Book Review – Ever Ancient Ever New – The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation

Being an Anglican priest who loves the liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, who thinks a traditional prayer book service should not only be found in an early Sunday morning service for people aimed over the age of eighty, I was very interested to read the latest work by a fellow Anglican priest from across the pond Winfield Bevins.

He makes some very salient points. For example, Winfield notes one of the weaknesses of the church growth movement:

“The end result of attempts to “woo” the world with the world’s ways has produced a generation of consumers – individuals who in the driver’s seat and dictate what and how the church should meet their needs – rather than radically comitted disciples of Jesus Christ”. chapter 1 – [the New Search for Liturgy – p.29]

He backs this up in chapter 2 (which I thought was his strongest chapter) writing:

Finally, perhaps the most powerful characteristic of liturgy is its participatory element. Many young adults have shared with me how they are tired of a seeker-friendly, consumerist approaches to the faith in which they observe and absorb the work of others. They no longer want to be etertained; they want to participate. Liturgy ensures that each person has the opportunity to participate in the worship of the church, and it keeps us from being passive spectatotrs who simply observe and consume knowledge. (Liturgy is participatory – p.53).

Winfield unpacks and applies this to families in Chapter 10 – Bringing Liturgy Home, (pp.191-192).

“People today tend to focus on “the now” at the expense of the past, and we invest ourselves in what is temporal rather than what is eternal”.

After reading chapter 2 I was saying aloud “yes!”, “so true”.

Bevins made points which I strongly agree with, how liturgy frees us from ourselves:

“Liturgy is formative…it inoculates us from man-centered worship’. (p.50).

Below are some other helpful tidbits:

“liturgical worship can bring a much-needed focal point for a more disciplined spiritual life”.[Chapter 1 – the New Search for Liturgy – p.37]

“Historical liturgy offers us a way to correct our forgetfulness”. [the New Search for Liturgy – p.39]. ” As such, we as a people should not approach God as individuals, but as a family of God”.

In later chapters, Winfield helpfully elucidates the benefits of using liturgy prayers in one’s prayer life and the daily office (i.e. Chapter 8 – Rhythms of Grace -pp.164-167).

A question that his book raised in my mind as I was reading it pertains to Bevins’ claims that many young people, many young adults in the USA are moving to churches that are liturgical. I wonder if Winfield is over-egging the pudding just a wee bit. I have asked other Anglican priests from the States if many young people are in fact moving to churches that are liturgical, some are saying that this is not the case, some do, but not on a huge scale.

I believe that the liturgies of the Anglican Church, namely the Book of Common Prayer are a blessing that cannot be overstated. I love being an Anglican Christian and love our Anglican liturgies. I (like Bevins) am also very wary of consumer entertainment-based church services where members are spectators rather than participants and so to encounter a book written by not only a  brother in Christ, but a fellow Anglican priest who shares the same love of liturgy, I really wanted to love this book. However, Bevins’book seemed to be theologically confusing. On the one hand, he talks about embracing liturgy “in conjunction with good theology” and the necessity of orthodoxy (right doctrine) and yet throughout his book he provides anecdotal examples of where one’s experience was the litmus test to discern whether something (in this case, liturgy) was true, right, brought them to God.  Bevins uses very subjective language. He often uses the words “felt”, ” a sense of”; his term ‘a sense of’.

As I read this book, it became more apparent that Ever Ancient Ever New was not about the merits of Anglican Christianity, or about the blessings of Anglican liturgy and in particular the BCP. It was more about the benefits of being liturgical, and the litmus test of what makes good liturgy is the experience that it engenders in the person using the liturgy, regardless of its source (be it Eastern Orthodox, or Roman Catholic or Anglican). The book lacked theological clarity (which I think was most evident in Chapter 7 – Three Streams, One River). I won’t elucidate my concerns of that in this review as I have already written about the Three Streams in a previous article, sufficed to say that Winfield is a strong proponent of this view and thus, in my opinion, has moved away from Classical Cranmerian Anglicanism and places a dichotomy between Word, Spirit, and Sacrament in its very attempt to try to bring together what Cranmerian Anglicanism had never separated.

What makes liturgy good liturgy is not the experience one has when engages in it, but the Word of God that permeates through it, (which is why the BCP is such good liturgy). But for Bevins, it seems that Scripture (whilst authoritative) it is not the supreme authority.

Australian Anglican priest and former Dean of St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney, the Rev Philip Jensen, writes:

While nearly all Christians uphold the authority of the Scriptures, in reality, there are other authorities which compete with the Bible for supremacy. There are those who regard the teachings of the institution or tradition to which they belong as authoritative for their life. If their church or priest or bishop or pastor (past or present) offers direction for their behaviour or understanding or praxis they will adopt it readily and fall into line. Others wish to be led more by their experience of God. They see their Christian lives in terms of following the movings and promptings of the Spirit. Then there are those who base their understanding of God and what He requires of us on human reason. They will accept and practice whatever can be demonstrated as sensible, rational, and intelligent and discard what they deem to be primitive or irrational. Whilst in the Christian life, the positions that we hold to have a measure of Bible, Experience, Institution, and Reason mixed in, there comes a point where one has to choose between these four competing authorities. What will we do when our experience doesn’t tally with the Scriptures? Or when our reason disagrees with what the Bible says? Or when our practice or tradition does not match with God’s Word? It is at this point that we reveal our true colours. We draw a line and take our stand. 1

Bevins, like all of us, has to choose between these four competing authorities. Judging from his book, Bevins has chosen experience. And this is the book’s greatest weakness and is where it falls down. Cranmer’s goal in putting together the BCP was to point people to Scripture, he did not discount reason, experience or tradition, but for him, these authorities come under the final authority – Holy Scripture. That is the point of authentic Anglican liturgy.

Some years ago a book came out entitled Evangelicals On the Canterbury Trail by the late Robert Webber. Bevins’ book in many ways seems to be a 21st Century version of that book, minus the American Episcopalianism with a strong addition of three streams theology. The result is a theologically confusing book. His quote from Brian Zahnd in his epilogue encapsulates this confusion:

“We need the whole body of Christ to properly form the body of Christ. This much I’m sure of: Orthodox mystery, Catholic beauty, Anglican liturgy, Protestant audacity, Evangelical energy, Charismatic reality – I need it all”

So would I recommend this book? I would have to say that in spite of the strengths of this book (which there are many of which my Subterranean Anglicans could benefit from), I could not recommend this book to anyone other than the Biblically discerning.

Footnote

  1. https://phillipjensen.com/four-ways-to-live/

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