On Episcoterianism and Why Old School Presbyterians Reject Liturgies

Introduction: I decided some time ago to publish an article examining the appearance of a form of worship that incorporated the liturgy, church year, and worship practices of the Anglican church into Presbyterianism. This blended form of worship that I refer to as “Episcoterian” began to appear in the early 20th century and had largely replaced the simple and expressly biblical worship of the Old School Presbyterian (OSP) church by the 1950s. This replacement was so complete that when Presbyterians refer to “traditional” (as opposed to contemporary) worship, this form of worship, and not the OSP worship that preceded it, is almost always what they are referring to. I stress that point because often critics of Old School Presbyterianism are actually criticizing Episcoterianism and have never actually experienced OSP worship and practice.

The critical problem with Episcoterianism is that it is not based on or compatible with the doctrine that lays at the heart of all Presbyterian worship – the Regulative Principle – which states that “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (WCF 21.1) The RPW is a logical outgrowth of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the integrally related doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture, and states that Christ alone has the authority to determine how his church should worship Him, and that He has done so in the Bible.

Episcoterian worship however is based upon the Anglican theory that “The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies” (The 39 Articles, Article 20) essentially stating that Christ has granted the church the authority to create new patterns for worship and to decree that congregations shall adopt and follow these patterns. Thus in Episcoterianism we see the introduction of many elements into worship that, while they may be ancient, are not prescribed in scripture such as vestments, the church year, lectionaries, processions, liturgies, the use of images, etc.

Of late this traditional worship is enjoying something of a revival in Presbyeterian churches, often as a result of the rejection of “contemporary” worship. In some congregations they have gone well beyond the old blended Episcoterianism of the 1950s and have instituted what can only be described as high-church Anglican or even Anglo-Catholic worship.

In the next article, I will examine historically how Episcoterianism crept into Presbyterianism in the late 1800s, but now I want to publish a document, Presbyterians Reject Prescribed Liturgies, that should show in detail how alien Episcoterianism is to Old School Presbyterianism.

The following was part of a book entitled Presbyterianism which was written at the request of the official Presbyterian Board of Publication in 1835 by Samuel Miller (1769-1850). Miller, with Archibald Alexander, was one of the founding professors of Old Princeton. He served as professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government there from 1813 till his death. This paper does not express some sort of radical view, this was the mainstream and indeed official position of American Presbyterianism at the time it was written. Miller’s thesis, as you shall see, is not only that liturgies are not biblical, but that they tend to be the cause of declension in piety and doctrine within the churches that embrace them.


Presbyterians Reject Prescribed Liturgies

By Samuel Miller

We do not, indeed, consider the use of forms of prayer as in all cases unlawful. We do not doubt that they have been often useful, and that to many this mode of conducting public devotions is highly edifying. If any minister of our Church should think proper to compose a form of prayer, or a variety of forms, for his own use, or to borrow those which have been prepared by others, he ought to be considered as at perfect liberty so to do. But we object to being confined to forms of prayer. We contend that it is of great importance to the edification of the Church, that every minister be left at liberty to conduct the devotions of the sanctuary as his circumstances, and the dispensations of Providence, may demand. Our reasons for adopting this judgment, and a corresponding practice, are the following:

1. We think it perfectly evident that no forms of prayer- no prescribed Liturgies were used in the apostolic age of the Church. We read of none; nor do we find the smallest hint that any thing of the kind was then employed in either public or social worship. Will the most zealous advocates of Liturgies point out even a probable example of the use of one in the New Testament? Can any one believe that Paul used a prescribed form of prayer when he took leave of the Elders of Ephesus, after giving them a solemn charge? Acts xx. 37. Can it be imagined that he used a Liturgy when, in bidding farewell to a circle of friends in the city of Tyre, who had treated him with kindness, he kneeled down on the sea shore and prayed with them? Or can we suppose that he and Silas read from a book, when, at midnight, in the prison at Philippi, they prayed and sang praises unto God? Again; when Paul exhorted Timothy to see that “kings and all in authority” were remembered in public prayer, is it not evident that the Church had no Liturgy? If she had been furnished with one, and confined to it, such direction would have been unnecessary, or rather absurd; for they would have had their prayers all prepared to their hand. In short, when we find prayer spoken of in the New Testament on a great variety of occasions, and in a great variety of language, is it not passing strange, if Liturgies were then used, that no turn of expression, giving the remotest hint of it, should be employed? Surely, if forms of prayer had been regarded in the days of the Apostles, as not only obligatory, but so highly important as some Protestants now profess to regard them; who can believe that the inspired writers would have passed over them in entire silence? The very least that we can infer from this circumstance is, that the use of them is not binding on the Church. The primitive Christians had indeed, precomposed Psalms and Hymns, which they united in singing, and probably, a uniform method, derived front the example and letters of the first ministers, of administering the sacraments, and blessing the people; but so have Presbyterians, and various other ecclesiastical bodies, who yet are not considered as using a Liturgy. These, of course, have no application to thepresent inquiry.

2. The Lord’s Prayer, given at the request of the disciples, forms no objection to this conclusion. It was, evidently, not intended to be used as an exact, and far less as an exclusive form. It is not given in the same words by any two of the ‘Evangelists. As it was given before the New Testament Church was set up, so it is strictly adapted to the old rather than the new economy. It contains no clause, asking for blessings in the name of Christ, which the Saviour himself afterwards solemnly enjoined its indispensable. After the resurrection and ascension of Christ, when the New Testament Church was set up, we read nothing more in the inspired history concerning the use of this form. And it is not until several centuries after the apostolic age, that we find this prayer statedly introduced into public worship. Accordingly, it is remarkable, that Augustine, in the fourth century, expresses the decisive opinion, “that Christ intended this prayer as a model rather than a form; that he did not mean to teach his disciples what words they should use in prayer, but what things they should pray for.”

3. No such thing as a prescribed form of prayer appears to have been known in the Christian Church, for several hundred years after Christ. The contrary is, indeed, often asserted by the friends of Liturgies, but wholly without evidence; nay, against the most conclusive evidence. The most respectable early writers who undertake to give an account of the worship of the early Christians, make use of language which is utterly irreconcileable with the practice of reading prayers. They tell us, that the minister, or person who led in prayer, “poured out prayers according to his ability;” that he prayed, “closing his bodily eyes, and lifting up the eyes of his mind, and stretching forth his hands toward heaven.” Surely, in this posture, it was impossible to “read prayers.” Socrates and Sozomen, respectable ecclesiastical historians, who wrote in the fifth century, both concur in declaring, that, in their day, “no two persons were found to use the same words in public worship.” And Augustine, who was nearly their contemporary, declares, in relation to this subject, -” There is freedom to use different words, provided the same things are mentioned in prayer.” Basil, in the fourth century, giving directions about prayer, remarks, that there were two parts of this service; first, thanksgiving and praise, with self-abasement; and, secondly, petition. He advises to begin with the former, and, in doing it, to make choice of the language of Scripture. After giving an example of his meaning, he adds, “When thou hast praised him out of the Scriptures, as thou art able, (a strange clause, truly, if all had been prepared before hand, and read out of a book,) then proceed to petition.”.- Clarkson on Liturgies, p. 120. Would not all this be manifestly absurd, if public prayer had been by a prescribed Liturgy in Basil’s days? The truth is, it is evident that extemporary or free prayer was generally used in the primitive Church, and continued to be used until orthodoxy and piety declined, and the grace as well as the gift of prayer greatly diminished. Then ministers began to seek the best aid that they could procure. The Church, however, at large, even then, provided no Liturgies; but each pastor, who felt unable to pray extemporaneously, procured prayers composed by other individuals, which lie used in public. Accordingly, Augustine tells us, that some ministers in his day, (a period in which we have complete evidence that many of the sacred order were so uneducated as to be unable to write their own names) “lighted upon prayers which were composed not only by ignorant babblers, but also by heretics; and through the simplicity of their ignorance, having no proper discernment, they made use of them, supposing them to be good.’? Surely, this could never have happened, if the Church had been accustomed at that time to the use of prescribed Liturgies. In short, the very first document in the form of a prayer-book, of which we read, is a Libellus Officialis, mentioned in the proceedings of the council of Toledo, in the year 633 after Christ; and that was, evidently, rather a “Directory for the worship of God,” than a complete Liturgy. There is, indeed, evidence that, before this time, ministers, deficient in talents and piety, either wrote prayers for themselves, or procured them from others, as before stated; but the first hint to be found of an ecclesiastical body interposing to regulate the business of public prayer, appears about the middle of the fifth century.

With respect to the boasted Liturgies of St. Mark, St. James, &c., of which we often hear, all enlightened Protestants, it is believed, agree that they are manifestly forgeries; and as to the Liturgies attributed to Chrysostom, Basil, and several others of the early Christian Fathers, bishop White, an English prelate, who lived in the seventeenth century, delivers the following opinion :-” The Liturgies,” says he, “fathered upon St. Basil and St. Chrysostom, have a known mother, (to wit, the Church of Rome;) but there is (besides many other just exceptions) so great a dissimilitude between the supposed fathers of the children, that they rather argue the dishonest dealings of their mother, than serve as lawful witnesses of that which the adversary intended to prove by them.”-Tracts against Fisher, the Jesuit, p. 377.

4. If the Apostles, or any apostolic men, had prepared and given to the Church any thing like a Liturgy, we should, doubtless, have had it preserved, and transmitted with care to posterity. The Church, in this case, would have had one uniform book of prayers, which would have been in use, and held precious, throughout the whole Christian community. But nothing of this kind has ever been pretended to exist. For let it be remembered, that the prayers, in the Romish and English Liturgies, ascribed to some of the early Fathers of the Church, and even to apostolical men, supposing them to be genuine, which, by good judges, as we have just seen, is more than doubted,-.were not Liturgies, but short prayers, or “collects,” just such as thousands of Presbyterian ministers, who never thought of using a Liturgy, have composed, in their moments of devout retirement, and left among their private papers. Who doubts that devotional composition is made by multitudes who reject the use of prescribed forms of prayer in public worship? Accordingly, when Liturgies were gradually introduced into general use, in the sixth and subsequent centuries, on account of the decline of piety and learning among the clergy, there was no uniformity even among the churches of the same state or kingdom. Every Bishop, in his own diocese, appointed what prayers he pleased, and even indulged his taste for variety. Accordingly, it is a notorious fact, which confirms this statement, that when the Reformation commenced in England, the established Romish Church in that country had no single uniform Liturgy for the whole kingdom; but there seems to have been a different one for the diocese of every Bishop. And when, in the second year of king Edward’s reign, the principal ecclesiastical dignitaries of the kingdom were directed to digest and report one uniform plan for the public service of the whole Church, they collated and compared the five Romish missals of the several dioceses of Sarum, York, Hereford, Bangor, and Lincoln, and out of these formed a Liturgy for the Protestant Episcopal Church of England. So that the Prayer-books which had been used in five Popish bishoprics, constituted the basis of the first Liturgy of king Edward, and consequently of the book of Common Prayer, as now used in Great Britain and the United States. This Liturgy, at first, contained a number of things so grossly Popish, that, when it was read by Calvin and others, on the continent of Europe, to whom copies were sent for obtaining their opinion, their severe criticisms led to another review, and a considerable purgation. Still a number of articles were left, acknowledged on all hands to have been adopted from the missals of the Church of Rome, which, as stated in various parts of this chapter, exceedingly grieved the more pious and evangelical part of the Church; but which the queen, and the ecclesiastics more immediately around her person, refused to exclude. Their antiquity was plead as an argument in their favour.

5. Confining ministers to forms of prayer in public worship, tends to restrain and discourage the spirit of prayer. We cannot help thinking, that the constant repetition of the same words, from year to year, tends to produce, at least with very many persons, dullness, and a loss of interest. We are sure it is so with not a few. Bishop Wilkins, though a friend to the use of forms of prayer, when needed, argues strongly against binding ourselves entirely to such “leading strings,” as he emphatically calls them, and expresses the opinion, that giving vent to the desires and affections of the heart in extemporary prayer, is highly favourable to growth in grace. -Gift of Prayer, chap. II. p. 10, 11. Accordingly, it is remarkable that, when those who were once distinguished for praying extemporaneously with fluency and unction, lay aside this habit, and confine themselves to stinted forms for many years, they are apt to manifest a striking decline in the spirit of devotion, and are no longer able to engage in free prayer without much hesitation and embarrassment.

6. No form of prayer, however ample or diversified, can be accommodated to all the circumstances, exigencies, and wants of either individual Christians, or of the Church in general. Now, when cases occur which are not provided for in the prescribed forms, what is to be done? Either extemporary prayer must be ventured upon, or the cases in question cannot be carried before the throne of grace, in words, at all. Is this alternative desirable? Cases of this kind have occurred, approaching the ludicrous, in which ministers have declined engaging in social prayer in situations of the deepest interest, because they could find nothing in their Prayer-book adapted to the occasion! Nay, so common and so interesting a service as the monthly concert in prayer, on the first Monday evening of every month, can never be attended upon by an Episcopal pastor, in an appropriate and seasonable manner, without indulging in extemporary prayer. This has been, more than once, confessed and lamented by ministers of that denomination.

7. It is no small argument against confining ministers and people to a prescribed form, that whenever religion is in a lively state in the heart of a minister accustomed to use a Liturgy, and especially when it is powerfully revived among the members of his church, his form of prayer will seldom fail to be deemed an undesirable restraint; and this feeling will commonly either vent itself in fervent extemporary prayer, or result in languor and decline under restriction to his form. The more rigorous and exclusive the confinement to a prescribed form, the more cold and lifeless will the prevailing formality generally be found. The excellent Mr. Baxter expresses the same idea with more unqualified strength: -“A constant form,” says he, “is a certain way to bring the soul to a cold, insensible, formal worship.” –Five Disputations, &c. p. 385.

8. Once more: prescribed Liturgies, which remain in use from age to age, have a tendency to fix, to perpetuate, and even to coerce the adoption and propagation of error. It is not forgotten, that the advocates of Liturgies urge, as an argument in their favour, a consideration directly the converse of this, viz., that they tend, by their scriptural and pious character, to extend and perpetuate the reign of truth in a Church. Where their character is really thus thoroughly scriptural, they may, no doubt, exert, in this respect, a favourable influence; but where they teach or insinuate error, the mischief can scarcely fail to be deep, deplorable, and transmitted from generation to generation. Of this, painful examples might be given, if it were consistent with the brevity of this sketch, to enter on such a field. On the whole, after carefully comparing the advantages and disadvantages of free and prescribed prayer, the argument, whether drawn from Scripture, from ecclesiastical history, or from daily experience, is clearly in favour of free or extemporary prayer. Its generally edifying character may, indeed, sometimes be marred by weak and ignorant men; but we have no hesitation in saying that the balance is manifestly in its favour. For, after all, the difficulty which sometimes occurs in rendering extemporary prayer impressive and edifying, is by no means obviated, in all cases, by the use of a Prayer-book. Who has not witnessed the recitation of devotional forms conducted in such a manner as to disgust every hearer of taste, and to banish all seriousness from the mind? As long as ministers of the Gospel are pious men; “workmen that need not be ashamed ;” qualified “rightly to divide the word of truth,” and “mighty in the Scriptures,” they will find no difficulty in conducting free prayer to the honour of religion, and to the edification of the Church. When they cease to possess this character they must have forms, they ought to have forms of devotion provided for them. It was precisely in such a state of things that the use of Liturgies gradually crept into the Christian Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. But it is manifestly the fault of ministers, if ex-temporary prayer be not made, what it may, and ought ever to be, – among the most tender, touching, and deeply impressive of all the services of the public sanctuary.


About Andrew Webb

I was converted out of paganism and the occult in 1993 and while I was initially Charismatic/Arminian in my theology, I became Reformed and Presbyterian through bible study and the influence of ministries like RC Sproul's. After teaching in local bible studies, and taking seminary courses part time, I began to feel called to the ministry in 1997. I was Ordained as an RE at Christ Covenant PCA in Hatboro, PA in 2000 and as a TE by Central Carolina Presbytery in 2001 when I was called to be the Organizing Pastor/Church Planter for Providence PCA Mission, Cross Creek PCA's church plant in Fayetteville, NC (home to Ft. Bragg and Pope Airforce Base). In 2005 when the Providence PCA Particularized I was blessed to be called by the congregation to be their Pastor
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2 Responses to On Episcoterianism and Why Old School Presbyterians Reject Liturgies

  1. Pingback: Building Old School Churches blog « One Pilgrim’s Progress

  2. Pingback: How Did Presbyterian Worship Become Episcoterian? « A Daughter of the Reformation

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