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How we came to be the way that we are

St Stephen’s was founded by the Baltimore branch of the Prayer Book Society in 1982. It was a typically dogged Maryland response to an edict by the Episcopal Diocese banning the use of the 1928 edition of the Prayer Book and mandating by fiat the new book of 1979.

The new book was not entirely without merits, but the “mix and match” liturgies devised by the revision committee utterly did away with the notion of “common prayer.”

In fact, the book offers so many liturgical options that services tend to vary wildly from parish to parish. Indeed, congregants of one parish can no longer be sure of recognizing the liturgy used in another.

No less jarring, to many long-time Episcopalians the newly devised liturgies sounded clunky and often a bit hokey. Even worse, revisers had “blue penciled” words and phrases from the “traditional” liturgies, expunging much loved metaphors and destroying the internal rhythms of the prose.

In any event, the liturgical style of St Stephen’s before Charlotte and I arrived was determinedly “Low Church.” Morning Prayer was the standard service on all Sundays of the month except the first, when the Holy Communion was celebrated.

For this service, the celebrant was expected to wear cassock and surplice, with the only concession to Eucharistic vestments being a stole.

I have never been particularly obsessed with the intricacies of ecclesiastical haberdashery, but as a church growth plan, St Stephen’s way of doing things seemed decidedly limiting.

Low Churchmen occupy a small sliver at one end of the liturgical spectrum, while Anglo-Catholics occupy an equally small sliver at the other. However, a vast majority of Anglicans occupy the middle ground—described rather snootily by the groups at either end as “Broad Church.”

(Sometimes it seems that the only thing the Low Churchmen and High Churchmen agree on is their contempt for the Broad Church—prompting a wag to sum things up with the quip: “High and crazy. Low and lazy. Broad and hazy.”)

In any event, for the sole traditionalist parish in Baltimore to cling rigidly to a single form of usage High or Low did not seem to me to be a recipe for success. Surely the Gospel required us to try to minister pastorally to Episcopalians of all liturgical traditions if we were to advance the faith in its classical Anglican understanding in our community?

While Low Churchmen tended to predominate in the early days of St Stephen’s, the membership also included a fair number of Anglo-Catholics and Broad Churchmen. Most were former parishioners of downtown churches such as St Michael and All Angels, Immanuel, Christ Church, and the cathedral, all of whom would have appreciated a more regular celebration of the Eucharist.

Fortunately, St Stephen’s was blessed with a remarkably understanding and charitable vestry. The Low Church majority readily agreed to broadening our liturgical usage in an effort to serve a wider cross-section of the Anglican Community.

Initially we added a Eucharist every Sunday at 8:00 AM, a healing Eucharist, a mid-week and a Bible study. A 9:00 AM/9:15 AM Sunday Eucharist and weekday Eucharists soon followed. Morning Prayer was retained at 11:00 AM on its usual schedule.

(Predictably, rumors started immediately after my arrival that I planned to do away with Morning Prayer. As with most rumors, they had no basis in fact. Truth to tell, after celebrating two Eucharists, Morning Prayer comes as a welcome change of pace. But I have no doubt that, even after 25 years of inaction, the rumors still persist.)

St Stephen’s is unusual among American Anglican parishes in as much as we use the Eucharist and the Offices from the English Prayer Book of 1662, rather that those of the American 1928 Prayer Book.

We made the change in 2004 after Peter Threadgill, the parish liturgist, and I had spent the best part of a year debating the merits of the English Prayer Book of 1662. One reason for the change is that many of the younger visitors to the church had been finding the 1928 liturgy confusing and wordy.

Peter and I had studied some of the modern rites, but had been very much less than impressed. None of them had either the erudition or the felicity of expression of the 1928 Book.

Paradoxically perhaps, the 1662 Prayer Book seems a rather more modern book than the American Book of 1928. The Eucharistic rite is considerably more concise, which makes it better suited to accommodate today’s average attention span—something that appears to contract in direct correlation to the amount of time between television commercials.

There is, moreover, nothing un-American about the Book of 1662. It is the prayer book used by George Washington and many of our founding fathers at the time of the Revolution. It continued in use in many regions of the former colonies even after the adoption of the first American Prayer Book in 1790.

One major difference between the American Prayer Books and the Book of 1662 is the Eucharistic Canon. The American prayer of consecration is modeled on that used by the Episcopal Church of Scotland—a fact that by no means pleased all of the American clergy at its inception, including Bishop William White, first Bishop of Pennsylvania.

The Scottish rite was adopted as part of a deal struck at the consecration of Samuel Seabury, America’s first bishop. Seabury could not to be consecrated in England because he refused to take the required oath of loyalty to the English crown.

Instead, the English bishops sent him to Scotland where the Church was under no such constraint. It had backed the wrong horse—“Bonnie” Prince Charles—in the rebellion of 1746, and as a consequence, was officially proscribed and suppressed.

The Scots agreed to consecrate Seabury on condition that the American Church would adopt the Scottish Eucharistic rite. Beggars could not be choosers, and the deal was struck.

The Book of 1662 was the Prayer Book of my youth. But in the 1960s, the English Church had introduced the Alternative Service Book—a work of people with “cloth ears.” (This is an expression originating in the East End of London, meaning folks who are tone deaf and whose souls are devoid of poetry—ed.)

The British Parliament had refused to permit it to displace the venerable 1662, but, nonetheless, most Anglican churches have embraced it to some degree or another—even the parishes in Europe, which are under the oversight of the Bishop of Gibraltar, an office filled alternately by English and American prelates.

One of the most beautiful of these expatriate parishes is located in Copenhagen, Denmark. It is an architectural jewel established by Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII, who reigned from 1901 to 1910. Alexandra was a Danish princess who converted from Lutheranism upon her marriage to the heir of the English throne.

Another particularly generous benefactor to the parish was Princess Viggo, Countess of Rosenborg (née Eleanor Margaret Green), an American heiress who married a Danish prince.

The princess regularly occupied a front pew at the church from the mid-1920s until her death in 1966.

The Book of 1662 was in use when Charlotte and I worshipped at the Copenhagen church tin the summer of 2004. It was the first time we had heard it in more than two decades and both of us were deeply moved by its eloquence and simplicity. We told Mr. Threadgill about our experience on our return … And the rest, as they say, is history. GPH✠

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