to say latitudinarianism) there has not been the juxtaposition of motivation and time which leads to new posts. Moreover we are in mid-rector-search, and no man's parish is safe while that is underway.

At this point the various Anglican divisions in the USA seem set, modulo the tiny trickle in the Ordinariate (and all evidence is that it will indeed be tiny, and certainly not the revitalizing force which various RC traditionalists wish for). And for the most part, the liturgical dividing line will be between 1928 and 1979, with the various missals around the fringes.

Those of us who have been around long enough and have paid attention long enough will remember Peter Toon's various denunciads on behalf of the Prayer Book Society, and while in some respects he moderated his views, he nevertheless represents the party rejecting the books many innovations.

And innovations, if that is the word one wants to use for changes, are there in abundance. It is ironic, however, that the chief of all the changes, the restructuring of the Eucharist liturgy, has proven to be the most enduring feature, and that subsequent revisions, when they do not simply dismiss the book entirely, hew to the 1979 structure with almost no deviation. What happens instead is that people pick at the words. And here I see a parallel between Toon's program and the revisionists: there's an awful lot of claiming about what the 1979 words say that simply isn't there in the text.

Toon was certainly right to call attention to the various heretics wandering around in the ECUSA hierarchy. But he consistently missed the most obvious sign: that there were and are increasingly many clerics who will not say the words of their own prayer book. Five years ago the Office of Women's Heres-- er, Ministry put out a liturgy for discussion, and as I noted then, there was a lot of theological change hidden in the very many changes, little of which had to do with gender neutrality. It's hard to say that it has gotten better, or worse, or even different, but the inability to say "it is right to give him thanks and praise" persists.

Toon's argument was always that the differences between 1928 and 1979 wording lent themselves to various heretical interpretations. In my opinion, he was wrong about that. Certainly someone like Pike had no trouble interpreting 1928 in an unorthodox manner, and following him, Spong held to beliefs that could not be reconciled to the texts he mouthed on Sunday. Conversely, as I said above, the pressure to rewrite the words indicates that, if heresy is the intent, the current texts do not express it sufficiently.

But beyond that, there was another paradigm operating. Toon, it always seemed to me, operated from the assumption that the 1928 book represented a standard of orthodoxy. And therefore, it also always seemed to me that he assumed that the intent of pretty much any difference between the two books represented an intent to deviate from orthodoxy on the part of the 1979. Now I never used the 1928; I went directly from the services of the Green Book to the 1976 Proposed rites (which differed only in small ways). For me, therefore, taking the catholic stance of accepting the church's book, the standard of orthodoxy is 1979, not 1928. And since I do not participate in all these various heresies (and indeed see many beyond-1979 changes that explicitly encode some of these heresies), it is "obvious" to me that the texts do not imply what Toon would have them saying. And I think it is my view that is most prevalent, and that at least a few decades back that is how most people looked at 1979: they gave it an orthodox reading.

And furthermore, some of what he objects to could, I think, be defended. The most conspicuous case, also mentioned by Fr. Jonathan, is the "baptismal covenant".Here is where, in fact, I think we see the 1979 text in its most conservative and Anglican. It is inaccurate to say that its text turns away from a catholic and orthodox doctrine of the atonement: as Fr. Jonathan says, Prayer C, the most modern of the Eucharistic texts, hammers on it the hardest. What is novel is not this at all, but rather the acknowledgment that there is more to the Christian life than personal rectitude. And that realization is nothing more than say 150 years of hard-learned lessons about what the second great commandment entails. Respecting the dignity of every human being, striving for peace and justice: these are no more or less than what "loving your neighbor" demands. there is no reason for this to be controversial; nor am I constrained to interpret them to mean specifically the socialist program beloved of many church liberals.

and again, the tell-tale issue is that the pressure for change is on 1979's quite orthodox understanding of the need for atonement, redemption, and repentance. In that respect Toon was to some degree right in seeing 1979 as a step on the way towards corruption; but actual corruption has in practice brought forth an increasing mutilation of the 1979 text, so that now 1979 stands as the monument of orthodoxy against which the revisionists rail. Likewise, using the 1928 now doesn't mean for us what it did in 1928. It's a specifically reactionary and rebellious act.

Finally, Toon's line of argument reflects what I see as the most common error of liturgists: the notion that they can somehow control the faith of the church through these words. Fr. Jonathan assesses Toon's readings as "strained", which I would agree with; but insofar as such readings can be adopted, most laymen don't adopt them, and if it has gotten worse, I think it was not so long ago that the vast majority of ECUSA clerics also adopted straightforward, orthodox readings. The problem is not in the text, but in the readers. the best that one can hope for in a liturgy is that it encourages an orthodox and catholic reading; but one cannot write a liturgy that forces such a reading.