WHAT IS IT?
It is a term used to denote obedience to the living rules of the English Church. In other words, it is the 'administration of the Sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the Church according to the Use of the Church of England.' It involves the straightforward fulfilment of a contract solemnly made--not exactly like a business contract in which unforseen risks may have to be faced, but a contract in which all the evenualities are clearly stated and accepted at one of the most solemn moments of a priest's life, namely his ordination.
In essence, the term 'English Use' has no geographic significance, but is a reference to the title-page of every Prayer-Book. It is not merely the preserving of insular eccentricities, a sort of archaeological craze, but a deliberate desire to carry out the directions in force in that part of the Lord's vineyard in which our lot is cast. In other words, to do what we are told instead of what we like. In the Catholic outlook obedience has spiritual value because of its sacrificial character. It is indeed entering the mind of Him Who said, 'I am come to do Thy will, O Lord.'
THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND CREATES BISHOPS, PRIESTS, AND DEACONS
1. If the Church of England has power to make a priest, it has power also to tell him what kind of service to perform; how exactly, for instance, he shall celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
2. It has power also to say what feasts and fasts are to be observed, how its churches are to be furnished, and what clothes its minsters shall wear during public worship.
HOW ARE THESE POWERS EMBODIED?
The are embodied in the Book of Common Prayer.
For instance, an individual clergyman might be quite right in supposing a certain order of prayers at the Consecration of the Eucharist to be more beautiful than that which is prescribed by the Church that made him a priest. He is entitled to think that, but if eh follows his own preferences when he is celebrating the Eucharist, he is not celebrating according to the English Use--which he has sworn to do.
So the services, exactly as set down in the Book of Common Prayer, or within the variations allowed by the Revised Book of 1928, words and rubrics, are the English Use, the living rite, and to speak of the ceremonial rising out of it as 'the old English Use', or as 'Sarum Use' is to misunderstand the very foundation on which the term rests.
Instead of making a list and description of all the permissible 'ornaments' (which means things worn and used in worship), the Church of England gives a clear but broad pointer in a date when the ornaments of a church and its ministers set the desired standard. That pointer is the 'Ornaments Rubric', and the date to which it points is 1549.
That was an age when the word 'catholic' was still prized, but when the word 'primitive' was weaving a new spell, when scholarship was respected, intelligibility craved, and liturgical adventure not shirked. It was also an age of intolerance, and it is a lasting tribute to the divines of the Church in England that they drew their definitions skilfully and widely enough to achieve a simplification yet to leave room for variety of style and of elaboration.
It is thus possible for an extremely simple celebration of the Holy Communion to be as compatible with our Ornaments Rubric as a much fuller ceremonial with the three 'Sacred Ministers', clerk, taperers, and incense.
The other directions of the Book are clear, but generally they are not minute or exhaustive. When they were compiled, they were sometimes designed to correct the then current practice; but in the absence of direction, the old familiar ceremonial background might be assumed. (It is to this extent that Sarum customs--as one might say, the 'English' customs of that day--have a claim on our serious attention.) What could not have been assumed, and should not be now, is ceremonial behaviour incongruous with the rite itself.
SOME OUTWARD MARKS:
WHAT YOU MAY HEAR AND SEE IN 'ENGLISH USE' CHURCHES
1. You will hear the whole of the Communion service. No part of it is secret; all the prayer belong to the people and it is not according to the mind of the English Church that any of them should be inaudible (see the Communion rubrics, 1928) : the faithful must be 'praying with the Church'. Certainly, too, the Prayer Book does not require an elevation, or a bell, or incense, during the Prayer of Consecration.
2. Vesture. Our rubric gives us the chasuble, dalmatic, tunicle, and cope. It points to a period when vestments were still dignified and ample. The 'cotta' was not known at that time; then, assistants round the altar wore either albe, or surplice, or rochet. If one could bear the inadequacy of the short cotta one might argue that it is cheaper, or easier to wash than the longer rochet or surplice. That may be so, but that is not the point: our directions indicate something else. Mercifully our rubric comes from an age of beauty, and the graceful folds of an ample garment are ours by right.
3. The Altar Upon its surface may stand two lights and perhaps a cross. The desire to multiply ornaments on the altar is contrary to age-long tradition and the precise number of six candles is purely a papal direction. Other lights may strand around. Sometimes the altar is surrounded at its ends by enshrining curtains (perhaps suspended between columns which may or may not bear tapers), or surmounted by a canopy, both features reminiscent of the shrouded altar of the undivided Church.
The front of the altar is covered by an altar cloth (that is, a 'frontal').
Many of these features are in themselves aesthetically attractive and intrinsically beautiful, and it is interesting to notice how many of them are being adopted or revived in the Roman Communion under the influence of the Liturgical Movement. But in themselves, though they are according to the English Use, they do not constitute the English Use.
We come back to the starting point: the English Use is the Book of Common Prayer in its wholeness, and the keynote is obedience to the spiritual authority of the Church of England, which 'hath power to decree Rites and Ceremonies'.
HOW CAN WE FOLLOW THE ENGLISH USE?
It is not necessary to be elaborate: the sternest simplicity may be within the term. But whether the plain or the rich be desired, it will rest upon the principle, not of individual preference, but of honest obedience, from whence is born, perhaps almost unexpectedly, fruit of great beauty and joy.
The above is taken from a series of Alcuin Leaflets published as Liturgy in the Parish. What is in the above called 'English Use' should now be called 'Anglican Use' because its principles extend beyound the Church of England to the whole of classical Anglicanism. Those who take their Anglicanism and the classical prayer books seriously must choose how they look, how their services look and even how they sound if they and we are going to be taken seriously and regain the reputation and credibility which Anglicanism once had and which for the good of all 'who call themselves Christians' it needs to regain.