This is kind of an in-house question – what is my favorite version of the Book of Common Prayer? If you’re not an Anglican, this might have some academic interest for you, but for the most part this blog post is addressed to the Anglicans who inevitably ask this question. Priests and other clergymen are supposed to be stewards of the liturgy in the Church, after all, so it can say a lot about a man just looking at his preferred liturgical resource.
I revisited this post 11 months later in video form:
I grew up outside the liturgical tradition, first discovered liturgy in a Roman Catholic setting, and slowly grew into the Anglican tradition. My first prayer book was the 1979 book from the Episcopal Church, USA. That was the one I used in Episcopal/Anglican fellowship, that was the one I used on my own, that was the one in which I was trained in Anglican liturgy in seminary.
We were taught some of the history, of course, particularly how the original (1549) was ‘more catholic’ and the second (1552) was ‘more protestant’ and the subsequent two (1559 and 1662) were a sort of middle ground that set the standard thereafter. But exactly how they were more or less traditional, more or less reformed, was only explained on a surface level. I never really grasped the theological implications of the different trajectories set by the first two editions until the past couple of years. To some degree, understanding the theology of a given Prayer Book almost requires one to have a solid grounding in one book’s tradition in order to compare the different ones more effectively.
As soon as I became a priest, in September 2013, I transitioned my little congregation off of the 1979 book. By that point the first draft liturgies (called Texts for Common Prayer) had been released by the Anglican Church in North America, and I studiously used them in public and in private. In my diaconal year, in 2012, I was brought face-to-face with the depth of Anglican liturgical tradition and just how different the 1979 book was from all its predecessors, and I resolved to explore the “lost” tradition as much as I could. Thus, I took up the new draft TCP and stuck it with the Sunday lectionary from 1662, and that became the norm for my congregation for three years, until our Bishop required our whole diocese to start using the provisional lectionary of the ACNA.
Those were three formative years for me; I learned a great deal. By their conclusion, and my obedient adoption of the still-coming-together TCP, I’d developed a set of liturgical preferences and principles that I could expound on my own, without having to parrot what professors told me in school.
My General Principles
I’m a liturgical purist, but not a liturgical fundamentalist. They are similar, but the difference is important. Both look to older sources, seeking the best of the liturgical tradition and holding it up as the standard (or as what ought to be the standard). But where the fundamentalist points to the form and content of favored standard, the purist points to the spirit of the standard, accounting for the form and content but not being utterly locked in place by them.
Liturgical Fundamentalists hold up a Prayer Book, usually either the English 1662 or the American 1928, and say “this is the best! Why do we need to change it? Let’s just all go back to using this.” Liturgical Purists hold up a Prayer Book, usually one of the same two, and say “this was great! Why should we deviate so far from it? Let’s just reground ourselves in this tradition.”
As a purist, I highly favor the old Prayer Books, and disdain the American 1979. It’s not all bad, of course; it has a number of additions that supplement the Prayer Book tradition quite well, such as an explicit anointing of the sick and an explicit office of private confession. It brings back the imposition of ashes, it offers modern translations of the liturgy (if of varying quality), and it provides special liturgies for special holy days that enrich our experience of times like Holy Week. But on the whole, it represents several major breaks from the tradition before it.
The form and content of older Prayer Books are very consistent with one another. But it’s not just about the text of the services, but also the rubrics – the rules of how to arrange and execute these services. The original prayer book tradition, constant through the English books, was daily Morning and Evening Prayer in the church, and Holy Communion on Sundays and Holy Days. The Great Litany was to be prayed at the end of Morning Prayer thrice a week. The daily lectionary was only gently attached to the liturgical calendar and focused on the continual reading of the Bible; the Communion lectionary was only gently attached to the continual reading of the Bible and focused on the topic presentation of the Gospel according to the progression of the liturgical seasons and holy days.
My Current Favorite
So, finally, what is my favorite Prayer Book? I’ve been laughed down and scorned for this answer before, but I’m still sticking to it: it’s the 2019 Book of Common Prayer, set to be released by the ACNA next year. The draft liturgies are mostly in their final forms by now, I’ve been using them since 2013, and have been enjoying their periodic improvements over the past five years. Here’s the quick run-down of some of its best features that I appreciate:
- The prayers in the Offices of Morning & Evening Prayer are more faithful to the 1662 standard than the American 1979 or 1928 books. And where this one adds more options (like the 1979), it still notes the traditional Collects for those who wish to stick to the originals.
- The confession prayers in the Office and the Communion service are contemporary renderings of their original forms, rather than the 1979 book’s new (comparatively anemic) confession prayer.
- The Communion prayers are most closely based on the 1928 book, which is my favorite version in terms of form and structure. Instructions are also included for the re-arrangement of the prayers to match that of the 1662, for those who are so inclined.
- A second “Renewed Ancient” rite for the Communion service is available for those who like the input of the mid-20th-century liturgical renewal movement. A purist like myself has no need for this option, but it’s a friendly gesture to those formed by the 1979 book who can’t seem to bear to live without it.
- Midday Prayer and Compline, the Anointing of the Sick, the Rite of Reconciliation, and the special Ash Wednesday and Holy Week liturgies are still welcome additions missing from the historic prayer book tradition.
- The Psalter is being based on the traditional Coverdale translation, so the same beauty and grace will still be there in modern idiom. That’ll also make this easier to chant to the old tunes without having entirely to re-notate the text yet again, like what happened with the 1979 book.
I also like that this book is in contemporary English, and translated better than the efforts of 1979 which were either theologically questionable or just plain have not aged well. I agree with the committee’s early opinion on the matter – if one wants a traditional-language option, they can (and will) keep using whatever their preferred book is. There’s no need to re-invent what’s already out there. And while I appreciate, even enjoy, the traditional English, I don’t believe it necessary for good liturgy. There are indeed a great many words and phrases that are beautiful and theologically rich in the old language which are difficult to render in modern idiom with the same grace and depth, but I believe we have to try. While worship should never seeker-driven, it should not be an unnecessary stumbling block. Just as the King James Bible has its beauty and place, but newer translations are just as valid, so too are our traditional prayer books beautiful and useful, but contemporary translations are just as valid. And honestly, given the state of English literacy, and the increasing number of people on the streets for whom English is their second or third language, we would do the world a disservice by forcing them to learn proper (read: archaic) English in order to worship with us.
All that said, I am very aware of the flaws going into the 2019 Prayer Book.
- The observance of holy days in the daily lectionary is rather flimsier than I would have liked.
- The Sunday & Holy Day Communion lectionary is still based on a modern scheme rather than the historic order (see the 4th paragraph under My General Principles).
- The previous draft allowed for the observance of the three Pre-Lent Sundays; the current draft has removed that option.
- The “Renewed Ancient” Communion Rite has the epiclesis after the Words of Institution, which feels backwards to me and makes me feel uncomfortable to pray them at the altar.
- The Baptism liturgy re-translates “regenerate” as “born again”, which strikes me as an oddly modern word-choice compared to the translation decisions made in the Communion prayers.
- The acceptance of the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, in the Ordination liturgies, is kind of a bugbear issue for traditionalists.
- Although this isn’t final yet, it looks like the Collects of the Day and the Communion lectionary are going to printed apart from each other in the book, like in the 1979. This drastically decreases the book’s usability and, if not rectified, may single-handedly prevent the book from ever coming back in actual physical use in churches, due to the extra page-flipping required. The clergy will get the hang of it because that’s part of our job, but the majority in the pews would be lost.
It has not escaped my notice that I have a list of 6 things I really like about this upcoming Prayer Book and a list of 7 things I dislike about it. But, honestly, there are ups and downs to each book. The 1928 has a communion service I like, but the offices are weirdly abbreviated to my view, and the daily lectionary is a mess. The 1979 has all the cool bells and whistles, but messes around with so much tradition like a plaything that it just doesn’t feel Anglican to me. The 1662 has a great set of lectionaries but its prayers for the English royalty make it kind of inappropriate outside the Empire and Commonwealth. And of course there’s the traditional language issue that I already addressed above.
My Ideal Version
Having more-than-dabbled in arranging temporary Prayer Books over the past few years, I have a pretty clear sense of what I’d wish for in a Prayer Book. I’d start with the ACNA’s 2019 book, and basically keep wholesale the Daily Office, the Anglican Standard Communion Rite, the Pastoral Offices, the Episcopal Services, the New Coverdale Psalter, and the collection of Additional Prayers. Exceptions and changes would be as follows:
- The daily lectionary would be modeled closely on the 1662 (which the recently-issued 3rd edition from the ACNA is approaching, so I’m holding out hope). It would omit the books of Maccabees and restore in their place the book of Tobit.
- The suggested use of the Great Litany would be clarified to be akin to its 1662 original: to be said on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
- The Creed of Saint Athanasius would have its use clearly stipulated in the rubrics (be it 13 times a year on certain holidays like in the 1662, or something akin to that).
- The Communion Collects & Lessons would be drawn from the 1928 or 1662 (they’re almost identical), with suggested 3rd readings (usually OT) and Psalms to supplement it according to modern practice.
- The “Renewed Ancient” Communion Rite would be dropped.
- The Baptismal liturgy would switch “born again” back to “regenerated”.
- The Ordinal would be restored to male language.
- The blessing of holy oils would be included, since the use of all three traditional kinds is permitted in their respective contexts. The use of holy oils would also be more clearly stipulated, particularly in the Anointing of the Sick.
- A companion volume, providing all of the above in traditional English, would be made available.
I’m pretty sure nobody will agree with me 100% here, but hey, that’s kind of the nature of liturgical opinions. The point of this exercise was to lay out my principles and perspective, and think through some of its ideal implementation. Hopefully what we end up with here in the ACNA will be a book that enough of us can get behind that we’ll be properly united in the service of Christ, his Church, and his Gospel.