One of the more memorable things in Anglicanism is the service of choral evensong. It can be experienced in a variety of ways, from Gothic cathedrals to simple parish churches. The voices of the choir seem to lift the soul beyond the church to the heavenly courts. Whilst there are a variety of services and options to choose from to conduct this sort of service, the usual standard is the original service as envisioned by Thomas Cranmer from The Book of Common Prayer.
This collection of prayers, prepared by Archbishop Cranmer, deriving from traditional Sarum and Roman sources, from far away, Eastern liturgies, and from (then) contemporary Reformed services, is the foundation of Anglican identity, or has become that through its tenure as the standard liturgy. Anglicans have concluded that the Prayer Book is the best compilation of services that accurately and beautifully conveys biblical truth, almost in a timeless manner. Yet, the genius of the Prayer Book is that it is so much more than a collection of prayers, although it is that, and a good collection at that. The Prayer Book is a theological book at its heart; it is theology woven into liturgy.
When we say that the Prayer Book is the foundation of Anglicanism, we are not saying that Anglicanism is primarily concerned with matters of ritual and ceremonial, although these are important matters. Rather, we are saying that, at its core, Anglicanism expresses a theology. The Prayer Book is theology woven into liturgy, but what theology is that? The answer is found in the back of the Prayer Book, in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, originally a separate volume, now bound together with the liturgy that expresses its theology. The genius of Thomas Cranmer is his incorporation of all aspects of the Christian life in the Formularies (a term unknown to him, yet a beneficial explanation of the role of these documents). The Thirty-nine Articles are a faithful summary of the teaching of the Bible, perhaps described as the role of the mind in understanding divine truth. The Prayer Book is the same theology as experienced in the nave and chancel, spoken in prayer to God and dialogue between minister and people. The Homilies (of 1547 and 1571) are the representation of that truth in the pulpit.
Cranmer’s genius is perhaps the basis of the genius of Anglicanism, that is, that it is not wholly bound to Cranmer the man. The work of Cranmer in Anglicanism is the work of returning to the truth of the Bible. Even in such a work, as the Prayer Book, which is indebted to Cranmer, is not only the work of Cranmer. The Prayer Book is based upon Cranmer’s work in 1552. However, after the reign of Mary (and Cranmer’s death), the Prayer Book lived a life of its own, beyond Cranmer. In its final form, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer contains many beloved prayers that were not composed by Cranmer or included in his original work. For instance, a prayer such as the General Thanksgiving was the work of a Puritan minister. Bishop Cosin revised most of the collects in the Prayer Book after the Interregnum.
However, to return to speak of Cranmer, one of the most important truths that he grasped was the principle lex orandi, lex credenda, which translates as “the law of prayer is the law of belief”, meaning that what we pray is what we believe. Cranmer was a man who was familiar with traditional, medieval piety. For this reason, we see the development of our Daily Offices along the lines of the traditional monastic offices. Cranmer, and the other Continental and English Reformers, had re-discovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Cranmer set down to infuse the traditional liturgies with the biblical doctrine. If we consider the history of the Daily Office, having its root in the first adaptations of monasticism in the 4th century, when monks began to recite the Psalter regularly, first every day, but as time progressed they settled on an easier once a week. Cranmer simplified this tradition, eliminating the office of monk, forever destroying the distinction between "religious" and "secular". This was perhaps the most radical of the reforms because it eliminated the idea of religious “specialization” all of the rites of the Church were available for the laity. Laymen were encouraged to participate in what was formerly an exclusively clerical and often monastic endeavor.
Cranmer used the traditional liturgy of the Church as the basis to teach the masses about the marvelous truths of the Gospel. We can see this in the structure of the Prayer Book services of Morning and Evening Prayer. The liturgy begins with a call to repentance by acknowledging our own sins and faults. We then confess and repent of our sins and are pardoned by Christ, declared by his ministers. Rejoicing in our forgiveness, we praise God by offering him the prayer our Lord taught us to say. We continue in praise through the Psalms. It is only after we have confessed and been forgiven of our sins that we can approach and hear God's holy Word. We respond in praise to His Word to us by praising Him with the songs of Scripture or of the early Church (in the case of the Te Deum and Benedicite). The whole of the liturgy portrays in traditional language and structure the truths of the Bible that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, and that none of our works can earn our salvation. Although the liturgy is “baptized” in medieval structure, the true source of the rite is Scripture. It is often said that the Prayer Book is the Bible set to prayer. It is in these simple, daily services that Cranmer's genius shines through, for in these services Cranmer was able to expose the English people to God's grace in Christ Jesus and re-awaken the knowledge of his sacrificing death for all mankind.
Somewhere along the way, this genius was lost. It wasn’t a matter of transporting the Prayer Book to new locales or its updating of language, necessarily. The problem has been the loss of the necessity of unifying doctrine and theology, it seems that modern Anglicans have forgotten this vital connection. Many seem to be using a liturgy that does not support that which they believe, or seem to believe something that their liturgy does not reflect. For instance, it makes little sense to believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation on one end of the spectrum, or in some form of memorialism on the other, and use the Prayer Book; those doctrines are not compatible with the theology of the Prayer Book as it is expressed in the liturgy. Akin to Janus, this sort of thing implies that one believes one thing, yet, goes about saying something contrary to his beliefs and conscience in public worship. The Prayer Book and Articles were meant as a complete package. The Prayer Book expresses the theology of the Bible as summarized in the Articles of Religion. To reject this is to reject a glorious tradition of common prayer, bathed in the truths of Scripture and the unfailing doctrine of Christ.
It is often said that the problems of Anglicanism originated in a divorce. Whilst the troubles of Henry VIII have little relation to the development of Anglicanism, the divorce of theology and liturgy is a cancer spreading rapidly throughout the Communion. This is a false dichotomy. A situation now exists where one must choose between the theology of the Prayer Book and the liturgy of the Prayer Book. The problem is that this is a lie; they are one and the same. One cannot believe in purgatory, transubstantiation, or praying to the saints and truthfully use the Prayer Book. The question might linger in some minds... how do we know the theology of the Prayer Book? Isn't Anglicanism a complicated system of muddy, theological waters, rather intended to confuse, rather than edify? No, it is not, to know the theology of the Prayer Book, one must read the Prayer Book and take it at its plain meaning (as the Declaration to the Articles states). Further, the intent of the Settlement of Religion and the establishing of the Articles of Religion was to avoid the “diversities of opinions” not allow more room for disagreement. A certain type of exegesis has developed whereby a man looks for the exception rather than the rule when approaching the Prayer Book. Where doubt remains after consulting the Prayer Book and Articles about the meaning of a phrase or word, one should consult the Divines or other documents of the period, such as Nowell’s Catechism, Rogers’ Commentary on the Articles, among a plethora of historical sources that will clarify the meaning of a text.
If Anglicans would simply believe the theology of the Prayer Book and Articles, which is simply the theology of the Bible, and use the Prayer Book, many of the present troubles could have been avoided and, perhaps, future troubles could be avoided.