The Growing Influence of the Anglican Tradition in Reformed Worship

Jonathan W. Williams writes,

By “Anglican Tradition” I have in mind a number of elements that include but are not limited to the following: use of language from The Book of Common Prayer in the worship liturgy; corporate confessions of sin/declarations of pardon/absolution; weekly Communion; kneeling for corporate prayer; beautifully adorned sanctuaries (even if some spaces out of necessity used for worship were not intended for this purpose); marking time with the ecclesiastical calendar.

I agree with Williams, he has correctly identified a trend. In some places weekly drama has been replaced by weekly communion. More significantly, he’s correct to identify Martin Bucer as one of the sources and he implicitly recognizes that there are two competing principles by which worship is governed, the normative (we do what is not forbidden) and the regulative (we may do only what is commanded).

I would dissent, however, from his claim that corporate confession of sin and a ministerial declaration is “Anglican.” Calvin practiced this in Strasbourg and the Reformed practiced it in Heidelberg. These were not Anglican/Episcopal churches nor did they operate on the normative principle. Kneeling is not distinctly Anglican nor is it the result of the normative principle. In general the Reformed have regarded posture as morally indifferent (adiaphora). Likewise, weekly communion is hardly an exclusively Anglican practice. Again, Calvin sought (and failed to get) weekly communion in Geneva and Calvin was no Anglican. Nevertheless, Williams’ observations are worth considering. He thinks that the Anglican inroads into Reformed worship are a good thing. I think we should dissent but we should pay attention.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Exactly right! The Church of England, and thus Cranmer, was influenced by Strasbourg. I emphasize this on my blog. Public confession of sin and absolution was already a reformed, liturgical practice before 1549. Cranmer brought Bucer to England in order to teach proper reformed doctrine and practice, due to his high esteem of this Strasbourg man.

    • Hi Jack,

      Bucer is worthy of respect but he didn’t set the agenda for Reformed worship. He’s gotten a lot more attention in the modern period re worship than he did in the 16th or 17th centuries. The Reformed built on Calvin. The French, Dutch, German, and English all followed a different principle. I have a lot of personal affection for the BCP– the confession of sin is unparalleled in English and the prayer for illumination in 2nd Sunday in Advent is brilliant — but I wish the Reformed/Presbyterian churches would recover their own confession rather than turning to Canterbury, as it were. That’s better than turning to Cane Ridge, or Azusa, however!

  2. I’m with you, Scott. Bucer wasn’t the end-all. Rather, Cranmer was looking for help, via Bucer and Vermigli. Those two men were influenced the English reformation, but did not define Reformed worship. Indeed, the Reformed built on Calvin, whom Cranmer had hoped would visit England in order to help establish a unified reformed religion. History had other plans.

    • Hi John,

      The question isn’t whether there are Anglicans who still believe historic Reformed doctrine (e.g., on soteriology) as confessed in the Anglican Articles or taught in the Anglican catechism but the influence the Anglican principle of worship is having on that tradition which confesses a rather different principle of worship. The point is that the adoption of historic Anglican practice manifests the change in the operating principle by which worship is governed. NAPARC churches are trading in HC 96 and WCF 21 for the principle that “we may do in worship what is not forbidden.” The good news is that what has been the reality for some time is become more obvious (Van Til called this “epistemological self consciousness”), the bad news is that few people seem either to understand what it means or to be concerned about it.

    • There was never a rigid appropriation of Calvin’s doctrine. Luther’s theology had equal influence at the time the 39 Articles were written. And very quickly a re-appreciation of the early Fathers appeared. And thus, Anglican theology has always had breadth and nuance as its hermeneutic of scripture, reason, and tradition suggests.

  3. As one who struggles with the problem of being both Protestant and catholic, I have a great appreciation for the Book of Common Prayer. I have worship among Anglicans and find very little within the traditional Anglican liturgy that would violate the regulative principle and more than a “normal” OPC or PCA liturgy (I will exempt the RPCNA because from the RP perspective talk of the regulative principle while using instruments are singing hymns is absurd).

    The advantage of the Anglican liturgy over the OPC/PCA white-bread liturgies is that it provides a corrective to the kind of liberalizing deconstruction that plagues Protestants. I know, the Church of England went liberal so my arguments here are not fully worked out and are tentative. However, part of the problem that Protestants face is that we reject forms, traditions, and ancient use. While I agree that ancient forms and uses should be rejected where they are unbiblical, where they are consistent they help break our solo scriptura, me-and-my-bible individualism.

    I think we need to pay more attention to Bucer, Bullinger, and those Reformed theologians who sought to defend our catholic faith.

    • Hi Bill,

      Good to hear from you. I agree that, increasingly, the gap between most NAPARC churches and the Anglican tradition is shrinking. That’s why I linked this post, because it observes the same thing. Where we disagree is whether this shrinking gap is a good thing.

      From an aesthetic perspective, I have a lot of affection for the 1662 BCP–of course those services are very hard to find! I never found one in the UK and I’ve never seen one in the States, though I’ve not looked for many years.

      I don’t think it’s quite right to say that we Protestants reject forms, traditions, and ancient use. The Reformed criticized those practices that aren’t grounded in Scripture but Calvin et al were clear that they were recovering patristic practice. Antiquity wasn’t THE determining factor but it was a consideration. The Reformed have been divided about forms, as I’m sure you know. The main question has been whether they may be imposed.

      The Heidelberg (1563 and ’67) and Genevan church orders had forms. Calvin’s forms have been in English for some time. This is why I keep saying that evangelicals who, as you note, are tired of biblicism and individualism, should visit Geneva or Heidelberg before they precipitously move to Canterbury or Rome or Constantinople. I really believe that the historic, pre-modern, Reformed theology, piety, and practice offers antidotes to what ails us.

  4. Actually, there are two separate types of Presbyterians looking at Anglicanism these days. The first is represented by Keller, who is well known for admiring ACNA’s “three-streams” pursuit of broad evangelicalism. For this group, the well defined Reformed theology of the Cranmer’s BCP is actually a problem. The second group is drawn to Anglicanism for the opposite reason; that by using Cranmer’s BCP, regulated worship (ironically) is reintroduced to the Reformed community and drives away legions of un-Reformed dogma and practice.

  5. In the discussion of Reformed vs. Anglican, one of the issues that is overlooked in the discussion of the regulative vs. normative principle is the continuity between the testaments. The issue of course is settled in an appeal to Scripture, but when we appeal to Scripture we immediately encounter hermeneutical matters and that involves the matter of continuity. For sure it is not just a matter of liturgical prayers and absolution, as both, as Dr. Clark noted, are a part of the Reformed tradition. But in the high Anglican service, what about incense, vestments, processions, etc. These practices can be found in Israel, and in the book of Revelation. But this is both a hermeneutical concern. And as Michael Horton has noted, based on the book by Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics, there is much in the evangelical and sadly, in the Reformed tradition, that owes its practice to a form of Gnosticism, rather than Scripture. And of course the Lutherans have a perspective as well. Glad the Heidelblog is back and look forward to the discussions.

    • Raymond,

      I’m not as enthused about Lee’s argument as Mike. I don’t think confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice is Gnostic at all. I think it’s creation-affirming. The regular (even weekly) use of the ordinary means of grace is the antithesis of the Gnostic impulse of most of contemporary evangelicalism which, I agree, has been subject Gnosticizing influences. I would also appeal to the high view of the visible church present in the confessional Reformed tradition. The emphasis upon and the importance of the visible church in confessional Reformed TPP also answers Lee’s critique. Finally, I would point to the Barthians as sort of Gnosticising force in contemporary mainline Reformed TPP. The Barthian doctrine of Scripture and revelation strikes me as totally Gnostic.

  6. To Raymond

    The high Anglican service including incense, vestments, processions etc is NOT the original reformed Anglican tradition to which most of the others here are referring but a later degradation of the same.

    • Thanks for this Tim. This is a good point, although there was a heated argument over vestments early in the 16th century, which raised the question of Christian liberty in an acute way for those who were being required to wear vestments, so the impulse began before the 17th century.

    • And early Reformed churches used no instruments or hymns apart from the Psalms. Should we consider the current absence of these principles as a degrading the Reformed tradition?

  7. I sympathize with liturgical forms and written prayers thanks mostly to Darryl Hart lectures, and with weekly communion from what I understand of Nevin’s sacramentology. But I find it hard to take historical assertions by CRECers about Reformed faith and practice seriously. (when did they start writing for The Aquila Report?)

    At the risk of being petty, I would rather worship in the most evangelical of P&R churches than in a liturgy justified by a Federal Visionist’s understanding of covenant renewal.

  8. It is interesting to note the old reformed liturical worship I wanted to be part of is not very much welcomed in my own former reformed evangelical presbyterian tradition. We now settle at an anglican church that has a bcp service, with good bible reading sessions, weekly reading of psalm, public confession and declaration of pardon, accompanied by expository preaching, and weekly communion with wine. The anglican tradition has its own quirkiness but we are encouraged weekly.

  9. Rather than the BCP we would do well to look at Knox’s “Book of Common Order” – form and freedom perfectly united. We could, howver, benefit from a modernisation of some of the language. I shared Knox’s prayer of confession recently with our biblestudy group and we were suitably impressed, enriched and hubled

  10. Good stuff.

    If people could see Reformed worship in practice in their local Reformed churches I don’t think they would go Anglican/Papist/Eastern.

    That’s a bif IF for as you can tell, the Reformed are more concerned about following and practicing different traditions than their own.

Comments are closed.