Lee on the American BCP

Presiding Bishop Alfred Lee

Bishop Alfred Lee

In an exchange of open letters regarding Bp. Cummin’s 1871 resignation from the Protestant Episcopal Church, Alfred Lee (then Presiding Bishop of PECUSA) admits the comprehensive nature of the American liturgy. Given Lee’s own “high church” credentials, this tacit endorsement is akin to the proverbial ‘horse’s mouth’, essentially agreeing with Dr. Smith that the American book owes a genius from the 1689 proposed revision. Lee’s apparent agreement with Smith lets the 1785 preface speak as a kind of commentary to the present-day American preface. The ecumenical goals of the 1689 revision has previously been written about here. Lee takes the case with Cummin’s that the American book is already inclusive of historical Dissent.

In a four-part open letter debate, Lee chalks up Cummin’s departure from the American church as basically hasty and double-minded. Lee defends the 1789/90 revision (as well as the upcoming 1890/92 review) as adequately Protestant, dismissing Cummin’s return to the 1785 proposed book as unnecessary if not redundant. Though Cummin felt a return to the more latitudinarian book of 1785 would better shut out Ritaualism, Lee insists,

You desire a Revision after the model recommended in England by the Commission of 1689. But are you not aware that most of these recommendations are embodied in our present Book, and that although they failed in England, they found acceptance here. Says Bishop Short (History of the Church of England), “The American Prayer Book, altered in 1790, is formed in a great measure on this.”

In his footnotes, Bishop Thomas Short (mentioned in Lee’s quote above) shows the affinity between the 1689 and 1785/9 liturgy by listing the main points of revision as stated from the 1785 preface. Among the alterations which are liely familiar with American Anglicans, as well as those owing to the 1689 commission, might include “the Athanasian Creed is wholly omitted”, “in baptism the parents of the child are permitted to stand as sponsors”, the addition of “forms for family prayer”, and with the 39-articles “the homilies are admitted as containing sound doctrine but they are not to be read until they are revised.”

The American prayer book vaguely mentions the 1689 liturgy. However, the scant reference might be due to its abridgment of the longer 1785 preface. The adopted American book says,

“Accordingly, a Commission for a review was issued in the year 1689: but this great and good work miscarried at that time; and the Civil Authority has not since thought proper to revive it by any new Commission. But when in the course of Divine Providence, these American States became independent with respect to civil government, their ecclesiastical independence was necessarily included; and the different religious denominations of Christians in these States were left at full and equal liberty to model and organize their respective Churches, and forms of worship, and discipline, in such manner as they might judge most convenient for their future prosperity”.

Evidently, the juncture of civil Independence permitted Americans to adopt many of the 1689 proposals, and this is elsewhere suggested by the preface where it says,

“while these alterations were in review before the Convention, they could not but, with gratitude to God, embrace the happy occasion which was offered to them (uninfluenced and unrestrained by any worldly authority whatsoever) to take a further review of the Public Service, and to establish such other alterations and amendments therein as might be deemed expedient”.

An extended account of the reforms which the compilers had opportunity to consider is found in the longer preface of 1785. Here, Dr. Smith (the author of the preface) makes glowing remarks regarding the caliber of the 1689 Commissioners, “[of whom] a number of bishops and other divines; than whom (it hath been truly acknowleged) the Church of England was never, at any one time, blessed with either wiser or better since it was a church.” In his footnotes Smith names the leading lights of 1689 revision, namely, Bps. Patrick, Burnet, Tillotson, Stillingflett, Kidder, et al., and it was from their work the collects, psalms, and rubrics were subsequently revised. Smith concedes,

“By comparing the following book, as now offered to the Church, with this preface and the notes annexed; it will appear that most of the amendments or alterations which had the sanction of the great Divines of 1689, have been adopted, with such others as are thought reasonable and expedient.”

Not all amendments were well-received by the States or, for that matter, counterparts in England. Far-reaching alterations, perhaps friendly to Unitarians, were ultimately withdrawn or scaled back in order to secure episcopacy from London. English bishops exhorted the Americans to retain the integrity of the Trinitarian creeds which were previously either slated for omission or rewrite by the Americans. However, these particular changes owed themselves to the condition of the States at the time of Revolution– less so the 1689 commission. Surprisingly, nothing was said by English prelates about the latter. Prayer book historian, McGarvey, comments, “It [was] noteworthy that no particular reference was made to the other peculiarities of the Proposed Book except the very general remark that, ‘less respect, however, was paid to our liturgy than its own excellence, and your declared attachment to it, had led us to expect.'”

In the end, Alfred Lee’s advice to Cummin’s was to keep with the American prayer book and consequently the Episcopal Church. Lee’s rationale was the 1789 Book was sufficiently comprehensive and adequately sound to accomplish unity with other Protestants. Unlike present-day anglo-catholics, Lee neither denounces the exemplar work of the 1689 committee nor dismisses their ecumenical project. And, in contrast to so-called anglo-reformed, Lee is quick to defend the compilation of the American book and likely the aspects of revision leading to 1892. Where the American book is questionable, Lee is content to fall upon the proof of scripture:

“Our Church, in Article VI., recognizes Holy Scripture as the one standard of faith and practice. That it would be highly desirable, for the sake of peace and to prevent misunderstanding, to change a very few expressions in our services I have steadily maintained; not that I think they really teach error, but that they may be misinterpreted and abused. But the course of some of the prominent advocates of Revision has been so captious, unreasonable, and unfair, as greatly diminish the prospect of success. But is it true that the errors of which you complain are wholly attributable to abuse of the language of the Prayer Book? My impression is, that they generally arise from perversions of the language of Holy Writ. Exaggerated sacramental views are founded upon taking literally what the Scripture intends to be understood spiritually--upon “the letter that killeth.” The false doctrine once adopted strives to lay hold of anything that maybe twisted to its purpose, and the Liturgy cannot escape. But the weak arguments and disingenuous course of the Romanizing party plainly show that they have no solid ground to stand upon.”

We might keep in mind Bishop Lee sat on the American committee (a pan-protestant body) for the revision of the Authorized Version in 1881. So, the above quote regarding the final authority of scripture as a salve against Ritualism stands as an opinion of a top-notch bible scholar. Furthermore, Lee’s prudence has definite application today, enunciating a certain confidence about the American liturgy  viz-a-viz the rage of party– a subject this blog wants to tackle, especially as it pertains to the 1928 BCP and why we cannot afford to look elsewhere.

One response to “Lee on the American BCP

  1. AnAwkwardAardvark

    I’m delighted to see a new, and well-written post. Thank you Charles!

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