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Rev. James Weiss in 16th-century garb, for a service last fall. By Sarah Evans

Rev. James Weiss in 16th-century garb, for a service last fall. By Sarah Evans

A theologian takes his congregation back in time

If the American Episcopal Church is on the verge of schism, as many people fear, you would not have known it from the genteel service that took place on the evening of March 11 in the chapel of Boston's Emmanuel Church. Officiating were Rev. James Weiss, an associate professor of theology at Boston College, and Rev. David Siegenthaler, tutor emeritus in history at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. The service they led—the words, the music, the ceremony—was not the usual contemporary one, but a form that dated from 1789. The prayer book from which the congregation of 30 or so read was in fact the first one issued in this country by the Episcopal Church. Together the congregants sang an 18th-century hymn and received the bread and wine "humbly kneeling" (not standing, as in many modern parishes) from the hands of the two priests, who were garbed in plain white surplices. For historical accuracy, the chapel's gilded altar, with its ranks of carved saints arrayed like organ pipes, stood unused, supplanted by a stark wooden table. Afterward, everyone got together in the church hall for a spaghetti dinner and a very civilized discussion about liturgical change.

The evening marked the fifth installment in Weiss and Siegenthaler's Historic Liturgy Program, a series that reenacts liturgies long since retired from use by the Church. The series started last year as an intellectual and spiritual exercise; it has grown into a means of putting the Episcopal Church's current turmoil in perspective.

To guess at the Church's troubles, you would have had only to look up. In the sky above Emmanuel that evening, two police helicopters kept an eye on the crowd gathered outside the Massachusetts State House, where the legislature was debating gay marriage. The issue has divided the 2.4-million-member American Episcopal Church since last summer, when its House of Bishops gave each diocese the option of blessing same-sex unions. More polarizing still—both within the Church and within its parent organization, the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion—has been the naming of the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, who began presiding over the New Hampshire Diocese on March 7 of this year.


SINCE JUNE 2003, when Robinson was elected, the heads of large Anglican branches in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America have declared the Episcopal Church to be "out of communion" with the rest of the Anglican world. In the United States, 13 of the 100 Episcopal dioceses have joined to form the conservative Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, with the intention of providing a "biblically driven" alternative to the established Church. Many Episcopalians worry that permanent schism lies ahead.

The Historic Liturgies Project has become Emmanuel's way of saying "take a breath." Through services based on different versions of the many-times-revised Book of Common Prayer, the program dramatizes the upheavals the Anglican Church has gone through—and survived—since its founding in 1534. As the debate over homosexuality erupted, Weiss explained in his office at BC, "the pastoral relevance of the project became sharper. Here a Church was saying, 'We can't stay together, because a fundamental norm is in question.'" But in Weiss's view, the Church has always had to broker differences. "Yes, we have doctrines, creeds, ethical norms," he said. "But when we differ over their meaning or application, we don't exclude each other. We come back together and pray. It seemed an appropriate moment to remind the Episcopal Church that the genius of the Anglican tradition has always been its inclusivity."

In its early decades, Weiss pointed out, Anglican theology swung widely between two poles, known as high and low. The high form of worship embraced many of the beliefs and traditions of Catholicism. The low form shared the Protestant desire to return to practices from early Christianity. As a result, Anglicanism was torn even over its most basic doctrines, including the meaning of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. "The more Catholic party held to the notion of transubstantiation"—the idea that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ—"which is a little too high for most Anglicans," Weiss said. "The much more radical Protestant party held to a merely symbolic view, which is a bit too low for most Anglicans."

Attending the entire Historic Liturgy series, you would have watched the two parties duke it out in successive versions of the Eucharist. In the first Book of Common Prayer, from 1549, communicants were told: "The body of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life; the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life"—the transubstantial formula. Just three years later, a drastically revised prayer book portrayed the Eucharist as a commemoration: "Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving; drink this in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for thee, and be thankful."

According to Weiss, it was Elizabeth I, crowned queen of England in 1558, who settled the matter. She believed that "these formulas were basically ways of excluding people from Communion," Weiss said. "The formula that was then adopted in the 1559 prayer book, and that has remained in force in the Church of England, was to say both sentences, one offering a higher view of Christ's presence, the other offering the lower view. The beautiful thing is that, for most people, these sentences cohere in pointing to the mystery of Communion."

High and low forms of worship have jockeyed for position ever since. The early American prayer book used at the March 11 service, Weiss noted, was influenced by the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which (unlike the Church of England in the aftermath of the American Revolution) agreed to ordain American priests. Accordingly, the liturgy contained an Offertory, an offering of gifts to God. That distinctly Catholic practice was absent from the Church of England, which held that Christ's sacrifice was sufficient offering.

Such theological differences sparked as much controversy in their day as questions of sexual ethics do now, said Weiss. "It wasn't just theories. It was 'Are we doing what we need to do to be a community before God and to be saved?' Those criteria are still operative in the reaction to Gene Robinson."

Reliving the evolution of Anglican liturgy has been an eye-opening experience, both for Weiss and, he believes, for his congregants at Emmanuel Church. "We finally 'get' what tradition is. It's not rote repetition of the past. Tradition is ongoing change with an awareness of continuity. We've always had to deal with questions about how to interpret the Bible, how to apply biblical norms, and when a tradition becomes obsolete. Tradition means we face the past and we make choices about it."

David Brittan


David Brittan is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

 

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