In adopting Resolution A143 (pdf), the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada has made history. The resolution authorized three sets of liturgical texts for trial use for the next three years. The texts in question are seasonal forms of the daily offices, collects for the Revised Common Lectionary and an inclusive language Psalter. These are all available on-line (at the time of writing the web page there still says they “are encouraged for use where permitted by the diocesan bishops.”)
Although liturgists will appreciate these new texts, none of this sounds particularly ground-breaking, but on one very specific point, the resolution certainly was. What made history was the choice of verb in the resolution: “authorize”.
One might be forgiven for a bit of confusion about the significance of this verb. After all, surely the General Synod has the authority to authorize liturgical texts, and periodically does so, so why is this worthy of even a nano-second of thought? The fact is, that although the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada does have the authority to authorize liturgy, it has studiously avoided exercising this authority since it approved the 1962 Book of Common Prayer. Rather, since that time the General Synod has preferred the route of producing liturgical texts and commending them for use, but only under the auspices of the local diocesan bishop, in his or her exercise of the power of jus liturgicum.
Liturgical law in the Anglican Church of Canada is not very developed – a comment that might equally be made in a number of areas of our canon law – so much of the authority over liturgy that is fleshed out and clearly specified in other Anglican provinces is left to some combination of custom and the bishop’s jus liturgicum (which some would argue is also customary). What is clear is that it is a fundamental principle of Anglicanism that in public worship clergy are permitted to use only texts that have been approved by “lawful authority.” We find this stated in so many words in The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion – Principle 56 (2008: Anglican Consultative Council.) The principle is given force in the Oaths and Subscriptions taken by clergy at the time of their licensing. Thus, for example, clergy in the Ecclesiastical Province of Rupert’s Land are required to swear that “in Public Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, I will use the form in the [Book of Common Prayer] and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority.” (Canon VI)
The General Synod’s Declaration of Principles sets out the distribution of “lawful authority” in a variety of provisions, some explicit and some implicit. Section 6(j) gives the General Synod jurisdiction over “the revision, adaptation and publication of a Book of Common Prayer and a Hymnal for the Church.” Section 7(b)(viii) gives authority to the Provincial Synods to authorize “special forms of prayers, services, and ceremonies for use within the province, for which no provisions have been made under the authority of the General Synod or the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada.” Implicitly, then, both the General Synod and the national House of Bishops must have authority to authorize liturgy beyond the Book of Common Prayer.
Finally, section 9(a) of the Declaration of Principles specifies that “nothing contained in sections 6, 7 and 8 shall limit or affect the powers, jurisdiction and authority inherent in the office of bishop, or exercised collectively by the bishops of the Church sitting as the House of Bishops of any province or of The Anglican Church of Canada.” The power to authorize liturgy locally in a diocese – a central part of jus liturgicum – is understood to be one of those “powers … inherent in the office of bishop” and this provision suggests that it could be exercised collectively by one of the five Houses of Bishops (four provincial and one national).
But if the General Synod has authority to authorize liturgy, it has studiously avoided using it, even when given the opportunity. During the 1970’s – a period of intense activity on liturgical reform across the Anglican Communion – Canadian Anglicans developed a number of rites for trial use. In 1975, General Synod considered a motion “that the Holy Eucharist, An Alternative Canadian Use ... be approved as an alternative form to the Book of Common Prayer service.” After amending the motion to include similar rites from the Episcopal Church and the Church of England, the General Synod then amended the motion to change the word “approved” to “commended”. The concern seems to have been that the General Synod wanted to leave the actual authorization of trial liturgy to the local diocesan bishop. Perhaps someone present remembered Resolution 45 of the 1897 Lambeth Conference, which “recognise[d] the exclusive right of each bishop to put forth or sanction additional services for use within his jurisdiction, subject to such limitations as may be imposed by the provincial or other lawful authority.” Even so, the Resolution certainly doesn’t say that the General Synod can’t exercise its own authority (and even if it did, being a Lambeth Resolution it has no authority over any General Synod anyway.)
Similarly, when it came time to collect experimental liturgical texts into a Book of Alternative Services (1985), the General Synod chose not to authorize the book but again simply to commend it for use where authorized by the Ordinary. (It says as much in the Introduction). This is in stark contrast to other Provinces, including the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Australia, the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, and the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, Polynesia and New Zealand – to name a few – that all published alternative prayer books and authorized them in parallel to the Book of Common Prayer.
Since the Book of Alternative Services was published, other supplemental and trial use rites have also been developed, including three supplemental Eucharistic prayers, orders for Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline, and a Book of Occasional Celebrations, all of which have been subject to the authorization of the local Ordinary.
But now, with Resolution A143, General Synod has finally chosen to authorize new liturgical texts, albeit only for a three-year period. Historians take note.
I have a dream that one day the General Synod will codify its liturgical law to clarify the various powers over liturgy rather than depending on someone’s memory of custom. That project may never come to fruition, but at least while we wait General Synod has finally chosen to exercise its authority.