If ever we think the church today encounters internal tensions over forms and styles of worship, commonly styled “worship wars,” an article in the current issue of Books and Culture, an online subscription magazine from the publishers of Christianity Today, sets matters in perspective. Titled “So Blessed a Liturgy: The Book of Common Prayer,” the piece by Wheaton College Professor Alan Jacobs recounts some of the turmoil that accompanied the stormy transition of the Church of England from Roman Catholic doctrine and practice under King Henry VIII to its early reformation under Henry’s son Edward VI and, after the bloody reign of Henry’s daughter Mary I, later under Elizabeth I.
Controversy focused on the Mass or the Eucharist, for which one’s choice of names could also signify preference of explanation concerning what happened on that occasion. Complex theological distinctions came to a point at the place in the service known as the Elevation of the Host. This occurred when the priest, standing at the stone altar with his back to the congregation, lifted the consecrated bread (called “the Host”) into the air and recited the Latin phrase, Hoc est corpus meum (“this is my body”). At that very moment, Catholic theology held, the miracle of transubstantiation occurred and the physical bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ.
Reform-minded Englishmen became involved, ranging from Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry had appointed (to his own chagrin), and who eventually was burned at the stake by Catholic Queen Mary, to roving mobs that invaded stone churches and destroyed the altars (if no sacrifice occurs, they reasoned, wood tables should replace stone altars). Priests eventually turned to face the congregation of whom they were a part. Latin gave way to English in the service — although taunting commoners corrupted the special Latin phrase, Hoc est corpus meum, into the pseudo-Latin expression “hocus-pocus,” to refer to any supposedly-magical incantation. Not to be outdone, Catholic-minded congregants who thought Protestant-leaning priests did not elevate the bread sufficiently would sometimes call out, “Heave it higher, sir priest!”
At Mary’s death, she was replaced by her half-sister Elizabeth I, under whose reign the Church of England found its lasting identity along the via media, the “middle way” between Roman Catholic forms and Lutheran-style Protestant forms, retaining and combining, in my humbly opinion, the best of both. Asked her theology about “real presence,” Elizabeth is said to have replied in verse: “His was the word that spake it; He took the bread and brake it; and what his word doth make it, that I receive and take it.” In other words, Que sera, sera! All said, one would have to search far and wide to find an equal to the American version of the Communion Service in modern English, as contained in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. With very minor tinkering, I have arranged it for responsive reading, and wholeheartedly recommend it to churches of any or no denomination. You can read, download and copy or Power Point it here.