The 1928 Preface

wiliam white The 1928 Book of Common Prayer’s Preface  is  identical to the 1789 edition. The  Preface really  establishes the relationship  between the Church  of England and the  American Protestant  Episcopal Church. It also declares certain  secondary standards for orthodoxy. Where  differences arise are often in ceremonial custom  and circumstance, “usages and forms”. The Preface  therefore begins as an exposition on Christian liberty as it pertains to Ceremony, saying:

“that blessed ‘liberty wherewith Chist hath made us free’, that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for edification”

We should keep in mind 18th century Protestants did not grant the liberty to either the gospel or morals! Article VII is a rather staple Reformation belief, “Although the Law given from God to Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral”.

Since rites and ceremonies may differ according to custom, “It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly alike…and may be acknowledged by the diversity of countires, times, and men’s manners” (Art. XXXIV), crucially, the 1789 Prayer Book suggests the extent they differ. However, Americans (as a sign of their episcopal succession) were good to differ from England only where necesssary in custom and civil power. This is where an American cultus begins to shape pecularities. In the Prayer Book these pecularities are extremely minor. What is amazing was the fidelity Americans gave the English Church given the events of colonial revolution. Consequently, the 1789 Book acknowledges a canonical tie by the same “over-arching” principles governing lawful worship, suggesting a conservative ideal, hardly a liscence to newfangeldness:

“she further declares in her said Preface, to do that which, according to her best understanding, might most tend to the preservation of peace and unity in the Church; the procuring of reverence, and the exciting of piety and devotion in the worship of God; and, finally, the cutting off occasion…of cavil or quarrel”

What is missing is an appeal to antiquity. However, this is likely implicit in the deference given to England as America’s “first foundation”:

“the Church of England, to which the Protestant Episocopal Church in these States is indebted, under God, for her first foundation”.

Rather than starting anew, the American church acknowledged traditional reception of custom and discipline not abridged or altered whimsically, nor differing in main or cheif materials. A founding authority is identified not only through the English Prayer Book (forms and usages) but also the Articles and Homilies contained and mentioned therein. This actually says a lot, defining a common life which is actually more ‘confessional’ and precise (in many ways) than fewer formularies Presbyterianism provides.

  • “The same Church [England] hath not only in her Preface, but likewise in her Articles and Homilies, declared the necessity and expediency of occasional alterations and amendments in her Forms of Public Worship; and we find accordingly, that, seeking to keep the happy mean between too much stiffness in refusing, and too much easiness in admitting variations…yet so as that main body and essential parts of the same (as well as chiefest materials, as in the frame and order thereof) have still been continued firm and unshaken.”
  • “…alterations and amendments. They will appear, and it is to be hoped, the reasons of them also, upon a comparison of this with the Book of common Prayer of the Church of England. In which it will also appear that this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local customs require”

The Preface therefore establishes a number of formularies (secondary standards). For instance, there is an appeal to tradition. Keep in mind due apostolic succession (the consecration of Bishops White, Provost, and Smith in England) legitimized the Philadelphia Convention. The Church of England even in post-revolutionary America was a ‘corner-stone’. Second, changes in liturgy were limited to ‘local customs’, namely a republican form of civil government and perhaps some leeway in American preference for low church.  The 1785 proposed edition had a distinctly ‘enlightened’, abbreviated tone. But even here it required approval from England before adopted in the States. In the end, it was rejected and what prevailed was a liturgy more catholic than Canterbury thanks to the influence of Samuel Seabury. Ironically, Seabury argued the adoption of the epiclesis in order to further distinguish American liturgy from Rome.

However, local custom did not excuse any essential departure from doctrine, worship, or discipline from England– meaning a commonality in standards. Essentially the American Prayer Book was the 1662 English Use with a few significant 1637 Scottish additions.  The 39 Articles, Homilies, Catechism along with a certain informal continuance of English practice and sense of antiquity carried over, strengthening “instruments of unity” and therefore a canonical principle.

What most stands out regarding the distinctions of American cultus with respect to Worship was the Preface’s allusion to English aim for “comprehension”, namely King William’s 1689 Commission where an alternate rite for Presbyterian inclusion into CofE was considered:

“it cannot be supposed that further alterations would in time be found expedient. Accordingly, a Commission for a review was issued in 1689: but this great and good work miscarried at that time; and the Civil Authority has not since thought proper to revive it.”

Perhaps American Episcopacy has a special, providential role to play with Presbyterian and Methodist daughters? The reference to ‘comprehension’ perhaps mean no more than a liberty to alter rites according to necessity. Yet given this there is remains a dual appeal to ancient forms (inherited standards from CofE) and future economy toward Protestant neighbors (1689 comprehension).  The Preface perhaps offers a vision of Anglicanism as media via in American context, episcopal salt in wilderness of unchecked enthusiasm?

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