Ancient And Modern

My friend Rob Ryan is an Anglican pioneer minister on the staff of Rochester Cathedral. What pioneering stuff does he do? Well, in among the outreach to the Wetherspoon’s community, he does such groundbreaking stuff as, er, the Book of Common Prayer. On Sunday morning, he tweeted:

8am BCP … ugh! when are people gonna realise even God is still asleep at such a time on a Sunday morning

Which took my mind to the question of why people continue to prefer these forms of worship. In one respect’, continued devotion to the Book of Common Prayer is surely contrary to the spirit of Cranmer, who wanted worship to be ‘in a tongue understanded of the people’. It isn’t a phenomenon limited to traditional Anglicans: there are equivalents in other streams of Christianity. In Methodism, it might be those who insist on a certain proportion of Charles Wesley hymns in an act of worship.

So what are the reasons, good and bad, for people clinging to forms of worship from bygone eras?

A good reason might be theology. Sometimes the older forms express a depth of theology, or they include important aspects that are neglected in contemporary music and liturgy. Another Anglican friend of mine, Brian Kelly, once said to me that BCP was good for emphasis on the Cross, whereas the modern liturgies were better on the Resurrection. Methodists might identify with this. Scour the eucharistic prayers in our 1999 Methodist Worship Book and you will find few references to the Cross as atonement. Not substitution, representation, Christus Victor, exemplarism or any other theory you care to mention. Most of the references to Christ’s death in those prayers seem to be necessary staging post on the way to celebrating his conquest of death. (Which I’m not against! But something vital is routinely omitted.)

Similarly, you will find a richness of theological expression in Wesley’s hymns that you rarely encounter in contemporary hymns and worship songs. Simplicity is good, too, but not as the sole diet.

A poor reason would be aesthetics. Yes, the language of ancient rites is beautiful to many people, but who or what is then being worshipped? Is this a vehicle for worship, or is idolatry going on here? Take this to its logical conclusion and you will employ a pair of scissors on the Scriptures. You will retain the Shakespearean Hebrew of Job, but cut out the tabloid Greek of Mark’s Gospel.

Another poor reason would be escapism. I find this approach used as a way to baptise a strong disconnect from everyday life. This is the holy stuff, not those modern songs and liturgies. The same people who endorse older worship forms at criticise modern ones have, in my experience, also been the people who had discos for their silver wedding celebrations. There is a serious lack of integration.

None of this is to say that all things modern are automatically correct, nor that we can completely comprehend God in worship. Both such propositions are ridiculous. But it is to ask, would you add anything to my list of good and bad reasons? Do you have a constructive critique of my thoughts?

By the way, after BCP this morning, Rob tweeted again:

now experiencing the good side of 8am BCP … a big ‘spoons breakfast and a large black coffee mmmmm 🙂


  1. Dave

    Interesting reflection. Your comments on Wesley hymns exemplify why when I am choosing the songs/hymns, I often try to have a balance. As to the BCP, I grew markedly more fond of it after I started training as a Reader in 2001. And I come from a Baptist background.

    I see 2 real reasons for liking it. The first is its language and ambiance. Personally while I sometimes like that I can take it or leave it. At times it does not seem wholly inapproriate to recognise the numinence and holiness of God in the way we approach him. Can we at time become a little too farmiliar? I feel we appreciate his love and grace all the more when we also know his holiness and majesty. But as you say the spirit of Cranmer is to use contemporary styles.

    however the real reason for me is the theology BCP expresses.There is a danger of getting cross and tomb out pof kilter – they are both empty. But for me it is the emphasis on Scripture notably in the daily office – both services being almost entirely Scripture in content. And Communion puts a proper emphasis on approaching Jesus from our point of need and meeting him “in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”. And Cranmer’s lectionary if used fully did not skirt the bits of Scripture we find hard against the standards of our secular age.

    Incidentally in my own Parish we use BCP nly for one mid week Communion a month. Though I have been known to base an evening service around a said Evensong. With free flow prayer built into it.

    Hope you mmove goes well and you settle quickly into Surrey


  2. “The same people who endorse older worship forms at criticise modern ones have, in my experience, also been the people who had discos for their silver wedding celebrations.”

    And the music at the disco would be 70s stuff? So they’re reaching back to what they remember as Good Times. And the ‘older’ forms of worship probably relate to those times, too. It isn’t that the older forms are necessarily better (I bet the complained a bit about some of tghe music way back then…), but they are reluctant to engage with what they don’t know.

    There are as many reasons for choosing traditional forms of worship as there are worshippers. I think there is a clinging to the familiar in the face of a rapidly changing and insecure world. There is also a desire to hold on to something which is beautiful and profound, in the face of much that is shallow and bland. Yes, that can slide into a degree of idolatry, but it can also be a desire to offer God something of quality.

    It also needs to be said that not all old stuff was good, and not all new stuff is shallow or bland. There are hundreds of Wesley hymns which are no longer sung, the ones which are sung can be said to have stood the test of time (so far!). The real comparison will be how many Kendrick or Redman songs will stand a similar test of time. Some of them are certainly something of quality and worthy expressions of worship. And we don’t need to look to BCP for excellent liturgy: the Iona Community has produced some wonderful texts, in very clear English. Much better than either BCP or MWB…


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