“One of the best things about being Episcopalian is the fact that no matter what Episcopal/Anglican church you walk into, the worship is basically the same.”
“Well, at least it should be.”
One of the predominant myths that hold the Anglican (Episcopalian) world together is the one that talks about how the worship of the church, following Thomas Cranmer’s grand design, is uniform no matter where in the world one visits. Universal, common worship. The beatific vision of every Episcopalian. Except it’s not. We’re far too libertarian and individualistic for that.
True, Cranmer thought that it was silly for an English-speaking people to worship in any other language than their mother-tongue – this is much like Luther’s position on the subject. But, it is unclear whether or not he felt that uniform worship across the realm was necessarily a good to be sought. Rather, “common” prayer was his aim. And he developed a resource to facilitate it. Moreover, in developing a resource that contained both the large-scale rites of the church and forms for individual devotion, Cranmer saught both to break down the clergy/laity divide (another grand reformation theme) but also to demonstrate the ways in which the work of the church was an extension of the work of the pious person and her/his faithful family and vice-versa.
All of these descriptions of Cranmer’s vision can be summed up in the several ways in this the title of his book can be understood. When we talk about a Book of COMMON Prayer (emphasis, mine), what do we mean?
Is a book of ordinary prayers? Those used, perhaps, every day?
Is it a book of prayers in a common language?
Is it a book of prayers held or practiced in common? That is, in a group.
Is it a book of prayers held or practiced in common? Meaning more BY a group even if dispersed?
Is it a book of prayers shared among a group?
The answer to each of the above is “yes.” All of the ways that something can be “common” can be applied to our understanding of Cranmer and his tradition, even if, in some instances, not all of them can be appreciated at the same time. Thus, variability and similarity exist in tension with one another. One should always experience the familiar when walking through the doors of an Episcopal or Anglican church even if one does not feel that what’s being practiced there is the same as it is at home. Sharing our prayers, then, rather than binding them together in a way that limits variability and expression seems to be the heart of the Anglican Way as defined by Thomas Cranmer.
Therefore, the next time your in a church and they don’t celebrate the exact same way that you do at home, give thanks for their expression and the good work of Cranmer and his fellow reformers to find ways to hold the church together in a loose and loving way. Then invite those that may seem to be “doing it wrong” to worship with you in your own place someday. you’ll be glad that you did.