Reversing Desuetude

Bp. Walter H. Frere 1907

Whenever deviancies from 39 Articles or Prayer Book are pressed, “desuetude” is plea invoked by liberal catholics to justify breaches against royal and ecclesiastical authority known during the Settlement, 1536-1662. In the past year, this argument has been heard from several quarters, and, whether TEC or ACC, it amounts to the same–i.e., the Settlement represents nothing binding.

Often those who appeal to ‘desuetude’ aren’t terribly specific about which ceremonies or doctrines have fallen to the wayside. Thus, the appeal to desuetude can generate substantial ambiguity. Last year, the term was used by Archbishop Haverland to beg the English Mass as celebrated in 1543 without answering questions on the theology pertaining to current Missal-use. More recently, the Reverend Fr. Wells propounded desuetude with respect to the 39 Articles, saying, “for the sake of the argument, I will yield the point and concede that the Articles are legally a dead issue among us, their canonical authority having fallen into desuetude.”

While Arch-bishop Haverland and Fr. Wells are doing everything in their power to preserve orthodox Anglicanism, it goes without saying this plea of desuetude is quite disturbing. Yet Haverland and Wells both speak a certain truth. A person might further wonder if there’s any part of Anglicanism–aside from Creed and eucharist– that hasn’t given way to some degree of disuse and obsolescence? Especially in parishes where the 1979 Prayer Book is used (i.e., Rite 2) there is really very little original Anglicanism left. A concerned churchman might wonder what grounds remain for change?

Principles of Authority: It is certainly ironic that the history of the Oxford Movement demonstrates the best chance of restoring an authority that otherwise teeters upon oblivion. The rise of ritualism under the rationale of restoring ‘catholic order’ through the Ornament Rubric is actually very much an example of what ought be done. Bishop Frere in his short but informative book, The Principles of Religious Ceremonial (1907), analyzes the means by which desuetude can be reversed. Frere’s book is not only a study on the general lawfulness of external ceremonies, but it’s also a guide for restoring faith and order potentially left in the dustbin.

The challenge for ritualists in at the turn of the century was restoring ceremony that was not mentioned in the prayer book. The Principles of Religious Ceremonial therefore outlines several sources of authority beyond the strict-reading of the Prayer Book and church canons which had legal power to renew customs forgotten. Frere’s analysis begins with the most basic governing unit of the church– the episcopal ordinary– and the limits in freedom a single bishop normally possesses in making rites,

“The ultimate ecclesiastical authority for ceremonial directions is not far to seek. Ceremonies, like the rites which they accompany, are regulated by episcopal authority; and the ceremonial laws and customs of the Church form part of the general system of ecclesiastical discipline, of which the bishop is the normal source and safeguard. The bishop is the ordinary of his diocese, not only as ordinary judge, but also as ordinary promulgator of rules and regulations for the conduct of divine worship. The same limitations, however, of episcopal authority are observable here as in other parts of the sphere of discipline. The individual bishop is bound to some extent by custom, to a large degree by the actions of his predecessors; he is bound by the best precedents to carry with him either synodically or more informally the general assent of his clergy and the concurrence of the laity. Again, he is restricted by the action of his comprovincials, or by the former action taken by the province; and restricted also to some extent by action that has been taken in other provinces.” p. 94

Where greater, provincial enforcement is silent, the local bishop has a practical dispensing power. According to Frere, it may very well happen neither bishop or synod desire regular conformity to a particular ceremony; in which case, the practice indeed risks desuetude. However, the descent into  desuetude cuts both ways. In the absence of active discipline, or an otherwise reigning atmosphere of indifference, the Bishop still has a right to restore or create new canon.  Where a single bishop remains indifferent about reform, they are still accountable to synod which may intervene in lieu of the Ordinary. In other words, the very means by which desuetude normally occurs also gives the same opportunities for its to end. Namely, the bishop and/or synod might always exert authority where previously none was present, and, if it wasn’t for this fact, ritualism would have never succeeded.  Frere describes this two-edged sword surrounding the episcopate:

“There may be cases wehre the State may wish to intervene and enforce conformity, even though the bishop might have preferred to let well alone… The same would also be the case if it was the province that called for the enforcement of conformity where an individual bishop had not pressed for it. This power of forcing the hand of an unwilling bishop is the necessary result of the limitation of the simple episcopal powers that has come about through the aciton of the synod on the one hand and of the parliament of the other. But there may well be also cases where all parties concerned are quite content not to press for conformity; and in these the bishop will practically have a dispensing power, at any rate for the time being; though the toleration will be liable to cease in the future, if either he or his successor on the one part, or on the other part either the synod or the parliament, enter upon the opposite policy and enforce conformity. It is still more clear that if a single bishop can be allowed in certain circumstances what is practically a dispensing power, a fortiori it will belong to the synod in similar circumstances where the State is quiescent, though it will always be more difficult to take synodical action than individual.” pp. 99-100

Normal versus Special: Therefore the appeal to ‘desuetude’ by certain folks is just another way of saying they agree with prevailing circumstances. In many ways, Frere’s Principles is a study in canon law or ‘true adiaphora’. Where Frere falls short, in my opinion, is neglecting the latent powers of the Crown, but Frere was also writing at a time when the center of conflict was between parliament and catholic bishops. Nonetheless, by appealing to the discretion of the Orindary, Frere was trying to alleviate matters of wrongly interpreted law. This is where jurisdictions that claim 39 articles or 1662 prayer book have authority ought to have their feet held to the fire. But, as we know, very few bishops are enforcing what their own constitutions say. Unlike today’s Anglicans, Frere is careful not characterize this situation as ‘normal’ but uncommon occurrences, “such cases would not be breaches of the general rule but exceptions to it” (p. 99).

Modern Anglicans have entirely reversed this, making the special exception “normal” while even leaving areas of doctrine to ‘local options’.  When challenged as to which Articles or rubrics have perhaps survived desuetude, most critics will refrain from speaking because (other than the Creed and Words of Institution) no one really knows.  Nonetheless, clergy have made certain vows, and they ought to consider oaths tendered at ordination.  Frere talks about these ‘general rules’ which even clergy must submit. But if canon or article requires challenge, like Keble exhorted churchmen in 1841 , Frere calls Anglicans to consider this dilemma in an “orderly way”–  i.e., the appeal to bishopric discretion and/or synodical review:

“Now it may be said in general that, in order to effect a change of practice in such matters as these, there is required an authority equal to that which prescribed the original practice. One bishop of Sarum was (and is) as good as another; and any one of them could alter regulations that rested merely on the authority of one of his predecessors. Similarly, a council could alter the rules laid down by a council of equal or inferior dignity. All this is evident. But if a bishop on his own authority were to supersede the rules laid down by a synod of his province, or a small synod to override a larger one, the action would require some special justification.” (p. 99)

What justification do Anglicans have ignoring the letter of the prayer book or 39 Articles found therein? Is it the catholicity supposedly expressed by Rome? Eastern Orthodoxy’s peculiar interpretation of the Fathers? Anglican books appointed for use by Crown and Convocation weren’t given to decorate altars or for their poetic language. They were written to contain and instruct a lively and catholic faith for all times.  Often forgotten is how Anglican standards indeed sum and properly define antiquity. But the general principle remains, “what was done by greater authority cannot be undone by a lesser”. It is even more mind-boggling when a person considers the Settlement was forged by sacred monarchy, and that Anglicans today reject that seal! Regardless, if certain waves of lawlessness (be it methodism or ritualism) have indeed left Reformation standards in desuetude, desuetude in no way excludes its own reversal.

Conclusion: Desuetude is not written in stone, and reversals (along with new additions) surely remain the prerogative of the bishop, if not synod, given the leeway of existing canons. This is where a constitutional approach has validity. If a jurisdiction has certain expressed standards, much like the Ornament Rubric did for 19th century ritualists, a basis exists to restore discipline. Where no expressed standard stands, then churchmen have the more difficult task to insert (or live without) them, keeping in mind Frere’s warning, “it will always be more difficult to take synodical action than individual”. For this reason, it’s wisest to be in bodies that still retain constitutions that profess historic Settlement standards. It’s always better for churchmen to work with due authority rather than pitted against. Nor has Anglican Rose left these standards to question.  An almost complete list of appointed Settlement standards is found at the right-hand side of this blog. The ACNA has adopted the most based on the Jerusalem Declaration (articles #5-7) with the REC spearheading orthodoxy. Amongst St. Louis churches only the UEC explicitly ‘continued’ from PEC’s C&C . Others claim a more implicit approval, but no matter the jurisdiction application varies wildly parish to parish. Settlement Anglicans therefore face an uphill battle regardless. It is amazing how Anglicans will skirt around these healthy standards, pouring on ambiguities. Too often peripheral problems (like WO) are focused upon while excusing the role of liberal catholicism in instituting such. But, again, this is a crisis of adiaphora which Frere addresses rather comprehensively in the same legacy of churchmen in the past against the similar disorders (e.g., Ridley and Hooker).

9 responses to “Reversing Desuetude

  1. Charles,

    Well written and a very good word to consider.

    It is amazing how Anglicans will skirt around these healthy standards, pouring on ambiguities. Too often peripheral problems (like WO) are focused upon while excusing the role of liberal catholicism in instituting such.

    So true. May your posts, those at The Continuum, and the ensuing discussions lead to a further recapturing of the Anglican reformed and catholic faith and practice.



  2. By the way, I hope Fr. Hart or Fr. Wells will weigh in on this.



  3. Hi Jack,

    Unfortunately, it’s already been argued w/ Fr. Hart and friends, and I don’t think anyone wants to rehatch it. Fr. Hart and Wells know the only way forward is to teach and educate as best they can. My disagreements with the ACC stem mainly around the St. Louis Affirmation. There is certain, very careless and unnecessary language therein which I believe undermines the 39 Articles, mainly article 25. It is one thing to say there are seven sacraments recognized by tradition. It’s an entirely different matter to insist these sacraments, along with Baptism and Communion, are all “objective and effective signs of the continued presence and saving activity of Christ”. If the first half of this sentence was stricken out, the Affirmation could easily be understood as a classical high church document. In fact there are other sections I believe are very charitable. But a modest shortening of the Affirmation’s article on sacraments would resolve it.

    The other problem is ACC’s C&C which, by plain reading, gives a cut-off line for doctrine at 1543 (C. 2.2). The other dates of 1547 or 1534 would have made far more sense. 1543 seems almost like an arbitrary date and makes no sense whatsoever with respect to Henrician theology or even catholic party advantage. Even more hilarious, if the doctrine found in Henry’s 1543 and 1537 catechisms together w/ the 1536 articles were serious treated as authoritative– like the C&C says it is– the ACC would be essentially Lutheran. It’s upon these points priests will suddenly call ‘desuetude’.

    The sad thing is a good number of the architects of these same standards really didn’t know what they were doing and have since either left for Rome or passed away. Those who stayed behind made serious overtures to the Papacy in the delirious hope of an Anglican uniate. Others moved to WRO. The ACA bishopric seems to be continuing what the early architects started. Bishop Doren was the only St. Louis cleric to really want to continue the ‘Protestant Episcopal’ church, basing UEC canons on 1958 PEC.

    I personally believe it easier to revive Anglican ‘ethos’ where you have constitutions expressly backing you. When ‘law’ opposes teaching, a very troublesome situation against due authority occurs. Nonetheless, Fr. Hart and Wells will write their Laymen’s Guide to reconcile and dampen differences between Affirmation and 39. I wish them well. However, I don’t know how this can be done without leaning on Tract 90. Hart in the end will surprise us.


  4. Hello Charles,

    I personally believe it easier to revive Anglican ‘ethos’ where you have constitutions expressly backing you.

    I agree. If there is no clear “legal” standards of faith and practice, then things ultimately devolve into what is right in each man’s eyes. A binding confession doesn’t guarantee orthodoxy over time, but at least the terms of the debate are always there in black and white.

    However, I don’t know how this can be done without leaning on Tract 90.

    I think to some degree that is already happening, though not explicitly.

    Hart in the end will surprise us.

    You may be right. But it seems that no matter how effective Hart’s teaching (which it is), unless the continuing jurisdictions adopt such doctrinal teachings as an authoritative theology that reflects true Biblical doctrine not much will change.

    My eye is also on the new Presiding Archbishop Peter Robinson.

    In the meantime I have sought “refuge” in a reformed church that has strong Cranmerian/liturgical leanings. Kind of Anglican-lite with sound doctrine and grace taught and ministered.
    Best to you,


  5. Hi Jack,
    My prayers are with Lord Robinson. Also given to prayer are the Texas REC Bishops. In my mind the best Anglican jurisdictions are UEC/REC. I hope they prove good leaven for the rest.


  6. again…

    Are you familiar with the Orthodox Anglican Church, not to be confused with the Anglican Orthodox Church? I met a priest/theology professor at a Ligoniers Conference last winter. They have a seminary called Saint Andrews in North Carolina. He tells me that clergy subscribe to the 39 Articles, as well as the rest of their Canon.

    Church site –
    Seminary site –

    They’re mainly on the east coast and in a number of countries here and there. Reformed and catholic.



    • That’s cool, Jack. I believe OAC were at Bartonsville, and I think the priest you mentioned is a grad from Westminster West. Not bad! Do they have any interest in FACA?


  7. I don’t know about FACA, but yes, he (Fr. Paul Castellano) is a graduate of Westminster West and, I think, a former OPC and APCK. By chance he commented one evening at The RTB Party… created no little stir 😉 He’s a good guy and a solid theological clergyman and teacher (reformed and catholic… ).



  8. The age-old controversy on desuetude is the question of who authoritatively declares something to be in a state of desuetude and authoritatively declares something to be no longer in desuetude. Generally speaking, that authority rests in the episcopate and/or synods. It does not reside in the presbyterate or the parish. This is what Dr Fisher meant when he stated his disbelief in Presbyterial Congregationalism.
    When we review the old literature, we find that, in any case of doubt or controversy, the authority rests with the diocesan. In particular, I refer tothe old queries about where the Table should stand, or from where should the service be read.

    It is well known that certain ceremonial actions were strictly banned by the old BCPs and never authoritatively restored. Yet, prists took it upon themselves to revive these ceremonies. It all reminds me of the verse in Judges: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes”. We live with this attitude to this very day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s