Anglican spirituality is Catholic. By that I mean it’s directly in line with historic Christian faith and practice. It has its own flavor, as every local realization of the global Church does, but it nevertheless matches the same spirituality that you can find in St. Benedict of Nursia in the 500’s or St. Peter the Apostle in the book of Acts. At its most basic level it can be described as a three-fold rule of worship which I have summarized and explained on this blog in the past. The way it realizes that rule is part of special genius of Anglicanism, particularly the way the category of Common Prayer is worked out. Let’s look briefly at these three points.
Anglican Spirituality is Catholic
Catholic spirituality yields three areas of worship: private devotions emphasizing the individual’s relationship with God, Eucharistic worship emphasizing the Church’s relationship with God, and common prayer emphasizing the individual’s relationship within the Church. Thus, the formal liturgy (ordered worship) covers two of these three categories.
This is different from the typical protestant understanding of worship today, which often boils down to two vague categories: private worship and public worship. A huge range of possibilities can come out of that reduction, including some favoring individualized worship and others favoring ordered corporate worship. Thus, some protestants can have a feeling of ‘High Church’ to their worship sometimes, but that is still what I would call ‘liturgical evangelicals,’ not Catholic.
Many Anglicans today, sadly, have that ‘liturgical evangelical’ mindset – they think that Sunday Eucharist is their corporate worship and their private worship is at home during the week. At best, that identifies two of three historic-Catholic-Anglican areas of worship: Eucharistic worship and private devotions. But it still leaves out common prayer.
Anglican Spirituality in a single volume
Part of the genius of Anglicanism is not in its spirituality itself (since that is just plan historic Catholic Christianity), but the way in which it expresses that spirituality. The same pattern of Eucharist-office-private worship exists in Anglicanism as throughout history, but the way it is preserved and transmitted is beautifully simple: everything you need for it is in one book, the Book of Common Prayer. In that single volume can be found everything you need to put together Sunday Eucharist service, the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, and a variety of other occasional and yearly services.
Furthermore, both in the reading of Scripture and the praying of certain prayers (most notably the Sunday Collects), natural links are made between the Eucharistic and the Common Prayer categories of worship. While they remain distinct forms of worship from one another, the overlap and connection between the two is also made apparent. In so doing, it provides a model for how an individual might appropriate elements of Eucharistic or Office worship into one’s own private devotions, and thus have a well-balanced worship life that connects one both to Christ and His Body.
As far as I know, no other Christian tradition has an equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer. The Roman Catholic Church has a four-volume Breviary (that’s just the Daily Office for non-monastics), and I don’t know how many volumes for their Sacramentary (all the pieces needed to perform the Mass). Yes, there are basic versions that summarize and abbreviate those collections of books, but those are just mini-versions, not the official standard. Meanwhile on the other side of the ecclesiastical spectrum, I know that many Lutherans and Presbyterians have a “Common Worship” type of book, but those tend to be suggestions and resources, not rules and standards.
Anglican Common Prayer
Official private devotions are not published in books – that would defeat the definition of them being private devotions. The Anglican Eucharist service is largely developed from the Sarum Missal, which is a Medieval liturgical book combining Roman and Celtic traditions. So while the Anglican Mass does have it’s own flavor, it’s pretty closely related to its ancient counterparts.
It’s to the third category of worship, Common Prayer, that Anglicanism has most contributed. Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are robust encapsulations of the extensive (Benedictine) Monastic offices of daily worship, reduced to bite-sized devotions that every Christian can do. Nobody with a family and a job has time to go through seven daily offices plus a night office, but they can start the day with Morning Prayer, and end the day with Evening Prayer. The basic pattern is simple: Confess sins to God, praise God, pray some Psalms, read some Scriptures, praise God with more Scriptures, recite the Creed, pray the Lord’s Prayer, pray a few more prayers, and close with a blessing. It’s rich on scripture and low on fluff.
Alongside these regular Offices is another oft-neglected worship service called The Litany. True to its name, it is essentially a long prayer list which was to be prayed on Sundays, Wednesday, and Fridays after Morning Prayer. This not only brought individuals deeper into the cycle of the Christian liturgical week, but also drew everyone into the intercessory ministry of the Church.
Between praying all the Psalms every month, reading virtually the entire Bible every year, and praying the Litany three times a week, people were well-equipped to become strong and mature Christians who knew how to pray and understand the Bible. And by doing it in community (that is, at the same time as one another, if not always physically together) their growth and maturation was never isolated, but in tandem with one another, allowing for greater conversation and discussion amongst themselves as well as more pertinent preaching and teaching from the pastors and teachers.
If the real power and beauty of Anglicanism is going to be restored to us in the 21st century, we’re going to have to bring back the Daily Office with a robust lectionary not just as a clergy devotion, but as a common devotion. The Litany, too, is a valuable tool in guiding us not only in what to pray for (thanks to its long length) but also how to pray (from its style and tone and frequency). Without a revival of these spiritual disciplines, Anglicanism will continue to devolve from a Catholic spirituality to a more aimless ‘liturgical evangelicalism.’ And if that happens, there’ll be little reason (or justification) for the descriptor ‘Anglican.’