Scott once referred to this blog jokingly as the ’79 Prayer Book Society and it does have a certain truth to it. As much as I love my medieval liturgies, I pray from the ’79 BCP at least twice a day (or at least intend to…).
For Episcopalians, the ’79 BCP is the book that we have. It’s not perfect, it’s not the prayer book of my dreams, but it’s Pretty Darn Good. Furthermore, it’s in the canons. As Christopher and bls have pointed out, having a set text may seem boring to some, but it is also a contract and a form of protection for the laity. Respect for the BCP on the part of the clergy is a act of respect towards the people in the pews. Endless clerical tinkering and liturgical innovation—particularly those changes done in the name of inclusivity and egalitarianism—are simply new expressions of the old disease of clericalism. If the sign out front says “Episcopal,” then the liturgy celebrated inside should be found within the book. This is our liturgical text—period.
However…that period isn’t quite as solid as it sounds. For a number of reasons, most of them good, the ’79 BCP is a very gracious and permissive book, allowing quite a number of options within its core liturgies. “May” and “or” are frequently used words.
If consistency and coherency are to be honored as an act of honoring the whole congregation, of providing what the laity have come to expect and aiding in the process of liturgical formation, are there fundamental principles that we can use to determine which options we select and how we fill in these blanks the the BCP allows? Yes and no.
On one hand, No—there’s no one size that fits all. The generosity is there for a reason. Given the three great traditions within the Episcopal Church and the myriad subgroupings therein, one set of rules for all completely defeats the purpose of the book and would, in any case, be roundly ignored anyway.
On the other hand, Yes—in the name of consistency and coherency, I believe that it is incumbent upon congregations to develop a sense of themselves and their patterns in and with this book. Congregations, their constituent members, and like-minded comrades should have a sense of how they regard the book, how they understand its options, and why they make the choices they make.
What I propose, then, is to think through some fundamentals in regard to the use of and formation in and through the ’79 BCP. I’m a layperson myself, so there’s obviously nothing official in these thoughts; they’ll be directly actionable only in that they reflect what I’m hoping to embody in and through the St Bede’s Breviary and related materials. I’m not trying to set anybody straight or to come up with one rule to rule them all—as the foregoing statements ought to make clear.
All that having been said, I’ll begin with a few axioms concerning what the BCP is that we can return to for guidance along the way.
- Axiom 1: The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church is a legitimate heir of the Western Liturgical Tradition especially as read through the reforming work of the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council.
That is, somebody didn’t just sit down and make up the BCP. It stands in organic continuity with the wider Western (and preeminently catholic) understandings of what the Mass, Office, and other liturgies are and contain. While there is a family resemblance between the texts of the current BCP and the classical Western liturgical texts, the similarities are closest between this BCP and the liturgies as reformed by Vatican II. Indeed, both the Vatican II liturgies and the ’79 BCP (and a host of other recent protestant liturgies including the now superseded Lutheran Book of Worship, the current PCUSA Book of Common Worship, and the United Methodist Hymnal and Book of Worship) all drew from the ecumenical Liturgical Renewal Movement. Whatever one thinks of Vatican II—and I think a number of things, not all flattering—Roman Catholics must recognize it as an authoritative Council and, pragmatically, its changes are magisterial teachings implemented in all but the most recalcitrant Roman parishes today.
- Axiom 2: The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church is a legitimate heir of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer tradition rooted in the original prayer books of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and mediated by such notable ancestors as the 1637 Scottish (Laudian) BCP, the 1662 English BCP, and the American 1928 BCP.
Yes, there are changes, yes, Cranmer would be less than thrilled at our current Daily Office Lectionary, but nonetheless, there’s no doubt that this volume is, in fact, a Book of Common Prayer.
This axiom both builds on and says something different from the one before it. On one hand, Anglican is an acknowledged subset of the great Western Liturgical Tradition. On the other, there are distinctive Anglican practices and theologies (a “patrimony” for lack of a better word…) embedded within it.
- Axiom 3: Adherence to the BCP is a spiritual discipline intended to form those who pray it into certain liturgical, theological, and devotional patterns that express the Christian life as Anglicans have received it. It offers a rule of life simple enough for all Episcopalians to embrace it.
The point is for the liturgy to change you, not for you to change the liturgy. Don’t mess with what you don’t fully understand—and there aren’t many Episcopal clergy I know who I’d say fully understand this stuff. (And, oddly, you won’t catch most of them trying to make changes to it either. Hmmm…)
Next: A set of Principles moving from the Axioms