Inspired by Christopher’s musings, here are some of my thoughts on the American ’79 BCP. Yes, it is a product of the immediately post-Vatican II liturgical culture. Yes, many of the things that they did were good. Yes, it is time to re-examine their efforts. No, we have not had enough to to “live into” these liturgies and to think critically about them before doing another prayer book revision.
Certainly we can circulate trial liturgies like EOW and have discussions, but in my estimation, the time is not yet ripe for change.
I’ll lift up today three major issues to continue the conversation that Christopher started. I’ll confess up front, most of my thoughts here will revolve around the Office and its materials. There is more to be said about the Mass liturgies and the other occasional liturgies, but I’m not prepared to comment on them at this time. Too, I’m going to try and keep these more to bullet-points than fully-fleshed out arguments. (But some rambling will inevitably occur…)
1. The Psalter. I don’t have any huge substantive issues with the translation or poetry of the psalter that currently appears in the BCP. (I do have some minor ones, like that Ps 51:7 must, must begin with an adversitive conjunction! “But” works; “for” does not!) The problem that I do have has to do with the fact that a) there is only one and b) that it is fundamentally a Hebrew psalter.
In regard to a), the lack of a traditional language psalter means that a Rite I service cannot be prayed consistently from this book. Thus, my Rite I Daily Office must necessarily include a Rite II psalter unless I want to book juggle—which I don’t.This lack of a psalter and therefore the lack of a full traditional language rite underscores the fact that Rite I is set up as a transitional rite—it’s a sop thrown to those who prefer traditional language (and structure–and therefore the theology encoded in that structure) and will be disappearing with the next revision.
In regard to b), I’ll need to jump into some history of Bible translation to justify my point. The Bible of the Early Church was the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament with some additions made in Alexandria in the closing centuries of the time before Christ. The writers of the NT worked with the LXX—sometimes referring to either Hebrew or Aramaic if it better communicated their point—but the grand majority of Scripture citations in the NT are from the LXX. The Greek-speaking Eastern churches continued to use it, as they do to this day.
In the West, various people made translations as they were able. And most weren’t very good. Augustine complained about this; Jerome did something about it. In doing his translation work, though, Jerome made a large and decisive break from Church tradition: he decided to translate according to the Hebraica veritas (what would become the Masoretic text [MT]) rather than the LXX. Augustine didn’t like this decision at all, and correspondence survives where they go around on this issue.
Basically, Augustine argues that the Holy Spirit had been at work in the writing of the LXX and that its differences from the MT were because of the Spirit’s unfolding revelation, not corruption or mistranslation. (Jerome disagreed.) I think Augustine may have been unduly influenced by the Letter of Aristeas (which we now believe to be a marketing ploy to increase use and circulation of the LXX above competing versions), but I think that his logic is important to consider from the standpoint of Christian ecclesiology and pneumatology. That is, if the Spirit works through the Church, if the Church is who the Church is because it has struggled with common texts (both of which I believe), then should we use those texts instead of making up an eclectic text or going back to an earlier “unsullied” version? And thus I support on-going study and use of the textus receptus, the KJV, the Vulgate, the Douay-Rheims, even if I disagree on important points with most of the other people who also support them…
So, wait—what does this have to do with the BCP’s psalter? This: Jerome translated the OT of the Vulgate from the Hebrew. But he did the Psalter three different times and the one that stuck was his translation of the LXX. That’s why the psalm numbering of the LXX and the Vulgate disagree with the MT/KJV/RSV/NRSV/etc. Now–enter the Anglicans. When
David Myles Coverdale translated his Bible in 1535, he translated it from the Vulgate. Thus, the Psalter in the first BCP was Coverdale’s translation of the Latin which was Jerome’s translation of the Greek. And we’ve been using it ever since…until now. The Psalter of the ’79 prayer book is a break with an almost 2,000 year Christian tradition of using the LXX Psalter in Christian worship. Western (and Eastern!) liturgy and theology flow from the Psalter as much or more than any other book of Scripture. By changing what we use in worship we are alienating ourselves and our liturgical texts from a classic vocabulary which has been continuously shaping catholic Christians of the British Isles from the beginning.
(Ok, that went on longer than I expected…)
2. Variation in the Offices. The major change between the Office in ’79 Book and its predecessors is the amount of tolerable variation. This occurs most notably in the canticles of Morning Prayer. Classically, we have used the Te Deum, the Benedicite, and the Benedictus. These texts are still present, but are occasional rather than constant. I have a real problem with this because of the formative power of these canticles, especially the Benedictus. The pattern and texture of this canticle has deeply formed Anglicans for centuries. Is there a suitable rationale for watering it down to become one option of several? I’ll give you two for-instances to back me here.
a) Take a look at the General Thanksgiving at the end of the Offices. do you see that phrase “holiness and righteousness” embedded in there? Guess where it’s from… And the more you look for that phrase, the more you’ll find it scattered throughout our prayer book. This is no accident—it’s formation.
b) I was reading a Harry Turtledove sci-fi book a while ago. It was an alternate history work–what if the South had won the Civil War? At the end was a speech from a politician. Turtledove, Jewish–not Anglican, had adapted an actual period speech to fit the circumstances of his novel. I caught my breath when reading it because as it unfolded its form followed, alluded to ,and even directly quoted portions of the Benedictus. It was clear even with Turtledove’s changes that the author had been an Anglican, formed by that text.
3. The Elephant in the Middle of the Liturgy. The greatest failure of the 79 BCP in my estimation is its failure to address the single biggest and most important change to liturgy for centuries. It’s a failure held in common between the Catholic and liturgical Protestant churches; how we address it–whether we address it–will speak volumes for the on-going tale of the liturgy as a vehicle for Christian formation. I speak, of course, of the three-year lectionary.
The heart of the Western one-year lectionary in place up until Vatican II can be traced as far back as our sources will go. One of the earliest surviving lectionaries, the Comes of Murbach, stands as a clear witness to the continuity from the late patristic/early medieval period up until the 1960’s. The Western understanding of the Church Year coalesced around that lectionary. Through centuries, the Church refined the year, its readings, its practices, its ethos, to make it a comprehensive tool for Christian formation. Now–it didn’t teach it well, or make it very accessible to the non-monastic/clerical crowd, but by the end of the early medieval period, this form existed to give incarnate expression to the doctrine of the creeds and the primary religious affections of the Christian life.
Key points of unity which often drew everything together—especially in the festal and fasting seasons–were the collects. That is, language and images from the appointed Gospel or Epistle often make an appearance, helping to bring everything together. I’ll argue that as Anglicanism developed, collects became even more important. If the BCP is the source of our unity and theology, the doctrine and ethos expressed by the collects have a central role in determining how we fill out the theology of the creeds.
But now we have a one-year cycle of collects and a three-year cycle of readings. We are faced with a choice. On one hand, we can let go of the old vision of the unifying power of the liturgical year and choose to move in new directions. On the other, we can adapt the theological and formational logic of the old year to the new system and study and work at introducing a three-year cycle of collects that will once again connect with the Mass lectionary. We have these choices—and I hope and pray that we actually think about them, pray about them, and consciously make a choice one way or the other instead of losing our classical understanding of Christian Time by default.
There’s more to say about these topics—and more topics to raise—but that’s it for now. Thoughts?