Review: Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation (Zondervan, 2019)
Review by Robert Ramsey
Winfield Bevins does not write for liturgical studies majors. There is no mention of Gregory Dix or other luminaries of various liturgical movements. He doesn’t discuss the Churching of Women, the merits of the 1892 prayer book vs. the 1928 vs. the 1979, or the other topics that consume the attention and energy of liturgical scholars.
Bevins writes for those who have never had any encounter with liturgy, particularly millennials and the next generation, who grew up entirely within the modern evangelical movement and who had no exposure to mainline denominations. Throughout, Bevins surveys a number of liturgical traditions, both old and new, and the growing groups of adults attending those churches.
I feel a particular affinity with the stories of the young people in this book. At 18, despite growing up deeply involved in a local church, I had never said, or even heard of, the Apostles’ Creed. When I entered college, I followed a path similar to many of the people quoted in the book: I realized that my upbringing had cut me off in many ways from the body of Christ, that I had missed out on a rich, sacramental faith, and I desired the transformative history and liturgy of the Anglican tradition.
As I look back on that time, it becomes clear that Bevins gets several things right regarding younger generations and the Church. He correctly asserts that the modern church writ large sorely lacks good catechesis, and that catechesis serves as a powerful tool, not simply to educate in the faith but as a method of evangelism. He also speaks poignantly on liturgy and young families; I have heard many parents tell me how much the rhythms of liturgy benefit their small children. Bevins affirms that younger generations have grown tired of the individualism, what he calls the merry-go-round of experience, found in much of the evangelical church, in which the lack of intellectual depth and community proves alienating to many. He repeats this idea throughout the book: young adults crave an alternative to the trappings of postmodern American life, and liturgy provides it.
Given this emphasis on liturgy as a bulwark against individualism, the examples Bevins uses present difficulties, as time and time again Ever Ancient, Ever New demonstrates that individualism still thrives within the American liturgical church, particularly Anglicanism, given that the book leans strongly in that direction. Perhaps this remark from a prominent bishop at the beginning of Chapter 8 illustrates it best: “I use the historic practices of Christianity as a launching pad to propel me into fresh ways and means, practices, to pursue spiritual transformation” (p. 159).
Within many dioceses, liturgy and tradition can become secondary tools in a large toolbox. Application of the liturgy occurs when deemed necessary. When it has served its purpose, liturgy is reconfigured at the whims of a particular pastor or church. These reconfigurations are then justified as “submission” to the spread of the gospel. I witnessed this happen in several Anglican churches. Commonly infant baptism was discouraged. In one, a group engaged in Evening Prayer was asked to stop because a pastor felt “uncomfortable” with it; in several others, the sacramental theology was wholly Zwinglian.
And indeed, quite a few of the churches Bevins highlights have these problems: many of these self-labeled neo-liturgical or three streams churches play fast and loose with much of historic Christianity, grabbing the pieces they feel can help their ministries, while disregarding the bits they dislike or that they deem too stuffy for regular Americans. In the epilogue, Martin Smith sums up this eclecticism when he describes faithfulness to tradition as not being a “mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future” (p. 205). But a real tradition is something more, something with duties and responsibilities, with not only freedom but also constraint. No tradition worth the name is just “a source of inspiration.”
This all sounds a little familiar, and indeed, Anglicans have been here before. In another time and place this eclecticism was called Ritualism, albeit with more bells. Ritualism shares many features with three-streams Anglicanism, most strongly that of the priest or pastor’s individual disregard for the authority and tradition of the prayer book. True liturgy demands submission from all parties, not just lay people, and a lack of submission to the Book of Common Prayer ends ultimately in a dilution of Anglican identity to the point that anyone can claim his viewpoint has Apostolic authority merely because he has a bishop.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer envisioned the Book of Common Prayer as a deeply nuanced work designed to allow participation in the liturgical thought of the Church Fathers, while at the same time allowing for an entire nation to unite in prayer, worship, and sacrament, a true antithesis to individualism. The prayers bring us, as John Jewel says, to “join ourselves together in the place of common prayer, and with one voice and one heart, beg at our heavenly father all those things, which he knoweth to be necessary for us” (“Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments”).
Bevins means well with Ever Ancient, Ever New. He wants readers to reconsider the Church in a way that has not been done for a generation within the hip, energetic circles that dominate the evangelical movement. But in taking such a wide survey of liturgical churches, he highlights the very reason why many left these churches in the first place: a belief on the part of clergy that their individual understanding of what they think best for their ministry supersedes the tradition.
For Anglicanism to survive another century, to avoid becoming so fragmented that it has no reason to exist, it must search deep within its history to create a cohesive understanding of what it means to be Anglican. The time for making the church accessible is long gone. Instead, as the book argues throughout, younger generations seek clarity and permanence in a rapidly shifting world. Let us not ruin this opportunity with innovation but rather grasp it with ressourcement, going back to the authoritative and life-giving streams of Scripture and tradition.
Robert Ramsey is a warden at Christ Church Anglican South Bend. He works full time as a software engineer and has a deep interest in recovering Anglicanism’s past for the sake of its future.