David Frost is the head of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge. He is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a former Fellow in English at St John’s College, Cambridge.
While an Anglican, he was heavily involved in the development of the modern Anglican liturgies, including the 1980 Alternative Service Book. He eventually ‘came over’ to Orthodoxy.
Frost recently gave a lecture at ‘An Ecumenical Symposium to Celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the 1662 Prayer Book’, on ‘The Influence of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer on the Orthodox’. But his views are highly relevant to the Catholic Church, especially given the new Ordinariate liturgy. The talk can be read here. Or, you can listen to Frost reading a slightly expanded version, in a sonorous voice, on Ancient Faith Radio, here.
By way of background: in search of a de-nationalised ‘Western Rite’ Orthodox liturgy, some Orthodox drew heavily on the 1892 American Book of Common Prayer, importing not just its style of language but also almost all of the ‘classic’ texts of the 1662 Anglican liturgy, including the Prayer of Humble access, the General Confession, the Comfortable Words, etc. Versions of this – some incorporating ‘Tridentine’ elements such as the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel – came into use, especially in Antiochian Orthodox communities in the USA. A quick internet search (try “Liturgy of St Tikhon”) will yield many examples – here is just one.
Frost’s argument – his view is shared by a number of prominent English-speaking Orthodox, including Metropolitan Kallistos – is that use of the Prayer Book texts in Orthodox liturgies was a major mistake. The 1662 language, says Frost, has led to a liturgy that is ‘a halfway house for those not yet ready to be Orthodox’.
The essay unpacks this claim. The Book of Common Prayer liturgy, in Frosts’s view, is theologically corrupt; it has an unbalanced and juridical view of sin and guilt, and it was heavily motivated by terror of ‘the uneducated, uncivilised mob’. It understates what Frost calls ‘the mighty acts of God’, especially the resurrection. It was, he says, unduly influenced by Calvinism.
He doesn’t pull any punches in his condemnation of Cranmer’s work – for example, in describing the General Confession (‘we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time, most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.’), he writes
A side of me still thrills to that. Brought up in a guilt-culture, I still want to binge on self-abasement, followed by the ‘high’ of unmerited, almost magical release. But long before I became Orthodox, I began to have doubts, especially in an Anglican parish that encouraged frequent communion. How could the sacrifice of Christ be failing to create that serving and pleasing of God in ‘newness of life’ for which I pleaded each Sunday? Why did I have to come back week after week, making the same old complaints of bad memories and intolerable burdens? When would I, ‘reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord’, be ‘transformed’ (as St Paul said happened to all Christians) ‘into the same image from glory to glory’ (2 Corinthians 3:18 in the Revised Version)?
It is not only the content of the texts that Frost attacks. He also criticises what he calls ‘sub-Cranmerian English’.
Despite being a lover of Renaissance literature, I have argued throughout my working-life that to create a special language for religion akin to ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit is the characteristic of cults — and the Christian faith should not be turned into a cult. It is contrary to the practice of the Apostles, for the gospel was communicated in the Greek koine, an international trading language whose counterpart today might be internet computer English.
To have a substantially different language for worship would seem to contradict the basic message of divine incarnation. When at Christ’s crucifixion the veil of the Temple was rent in two, the barrier between sacred and profane was shattered. It is all too easy to erect that barrier once again, and the barrier goes up imperceptibly as language grows old-fashioned and unfamiliar.
The greatest danger presented by imitation of Cranmerian English among the modern western Orthodox is that it may become yet another hierarchic, archaic language for worship that can protect and insulate one from its content, just as much as colourful ceremony and fine chanting.
The relevance of Frost’s lecture for Catholicism is slightly complex. After all, we are not Orthodox. Some of the texts that he attacks appear in the older Latin missal. Some of the texts that he cites as missing are also missing in the Tridentine Mass – the explicit epiclesis, for instance.
Nonetheless, I think he makes many good points. It is not at all clear that Thomas Cranmer’s heavily Calvinistic theology should be ‘cut and pasted’ into a post-conciliar Catholic Mass. His critique of ‘sub-Cranmerian English’ rings true to me. Even setting Catholic and Orthodox differences aside, I found his lecture a damning criticism of the new Ordinariate liturgy.
The whole piece is well worth reading, or listening to.