Anglican Liturgy and the Catholic Faith

By Fr. Mark Perkins


A parishioner forwarded me David Warren’s recent and lovely piece in The Catholic Thing titled “Prayer in English.” While as Anglicans we cannot accept his rejection of Anglican jurisdictions, we ought nevertheless to applaud his desire to use Anglican liturgy as a resource for the renewal of Roman Catholic liturgy.


Warren writes,

Like the Englishman More, we must realize that the history of his Church in the English-speaking realm goes back many centuries, and that English was just one of its tongues. The old Sarum Rite is part of our Roman (and Norman) heritage; we pass back through Angles and Saxons, even Danes, into a misty Goidelic realm; to the first emissaries from Rome – and Egypt. An “English Church” must encompass all this.

Title Page of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer

Indeed. Our liturgical prayer book tradition was not a creation ex nihilo of the 16th and 17th centuries. Despite the enormous disruptions of the English Reformation, the prayer books compiled by our Anglican forebears retained a fundamental continuity with the prior liturgical traditions of the English Church. (We must sometimes remind our more Protestant-inclined Anglican friends that their heritage predates Archbishop Cranmer.) It is this continuity that allowed Pope Benedict XVI to endorse our liturgical tradition in Anglicanorum coetibus — and which has also allowed Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions to do the same with, for example, the Liturgy of St. Tikhon.


Anglicans have ambivalent reactions to such “borrowings” from our Roman and Eastern brethren. These adaptations of Anglican liturgy general pair approval of our liturgy with explicit rejections of our broader tradition — the “English Church” Warren mentions is not, in his thinking, “Anglican” but rather the Roman Catholic Church in England.


Warren suggests that they are merely reappropriating what is properly Catholic while “weeding out non-Catholic accretions.” The King James Version and the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, he writes, “are again ours, as it were, as if someone had returned our silverware. We have finally retrieved what was Catholic within the English-speaking Protestant realm, at a time when English has become a kind of lingua franca even within ancestrally Catholic realms.”


There is an appearance of logic to this. Our liturgy is fundamentally Catholic, though Anglican in expression. But ultimately this is an incoherent position, given the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi. To embrace the common prayer of a jurisdiction while rejecting the jurisdiction itself is, at best, paradoxical. Liturgy is not mere window dressing for theological principles: how we pray just is what we believe. The Catholic truths of Anglican liturgy arise out of the Catholic faith of the Anglican tradition. Any jurisdiction that makes use of the former ought to recognize the latter.


Having said all that, though, I think our fundamental reaction to these things — to Western Rite Orthodox parishes making use of St. Tikhon’s liturgy, to the Roman Catholic Ordinariate’s adaptation of our liturgy — ought to be joy and not resentment. We would love to see our Roman and Eastern brethren move from the use of our liturgy to the recognition of Anglican jurisdictions, but even without that, the former is a development that merits our gratitude. As members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we should be exceedingly glad when our liturgical heritage enriches the worship of our English-speaking brethren, whether Roman Catholic or Orthodox. It is, if I may be so polemically bold, a genuine tragedy that some of our brothers and sisters worship in ugly and impoverished language, when a veritable treasure house of English sacred liturgy is available to them. And because we are all members of the one Body of Christ, what deepens the holiness of one part of that Body cannot but redound to the benefit of whole, ourselves included.


Praise God that our liturgy may be used to the benefit of His Church!


Fr. Mark Perkins is Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar. He is also Assistant Curate at All Saints Anglican Church, Charlottesville and a full-time history teacher.