An Unfortunate Book (1917)

Russian Observations upon the American Prayer Book. Translated by Wilfrid J. Barnes and edited with notes by Walter Howard Frere. Alcuin Club Tracts, XII. London: A.R. Mowbray and Co., 1917.

THIS book gives the report of a committee of Russian theologians, published in 1904, to whom, through the Holy Synod, the American Prayer Book had been submitted by Archbishop Tikhon with the question: “If an entire parish, with its ministers, should simultaneously leave Anglicanism to join the Orthodox Church in America, then would it be possible to authorize the ‘Common Prayer Book’ for their liturgical use?”

A question based on a truly remarkable supposition! Had the situation been real and not fictitious, it is hardly likely that it would have been heard of for the first time from the publication of a translation of the report thirteen years after its preparation. It requires no great exercise of Higher Criticism to discern in this report some connection with the case of the Rev. Ingram N. W. Irvine. Dr. Irvine was deported from the ministry in 1900 by the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania. There were serious irregularities of procedure in the case, for which there was no remedy, though attempts were made to put Bishop Talbot on trial for his share in the proceedings. The 1905 Dr. Irvine was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in New York by Archbishop Tikhon, at that time the representative of the Russian Church in this country, and shortly after he was preordained in spite of protests and remonstrances from our Presiding Bishop and others. The course adopted by the Russina authorities gave grave offense to American Churchmen. As the Presiding Bishop wrote to the Holy Governing Synod: “The public setting at naught both of our discipline and of our orders cannot but have an injurious effect upon the relations of the Holy Orthodox Church with our American Church, and, it is not unreasonable to think, with the whole Anglican communion.” It is unfortunate that the sore feeling which these proceedings caused should be revived just at this time.

It would have seemed natural for our English brethren to ask some questions of American Churchmen before publishing these criticisms on their Prayer Book—professing to have such an extraordinary origin.

The date of the Observations, as well as the character of several of the criticisms, raises the very probably suspicion that the reference of the matter to the committee was not made in a wholly impartial spirit. Dr. Irvine had undoubtedly much to complain of in his treatment in the Episcopal Church. This may well have colored his later views of the Prayer Book, according to which he had ministered for over twenty-five years; and these views he not unnaturally may have suggested directly or indirectly to those to whom the examination of the Prayer Book was referred in connection with the wild hope of gaining many converts, even whole congregations, from the Episcopal to the Orthodox Church.

It may be worth while noting that while Dr. Irvine had strenuously contended for the indelibility of orders, which in his mind rendered his deposition in truth invalid and an impertinence; Archbishop Tikhon, on the other hand, defended his action on the ground that the Russian Church did not hold to the Western doctrine of the indelibility of orders, and that, as Dr. Irvine had been deposed by his Bishop, the fresh ordination cast no discredit upon Anglican orders.

Leaving the suspicious origin of the book and coming to its contents, the criticisms are of varying weight and force. It was of course easy, especially for those who had escaped the controversies of the Reformation period, to put the finger on hesitating utterances of the Prayer Book, which were intended o be cautious and not to exclude any who were willing to accept a conciliatory formula. Such a criticism as that the phrase, “this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” is not to be understood in the traditional Eucharistic sense, because the phrase “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” is (perhaps unhappily) used without special reference to the Eucharist in a collect of thanksgiving among the Forms of Prayer to be used at Sea, seems captious, and hardly likely to have been made without suggestion by one very familiar with the contents of the Prayer Book. This is only one of several pretty evident instances of promptings to the committee from a Low Church view of the Prayer Book.

The objection that the priestly ministry is described as the ministry of the Word and Sacraments, “putting the word in the first rank in preference to all other functions,” would certainly not be made by any who had New Testament standards in mind. According to general belief, the ministry of the Word might with much advantage be given a more prominent place in practice than it occupies in the Russian Church.

To argue that the omission of exorcism from the baptismal rite implies the “dogmatic view that the children of Christian parents are, as such already in union with God, so that the baptism is only a manifestation of what grace had previously determined,” is in flat contradiction with the baptismal service itself. Such an implication can hardly escape the condemnation of perversity.

Meagre as may be our commendations of the departed, it is passing severe and rash to say that because there are not invocations of the saints, or explicit prayers for the departed, there is an “absence from the Anglican service of any confession of faith in a living and real bond existing between the earthly and heavenly parts of the church.” Were the first generations of Christians in like evil condition?

Dr. Frere has appended some helpful footnotes correcting mistakes (some of which he characterizes as “apparently deliberate”) in the Observations. Notwithstanding these notes we cannot think the publication to have been well advised, and we doubt if the Alcuin Club with fuller knowledge of the shady and fictitious origin of the book would have undertaken it.

Doubtless it is well that we should see ourselves as others see us, and in considering questions of Revision and Reunion it is important to remember that criticisms and objections have to be weighed that proceed not from one side only.

So far as Reunion is concerned, the book is of little value, since its Observations are not concerned with what might be required or allowed for intercommunion between the Anglican and the Orthodox Churches; but with what must be required in the supposititious case of an Episcopal congregation submitting to the Orthodox Church and asking to be allowed to retain the use of its old Prayer Book. The whole book is vitiated by the unreality of the conditions with which it professes to deal.

A.C.A. Hall, The Living Church, December 29, 1917, p. 298.

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