top of page

Liturgical Traditions

So far, we have concentrated on the origins and development of the Catholic Revival in Anglicanism in the nineteenth century. But now it is time to examine the several distinct styles of Anglo-Catholic worship, church decoration, and spirituality that have emerged in the past century or so.

Prayer Book Catholicism

One approach to being Anglo-Catholic was the cultivation of an "Olde English" style of worship. In the early days, Anglo-Catholics were widely suspected of disloyalty to Anglican principles. So, some sought to demonstrate that Catholic worship was entirely compatible with loyal conformity to the Book of Common Prayer.

Prayer Book Catholics set about researching and reconstructing late medieval English (or "Sarum") ceremonial, vestments, and church decoration. A typical Sarum Rite parish might have an altar with a cross and two candlesticks, framed by a cloth dossal and two side curtains. Services would follow the Prayer Book strictly, with congregational singing of English plainsong Mass settings. The clergy would wear full-cut gothic vestments or long, flowing surplices.

The Missal Tradition

Not all Anglo-Catholics were happy to go this route. In the early twentieth century, the Prayer Book Catholics were trying to achieve a uniquely English look, totally distinct from the florid Roman Catholicism of the era. But it was also a time when many Catholic-minded Anglicans were tempted to "swim the Tiber" to Rome. So, for sound pastoral reasons, many clergy wanted to show that everything the Roman Church had to offer could also be found within Anglicanism.

In place of neo-gothic, adherents of this approach went in for baroque and rococo altars and church furnishings. Clergy used The Anglican Missal instead of the Book of Common Prayer, and wore Roman-style vestments such as "fiddleback" chasubles, birettas, and short cottas richly trimmed with lace. Church services incorporated popular Roman devotions like the Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.

Liturgical Renewal


From the 1930s on, a third approach, known initially as the Parish Communion Movement, then as the Liturgical Movement, started to gain influence. This school sought to reach back beyond both Prayer Book and Missal to recover the liturgical ethos and practices of early Christianity.

Arguing that much Anglo-Catholicism had reduced the congregation to the role of passive spectators, advocates of the Parish Communion sought to increase lay participation in worship. They advocated such reforms as celebration facing the people, congregational (as opposed to choral) singing of the Mass, the simplification of ceremonial, and the revision of liturgies to bring them more into line with ancient Christian patterns.

In the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Prayer Book fulfilled many of the goals of the Liturgical Movement (as did the reforms of 1969 in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II). Many Anglo-Catholics welcomed the 1979 book as containing elements they had long sought, such as prayers for the dead, and a form for sacramental confession. But others viewed the new Prayer Book with suspicion, and lamented what seemed to them a loss of dignity and beauty in the language of worship.

Future Directions

By the 1990s, some who had earlier embraced and promoted liturgical renewal began to have second thoughts. A number of thoughtful critics observed that many of the new ways have tended to focus the congregation’s attention on itself, thus making the liturgy more a human-centered "celebration of community" than a God-directed offering of worship. Perhaps the task for the future, then, is to cultivate a style of Anglo-Catholic liturgy that preserves the undisputed gains of liturgical renewal while also recovering something of that sense of awe and wonder at God’s majesty so much more evident in the earlier traditions.

Return to Previous Page

bottom of page