CDSP M.Div. Student Martin Elfert writes on “Godly and Decent Order”

A third-year student in the MDiv program, Martin Elfert comes to CDSP from the Diocese of New Westminster (Vancouver, BC). Martin and his family are enjoying living, studying, and worshiping within the Episcopal Church.

Godly and Decent Order: Compromise in Theory and in Praxis, as Modeled in the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Martin Elfert

The celebration of compromise in the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer stands in tension to the history surrounding the its publication. The Preface is a love letter to the Via Media, repeatedly congratulating the Savoy Conference, called to amend the BCP, for rejecting partisan extremes. History tells us, however, that that compromise played little actual part in the Conference: it all but entirely sided with royalist bishops against reform-minded Presbyterians, thereby setting the stage for the latter to leave the Church of England. The task of “spinning” this inconsistency between theory and praxis in meeting conflict fell to the authors of the Preface. The authors did so by implying the existence of a third voice in the argument, repeatedly contrasting the demands a nameless this party versus an similarly anonymous that party, both of whom were extreme and unreasonable. Wisely, the Preface tells us, the Savoy Conference avoided the extremes, thus preserving that most Anglican of things: “Godly and Decent Order.”

Were the authors of the Preface disingenuous in their motivations, seeking to misrepresent themselves as fairer than they actually were? Or is this document an example of what psychology would dub cognitive dissonance? My guess is that the latter comes closest to the truth. The Preface reads like a document written by individuals with a deep need to understand themselves, their government, and their church as fair and reasonable. The notion that these individuals were party to an essentially partisan document was antithetical to their self-understanding. Thus the primary goal of the Preface is to make it clear just how balanced and sensible the new BCP is. To synopsise the Preface’s argument, the nature of the BCP is such that anyone who studies it seriously cannot help but conclude that it is a reasonable document. Perhaps this is true: one could argue that no concessions would have been adequate to prevent the Presbyterian departure from the Church of England and, therefore, that the near wholesale rejection of their demands was wise. What one cannot defensibly argue, however, is that the authors’ theory of compromise translated into praxis in the BCP.

The Preface has many echoes in contemporary Anglicanism. Our communion’s tired conversation about sexuality, for instance, is overwhelmingly comprised of consecutive monologues disguised as debate. While these monologues are generally less eloquent that the words found in the 1662 BCP, they are very much its descendents. Most of us, regardless of the position that we take on this question, share one characteristic: we believe that the case we have outlined is, above all, reasonable and balanced. There is, therefore, no way that anyone who honestly and faithfully examines it could conclude otherwise. This claim made, the accusation that follows it is all but inevitable: we have compromised, we have listened, but you neither compromise nor listen. (Were much the same words of hurt and anger spoken at the Savoy Conference?) We insist that we walk a middle way between two poles, judiciously avoiding the extremes, holding forth a way to unity. Our argument is half right: there really are two extremes, a this party and a that. But when we reduce the people with whom we disagree to caricatures, railing against their impetuous assaults on our middle way, we soon find that they are far from us, marooned on their personal extreme. In the midst of our communion’s perennial argument, then, let us allow ourselves a moment of honesty: let us stop our frantic entreaties for compromise, for reasonableness, and for the Via Media long enough to look at our surroundings. Should we do so, we might just come to the same startling and uncomfortable conclusion that, deep inside, the authors of the BCP must have reached. We might just realise that the party standing at the opposite extreme to our theological opponents is none other than ourselves.

Explore posts in the same categories: Lived Theology, R Student Post, Uncategorized

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