The arrival of Christianity to the British Isles is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Tradition tells us that St. Aristobulus (one of the “Seventy” mentioned in the Gospel of Luke and brother to the Apostle Barnabas) brought Christianity to Britannia in the first century, and died as her first bishop in AD 90. The earliest written reference we have is from Tertullian (AD 208), and he says that "all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons, [are] inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ.” Three British bishops were present at the Council of Arles in AD 314, which was convened by Constantine to settle (and ultimately condemn as heresy) the issue of Donatism. In the middle of the next century, St. Hilary of Poitiers (AD 358) describes the British Church as “having continued uncontaminated and uninjured by any contact with the detestable heresy [of Arianism].” St. Athanasius, writing in AD 363, says that the British Church sent him a letter declaring their approval of the Nicene faith. St. John Chrysostom (AD 386-398) said that “even the British Isles have felt the power of the word, for there too churches and altars have been erected. There too, as on the shores of the Euxine or in the South, men may be heard discussing points in Scripture, with differing voices but not with differing belief, with varying tongues but not with varying faith.” And St. Jerome (AD 400) asserted that “Britain in common with Rome, Gaul, Africa, Persia, the East, and India, adores one Christ, observes one rule of faith.” Whatever the origin of the British Church may truly be, we know it was born quite early and was an integral part of Orthodox Catholic Church.
Also shrouded in mystery is the origin of the British liturgy. There is compelling evidence to conclude that it was originally from Gaul. From churches dedicated to Gallican saints, to the same Paschal cycle of Gaul (which was different than that of Rome), to their use of the Gallican Psalter, to entire liturgical passages as well as rubrics, lectionary selections, propers, vestment colors, etc., identical to that of the Gallican Church, if the liturgy was not directly received from Gaul, it was undoubtedly influenced by it. This is evidenced, as well, when St. Augustine consulted with Pope St. Gregory about the differences he encountered when he arrived in Britain. St. Augustine wrote, “Whereas the faith is one and the same, why are there different customs in different Churches, and why is one form of Mass observed in the holy Roman Church, and another in the Gallican Church?” St. Gregory replied, “You know, my brother, the custom of the Roman Church, in which you remember you were bred up. But it pleases me that if you have found anything either in the Roman, or the Gallican, or any other Church, which may be more acceptable to Almighty God, you carefully make choice of the same, and sedulously teach the Church of the English, which as yet is new in the faith, whatsoever you can gather from the several Churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things. Choose, therefore, from every Church those things which are pious, religious, and upright, and when you have, as it were, made them up into one body, let the minds of the English people be accustomed thereto.” The spirit of St. Gregory’s words are almost prophetic when, 1500 years later, the Holy Church of Antioch approved the English liturgical tradition for Orthodox use.
What ultimately happened with the arrival of St. Augustine, was that the indigenous British liturgical heritage was gradually mixed with that brought from Rome, and coinciding with the rapid conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, the Church of the Isles (and naturally, her liturgical life) came to reflect this unique admixture of Roman, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon spirituality. This liturgical inheritance continued to develop and grow, and many unique expressions of the rite naturally came about throughout the Isles. Not long after the “Great Schism” of 1054 (between 1070-1085), Sherborne Abbey set out to gather, preserve and formalize these varied liturgical expressions, and the fruit of this endeavor is what we now know as the Sarum Use, named after the Latin term for Salisbury, the city where Osmund was bishop and who initiated this undertaking. This was the first real amalgamation of British liturgical life in an attempt to assemble something that could be, in essence, regularized throughout the British Church. It can accurately be described as the fully-developed use of the pre-Schism Church of the British Isles and there is nothing to cause one to think that the Sarum Use underwent any change over the next 500 years before it was ultimately assumed into the first Prayer Book.
With increasingly scattered and localized outworkings of the Rite, impossibly complex rubrics and a strong desire for a form of worship in the English language, the Sarum Use became the basis for the first Book of Common Prayer, in 1549. This Prayer Book has been described as, “an English simplification, condensation, and reform of the old Latin services, done with care and reverence in a genuine desire to remove the difficulties of the Medieval rites by a return to antiquity.” It was “formed, not by a composition of new materials, but by a reverent, and on the whole conservative handling of the earlier services, of which large portions were simply translated and retained.” Put another way, the first Book of Common Prayer was an English translation and arrangement of the indigenous British Latin liturgical heritage that had been gathered into the Sarum Use a few centuries before.
In fact, the worship as expressed in this Prayer Book (as well as in the overall expression of the English Rite) was so indicative of what came before it that radical Reformers were very displeased with it on the whole, expecting something more in line with their goals. Hooper, for example, complained bitterly of such things as the frequency of the sacraments, vestments and candles and, even in regards to chant, asserted that "the mass priests, although they were compelled to discontinue the use of the Latin language, yet most carefully observed the same tone and manner of chanting to which they were heretofore accustomed...” Thomas Cranmer was so convinced of the preservation of the British heritage in the Prayer Book, it is told, that he offered to prove that it was the same order of service that had been used in the Church for fifteen hundred years past!
The “Communion Office” of the Prayer Book retained the order of the classic Roman Mass, along with many of its elements and much of its familiar language, but the most noticeable change was Cranmer’s reworking of the Roman canon, where he essentially consolidated a “chain” of the eleven short prayers of the Latin Canon into a better-flowing and continuous passage, in two parts (Prayer for the Church/Prayer of Consecration), that was closer in spirit and flow to an Eastern anaphora than the Western canon. One scholar described it this way: “The most felicitous characteristic of his skill is the delicacy with which from the beginning to the end of the prayer he was able to keep the basic act of thanksgiving constantly uppermost with a word or an expression. He does this so well that it is everywhere present and runs through this lengthy prayer like a golden thread binding it together. The same must be said for the theme of the Church and her unity: from one end of the eucharist to the other, beginning with the first part of the intercessions as their connecting link, it is constantly recalled through a succession of impeccable strokes of the bow before it finally emerges in a magnificent crescendo. The recall of the ‘grace and heavenly benediction’ of the Roman canon is specified here in the unforgettable final invocation, that we become one body with Christ and that he abide in us and we in him...This eucharastic liturgy of Cranmer’s is an incontestable masterpiece.” His work, and that of the others involved, has rightly been described as a liturgical reform, rather than a liturgical revolution.
Of course, at this point, those who had inherited this ancient tradition were not part of the Orthodox Church any longer and this was, in certain regards, reflected in the rite. But in the ensuing centuries, there was a long tradition of developing the liturgical content of the Prayer Book by people who had a profound respect for antiquity (and a deep knowledge of it), some of whom formally sought union with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Elizabethans, the Caroline Divines, the Non-Jurors, the Scotch, Americans, Tractarians and Anglo-Catholics, all re-shaped the liturgical heritage found in the Prayer Books to be closer in spirit, form and content to the ancient liturgies and by the time the Holy See of Antioch set out to formally adapt the culmination of this liturgical development (as found in the American Missal & 1928 American Book of Common Prayer) in accordance with the instructions of the Holy Synod of Moscow, there quite frankly wasn’t a whole lot left to do. Following the explicit instructions of Metropolitan Alexander, that any Western Rite within the Church of Antioch must be based upon the “living liturgy” of the West, and implementing the guidelines as set forth by the Holy Synod of Russia, the Antiochian Orthodox Church created a liturgy with the express intent of keeping as much as possible of that British inheritance that has been handed down to us today. The result was, as one Orthodox priest put it, “a full, glorious, comprehensive, catholic, Apostolic, and Orthodox liturgy” and “In giving its approval, the Church adopted the liturgy's every word and turn-of-phrase -- whatever its provenance -- as Her own. One is inescapably led to believe as the Orthodox Church does about this liturgy, and the Western Rite in general: that it conveys the fullness of Orthodox faith, worship, and devotion to those, of whatever ethnic background, privileged to share in its celebration.” The Church of Antioch herself has stated her full conviction that the Rite of St. Tikhon, as well as the Western Rite in general, “in accordance with the venerable tradition of the Church,” is both the celebration of, and witness to, the Orthodox Faith.
It might make some Orthodox Christians uncomfortable that the ancient Orthodox heritage of the British Isles was inherited and further cultivated by those outside of Orthodoxy’s boundaries, but it needs to be acknowledged that the Orthodox Church has a long-standing history of assuming and blessing all that is good and beautiful and true about a culture, and the Anglo-Catholic liturgical tradition is no exception. St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of America, was of this mindset. He was the highest-ranking Orthodox bishop in all of North America and, when approached by Christians using the 1892 Book of Common Prayer to inquire about adapting it for liturgical use if they were to convert to Orthodoxy, he had the full freedom and authority to dismiss it on the spot. But he had been working tirelessly amongst those bodies of Christians that were worshipping according to the Anglo-Catholic tradition and he was deeply familiar with it, and had no qualms about sending the Prayer Book all the way back to Russia (no easy feat at that time!) to get its approval.
And this is where we see the wisdom of the Church of Antioch in regards to the Western Rite. Some might insist that only that which is “pre-Schism” is proper for Orthodox use. Despite the fact that there is not a clean date with which we can identify the eventual estrangement of the East and West (most likely not until the time of the Crusades) in theory, there is nothing wrong with this inclination, and in some corners of Orthodoxy this is being carried out. However, it tends to reject the history of the rites and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that rites are living things, kept alive and shaped by the people who inherit them. As Fr. John Meyendorff has written, “The Christian liturgy has been given various forms, and these in turn have gone through various transformations in the course of history, in both East and West, in response to new conditions and in accordance with the peculiar genius of different peoples.” It is precisely that essential interplay of “new conditions” and the “peculiar genius” of a people that needs to be understood when considering the life of a liturgical rite. Different circumstances require adaptability and the collective reception and use of that which is inherited is what shapes it to be an authentic expression of the people. This is of utmost importance in determining how Western people approaching the Orthodox Church can make their offering to God in an authentic manner. Rather than attempting to set the clock back 1,000 years or indulge in what might be termed “liturgical archaelogy” the Church of Antioch chose the path of adapting existing rites, as they had been handed down from previous generations, with the purpose of retaining and blessing as much of that inheritance as possible. Rather like the merciful father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who does not demand that the returning child become what he was before he left, but instead welcomes him weeping, adorning him with robes and honoring him with feasting, the Church of Antioch does not demand that those who do not want to see their ecclesiastical heritage lost or discarded, make use of only those things that were part of their spiritual life before they “left.” Instead, they acknowledged the long and varied history of the ancient British rite, as it had been passed on to them from their forefathers, shaped and developed as their unfolding story necessitated, and assumed and blessed as much of it as they possibly could. To be sure, some things that were not reconcilable with Orthodoxy were entirely done away with, and some things that were proper for a truly Orthodox worship had to be supplemented from authentic sources, whether from the Roman or Byzantine traditions, but there is no doubt that the fruits of this labor were nothing short of a full and beautiful liturgy that accurately portrays the ancient Western Orthodox tradition as it has been formed upon the Western peoples by the Spirit of God, and handed down from generation to generation in living continuity with the past.