How Did Presbyterian Worship Become Episcoterian?

I ran across this article recently. The author discusses the shift in Presbyterian worship style towards a more Episcopalian or Anglican liturgy. Having wondered about this particular phenomenon, I was intrigued. I intend to do more research and write a more in depth article on the topic, but for today, I will just give a short excerpt from the article as food for thought:

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 author then reproduces the full document “Presbyterians Reject Prescribed Liturgies” which lays out an argument against the use of liturgies. The whole article is worth reading. The following excerpt is from the conclusion:

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?

I believe the author may be on to something. I plan to do a good deal more reading on the subject. If you have any resources to suggest, please leave a comment.

7 thoughts on “How Did Presbyterian Worship Become Episcoterian?

  1. R. Scott Clark says:

    Hi Rachel,

    I’ve noticed the same thing but I don’t agree entirely with Miller’s analysis of the problem (even though I’m a big fan generally).

    He may be right about the apostolic and post-apostolic periods but there is evidence of liturgical structure in the Didache (c. 110 AD) and in other places. One cannot reconstruct the whole thing but I wonder if Miller wasn’t a little bit influenced by his setting post 1st Great Awakening and in the midst of the 2nd?

    The Genevan and Heidelberg Reformed Churches had liturgies in the 16th century, even prescribed liturgies and they thought that they were following the NT and apostolic pattern. The question does not seem to be so much prescribed liturgies as what is in the liturgy and on what principle is it based. What has happened over the last 250 years is that we’ve lost track of the principle of biblical and Reformed worship, i.e., we do only in public worship what God has commanded. Having lost that principle and having substituted a competing principle (namely, we may do what he has not forbidden) we have given ourselves license to do what we will.

    Now, when people want to be serious, instead of going back to Geneva, or Heidelberg, or Edinburgh, they go to Canterbury since that’s the only form of serious worship they seem to know.

    To be sure the Directory for Public(k) Worship did not have a prescribed liturgy as much as a series of rubrics. The basic structure of Reformed worship is very simple: God speaks and the people respond with his Word. If we follow that pattern we are likely to arrive at the same results as the French, German, English, Scots, and Swiss Reformed churches in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. If we follow the Anglican/Lutheran principle, then we are likely to achieve the results we are seeing.


    • jilldomschot says:

      Thank you for linking to that sketch. I attend an LCMS church, and while I find it a true statement that Lutherans allow anything in worship if scripture doesn’t forbid it–which is clearly an opposing perspective to the Reformed one–LCMS Lutherans are so slow to change that the liturgical services almost never veer from the general pattern you outline in your article. However, I’m not actually being a Lutheran apologist by claiming this–I didn’t grow up Lutheran, but rather live in a small town with limited options. Admittedly, I have never attended an Episcopalean service, but I assume the liturgy resembles the Lutheran service, since they both sprang from the same root. Albeit, an Episco service probably uses more bells and whistles than I’m used to. Episcos definitely adhere to the same church calendar, of which I have no strong feelings either way. It isn’t God’s calendar, but it is a method of organizination. But don’t Reformed churches also follow the traditional church calendar of major events in Jesus’ life and the early church?


      • R. Scott Clark says:


        In the modern period the variety of worship patterns have increased dramatically. There are now, in the LCMS, broadly evangelical services, high-church (almost Anglo-Catholic) services, and traditional Lutheran services.

        Historically Reformed and Presbyterian Churches were either ambivalent or hostile to the church calendar. Some were concerned that the calendar was a vehicle for mischief and for damaging Christian liberty. Some segments of the European Reformed church preserved the “evangelical” days in the calendar: Easter, Trinity, Christmas, Pentecost–if memory serves. The Westminster Divines, however, and the stricter wings of the European Reformed churches shunned any holy day except for the weekly Sabbath.


  2. CT says:

    Hi – I am doing some research and found this somewhat helpful. I wonder if you have any more current observations on this topic? I’m in a setting of a supposedly Reformed church (previously in the SBC, but that left that denomination) that has some practice of liturgy or is somewhat enamored with aspects of liturgy and am starting to have significant pause as to what that really means to the founding and current pastors.


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