Forms of Service

by Philip Jones

The Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 defines a ‘form of service’ as ‘any order, service, prayer, rite or ceremony whatsoever … including the catechism’ (s.5(2)).  On this definition, even a single prayer may constitute a form of service all by itself.  Canon B1(3) gives an even broader definition.  It provides that a form of service includes ‘any other matter to be used as part of a service’.  Thus the term ‘form of service’ may be applied to any component part of a service.

However, forms of service should not be confused with merely secular acts that are accompanied by prayer.  The saying of ‘grace’ before and after a meal does not turn the meal into an act of worship.

In an essay ‘Consecration, Ius Liturgicum and the Canons’ for English Canon Law (eds Doe, Hill and Ombres, University of Wales, Cardiff, 1998) Chancellor Rupert Bursell noted that the Book of Common Prayer makes no reference to the consecration of churches, yet such consecrations continued to be performed after the Reformation and after the Act of Uniformity 1662.

Bursell suggested a number of possible explanations for this apparent anomaly.  It may be that all ‘services of consecration’ were illegal because they were not prescribed by the Prayer Book.  However, this possibility is ‘unlikely in the light of the regular use of such services’ (p.73).

Another explanation is that the Prayer Book, as its full title implies, is concerned only with ‘common’ prayer, that is, with the usual, routine worship of the Church.  The Act of Uniformity ‘did not embrace services that were of an infrequent and unusual type’ (p.75).  On this view, consecration would be lawful if performed on the authority of the bishop. 

Yet another possible explanation is that consecration was outside the scope of the Prayer Book because it was not performed in a place of public worship.  A church is not a place of public worship until it has been consecrated.  The act of consecration is therefore necessarily performed only in an unconsecrated building or land. For this reason it could not be subject to the 1662 Act.

These speculations all rest on the assumption that the consecration of land or buildings is indeed a form of service, an act of worship.  However, it is arguable that consecration is not a religious service at all but a juridical act.  This view is supported by Lord Chief Justice Coleridge in the case of Wood v Burial Board of Headingley (1892) 1 Queen’s Bench 713:

‘No doubt a practice has grown up of accompanying the ceremony of consecration with certain suitable and seemly prayers: but that is not the consecration itself.  Consecration is effected by the decree of the competent ecclesiastical court … signed by the bishop, setting aside the ground or building in sacros usus.  That is what consecrates the legal act of consecration’ (p.725).

If consecration is merely a juridical act this would explain why it is not mentioned in the Prayer Book.  The Prayer Book makes no provision for the rites of induction of a new incumbent or the installation of a new bishop.  The reason is that induction and installation, like consecration, are merely juridical acts, aspects of ecclesiastical conveyancing, whereby incumbents and bishops are put into possession of their offices and churches.

Marson v Unmack (1923) Probate 163 helps clarify the definition of a form of service.  The Court of the Arches there observed that

‘A collection made during Mattins or Evensong … is not provided for in the Prayer Book.  It is an incident occurring during a service or interposed between different portions of it, but it is no more part of the service than a voluntary played on the organ … or lighting the gas while the service is in progress: such a collection is an interlude entirely at the option of the minister and has its sole justification in the sanction of long custom’ (pp.167-8).

Thus there is a distinction between form of service per se, and secular matters, such as the taking of a collection, which may occur during the course of the service.

The distinction is supported by s.5 of the Parish Notices Act 1837 (now repealed), which confirmed that the publication of banns of marriage and notices of future services, as well as publication of anything ‘enjoined by the Queen or by the ordinary of the place during the time of divine service’ are lawful, even though these matters are not part of the service.

It must be acknowledged that, in Cope v Barber (1872) Law Reports 7 Common Pleas 393, a secular court reached the surprising conclusion that ‘The giving of alms is as much a part of Divine Service as adoration or prayer’ because the service included the offertory prayer ‘We humbly beseech Thee … to accept our alms and oblations’ (pp.400-1).  Does this mean that a prayer of thanksgiving for the harvest makes the harvest a part of divine service?!

However, even if this dictum is accepted, it does not deny the point made in Marson v Unmack and in the 1837 Act.  Cope v Barber concerned a collection at the communion service, Marson was concerned with a service which did not include an offertory prayer.  Cope does not deny that acts may take place during a service which are not part of the service itself.

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