Peter Smith challenges some aspects of contemporary worship and commends Cranmer’s way of encouraging the faithful.

The Anglican Church of Australia has undergone a profound liturgical revolution since the turbulent days of the 1960s.1 Whole dioceses and local churches right across Australia have been working towards more meaningful forms of corporate worship. For most, the innovations are driven by a desire to make the experience of church more engaging.2

Sadly, much of what passes for vitalAnglican worship today would be described by our Reformed Anglican forebears as Arian or Pelagian. Rather than helping people to feel good, the effect of many of the new service forms undermines Christian assurance. What is more disturbing is that churches once proud of their Anglican heritage have swept away the Reformed Angli­can liturgical heritage. A style of worship that reflects the doctrines of the medieval church period is flourishing today, including dioceses that pride themselves as orthodox.3


This is what passes for Reformed worship in some contemporary Anglican churches today: The believer comes into the gath­ering ready for a worship time. After a vibrant time of singing the notices are given, then the children and young teens leave the gathering for their time of teaching in a nearby hall or room. A short passage of the Bible (usually from the New Testament) is read and the preaching follows. During the sermon the congregation is exhorted to live the Christian life. Bread and wine may then be consumed as an act of remembering the death of Christ. A part of being devoted to God also means giving money—so the offertory bag is passed around during a ‘worship’ song. Finally, having fulfilled her duty to God, the believer goes out into the wider world where her worship continues as an offering of service to him. The great emphasis is on what we do in order to worship Christ.

The Roman Catholic Mass of the sixteenth century expressed a similar human-centred approach to engaging with God. By the human (priestly) act of re‑offering Christ (bloodlessly by the breaking of bread and wine) the medieval church believed she could procure merit and thus open the way to communion with God.4 Holding up the host and making the daily re‑offer­ing of Christ was intended to stir up emotion and create by human activity a contrite heart. This was done in preparation for a fresh infusion of grace. Regular ‘top-ups’ were designed to give sinners greater assurance.

In the medieval church the agents of worship were the priest and the elements of bread and wine re-offered by him day in and day out. The act of worship for a lay person involved coming to the church and adoring Christ under forms of bread and wine in the Roman Mass. In the words of the Catholic Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, Cranmer’s theological opponent:

The Catholic doctrine teacheth not the daily sacrifice of Christ’s most precious body and blood to be an iteration of the once perfected sacrifice on the cross, but a sacrifice that representeth that sacrifice, and sheweth it also before the faithful eyes, and refresheth the effectual memory of it; so as in the daily sacrifice, without shedding of blood, we may see with the eye of faith the very body and blood of Christ by God’s mighty power, without division distinctly exhibit.

Whilst the form of many modern services is very different, the means of approaching God expresses a similar intention as the pre-Reformation rite: to get into a mood or state of feeling so God’s grace might be experienced again. Cranmer came to recognise that the priestly act of offering the bread and wine and the act of adoring bread and wine were human acts that denied the work of Christ and undermined Christian assurance.

Cranmer learnt (through Christ and St Paul) that all human actions were hopelessly inadequate for procuring any kind of merit before God; ‘because all men be sinners and offenders against God…no man by his own acts, works, and deeds can be justified and made righteous before God.’5 He saw as clearly as Luther and Augustine, who both learnt from St Paul, that ‘every man of necessity is constrained to seek for another righteousness.’6 Cranmer could say, ‘We be justified by faith in Christ only.’7

For Cranmer, any kind of ‘offering’ prior to receiving the bread and wine was a blasphemy. The traditional rites had obscured Christ as the only agent of worship. With crystal clarity Cranmer set out to redesign a prayer book (1549, 1552) that reflected the nature of true worship. To be sure, Cranmer believed that there were appropriate responses to be made—but they were always based on the finished work of Christ. Thanksgiving is one such sacrifice. The offering of oneself to God wholly in life is another. Cranmer recognised that such sacrifices were not limited to the Lord’s Supper but that worship was the ongoing activity in the whole of life.


One constant in the history of communion with God is the desire to ‘feel good’ about oneself before God. Whether it be heart­felt songs, listening to engaging sermons, praying to God, or partaking of the sacrament, all human acts done in order to approach God come to nothing. They lie about the means of entering into fellowship with the Trinitarian God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When they are made the basis of worship, assurance is undermined and the gospel of grace is denied.

Cranmer’s liturgical genius was to demonstrate that God is approached through union with Christ—a union completely initiated and sustained by him. Cranmer’s prayer book services (and especially the very small changes he made to the 1549 Prayer Book) have been substantially retained in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The BCP remains the standard of life and doctrine for the Australian Anglican Church. It guards against false worship and promotes heartfelt and extended praise in a way that a human-centred approach will never do.

Planning for contemporary church services (services of praise, prayer, Holy Communion) that capture the nature of true worship is no mean feat. It makes me wonder why we don’t return to the words and prayers of Cranmer’s liturgies in updated prose and revive the hymns (in modern form) that celebrate the cross and the finished work of Christ. People will have solid ground on which to stand before God in the bliss of fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit. There will be a deep gladness and real feelings of assurance.

In order to promote God’s glory by declaring the gospel of grace, we are required to make our services cross focused—not fixed on the ‘do’ of human activity. For the glory of God our services must be an expression of the finished work of Christ, lest we express Pelagian or Arminian worship—which is no worship at all. It is not enough to assume that our congregations know the gospel and the nature of the gospel response. Church history tells us that the default position for all humans is self effort. We do well to keep learning from Cranmer and use the structure and words (albeit updated) of his well thought out liturgies.

Peter Smith is Rector of St Lawrence’s Dalkeith in Perth and the Chair of EFAC WA


1  Charles Sherlock, ‘A Prayer Book for Australia (APBA)’ in The Oxford Com­pan­iontotheBookofCommonPrayer (Oxford University Press, 2006), 324–332.

2  In this article our focus is on the subset of worship that is the gathering of God’s people. Worship encompasses all of life which includes especially the gath­er­ing of God’s people who come together for worship. James Torrance says that ‘When we, who know that we are God’s creatures, worship God together, we gather up the worship of all creation. Our chief end is to glorify God, and creation realizes its own creaturely glory in glorifying God through human lips’ (Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace [IVP, 1996], 13).

3  See the confessions of the Experimental Sydney Services, the legion of An­glican prayer books that have their roots in the 1928 Prayer Book, the APBA Second Order and Third Order Holy Communion services that were approved by the General Synod of Australia in 1997, the standard Anglican fare on offer at Sunday evening church gatherings, and that at charismatic, pentecostal churches and independent churches. Broad generalisations, yes, but experienced by the author over the past year in a variety of contexts.

4  John Rodgers, ‘Eucharistic Sacrifice: Blessing or Blasphemy?’, Churchman 78/4 (1964), 248.

5  Thomas Cranmer, ‘The Homily of Salvation’, Writings and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer (Cambridge University Press, 1844), 128.

6  Cranmer, ‘Homily of Salvation’, 128–134.

7  Cranmer, ‘Homily of Salvation’, 132.