Prayerbook Appreciation: The Fundamentals

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

19 thoughts on “Prayerbook Appreciation: The Fundamentals

  1. AKMA

    Derek, I agree vigorously with your points here, and have for a long time. One additional point worth emphasising, though, is the importance of not allowing US exceptionalism to determine liturgical reasoning any more than foreign policy. When I lived in the States, I always chafed at the extent to which people treated ECUSA’s Baptismal Covenant as though it were an ecumenical creed. That’s all the more obvious to me here in Scotland, where not the US Baptismal Covenant, nor the US BCP, nor the English BCP necessarily bears significant weight in liturgical reasoning.

  2. Derek the Ænglican

    Heh—nope, hadn’t seen it yet, Michelle. But you’re also talking about a private liturgy which, as you acknowledge, is a different animal.

    That’s a great point, AKMA. I think this phrase: “treated ECUSA’s Baptismal Covenant as though it were an ecumenical creed” really hits the nail on the head especially as portions mentioning “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” never seem to be in scope…

  3. Paul Goings


    Not to read too much into what was presumably a tongue-in-cheek remark, but, when all of the parishes with buildings that also have the “Episcopal” sign also have daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Holy Eucharist on all feast days, that’s when I’ll start to worry about our “dishonesty.”

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    I don’t think I’d call St Clement’s “dishonest,” rather, I think of it as one of a handful of authentic “shrine” churches that exist outside the usual run of Episcopal churches. Churches like St Clement’s, Mt. Calvary (which is where we went Sunday), Gregory of Nyssa and others serve as reminders of what exist beyond the boundaries and inspire those within the boundaries.

  5. Christopher

    I would add that the problem is folks read the Baptismal Covenant as if not through the lens of The Apostles’ Creed at its head, which places the Triune God at the heart of that to Whom we make our response, namely our responsibilities so enumerated thereafter. We treat the Former as absent (I don’t hear many talking about the Creed as part of the Covenant which is initiated and sustained by God) and the latter as rights when in fact the Former is our ground–the very Reason for our participation by grace at all, and the latter are our responsibilities and duties toward God, Church, and neighbor flowing out of this God who so loves us…

  6. Michael

    “If the sign out front says “Episcopal,” then the liturgy celebrated inside should be found within the book.”
    I’m not Episcopalian, but I’m definitely “Anglo” in my disposition, and work at an Episcopal church. I try to make this point at least 8 times a year, but to no avail. General convention has authorized so much supplemental stuff, and “Rite III” or whatever allows for almost anything to be gotten away with. A recent cathedral-sponsored workshop on “paperless” music has about pushed me into despair that there’s anyplace in the “welcoming” EC for anyone mildly traditional. I’m in the midst of a paper on the rites of the First Two Prayer Books of Edward, and the Marian restoration; I used to like the 79 alright … but I’m feeling more and more as though the 79 is a lot like the first BCP: it was hoped that it would make everyone “protestant”, and when Cramner et al saw that people were managing to remain catholic under it, further revisions were necessary! Alas.
    Love your blog!

  7. John-Julian,OJN

    Oh, Michael, you must be SOOO very young!

    The fact is that the 979 BCP is virtually a triumph for traditional Anglo-Catholics.

    You must never have had to break the law in order to recite the Gloria at the beginning of Mass rather than at the end.

    You must never have battled about Eucharist being the primary worship service on Sundays.

    You must never have tried to jigger minor saints into a calendar which made no provision for them.

    You must never have run the legal/ecclesiastical risk of actually celebrating the Easter Vigil (at a time when Eucharists were not permitted to be celebrated after noon).

    You won’t even know what TAARP means (“Take ablutions at right place”).

    Yes, of course, there is (as Derek points out) a lot of “elasticity” in the BCP 79 — it allows quite a wide spectrum of possibilities (that made it politically possible to get it passed at GC). But the important thing is that absolutely solid Anglo-Catholic teaching and practice are ENABLED and LEGITIMIZED by this BCP. Paraphrasing the preacher at my 1957 ordination, “With BCP 79, you can be as Catholic as you want to be.” — and that is a glorious goodness.

    I’m entirely ready to say (and to back up the claim) that BCP 79 is the finest single liturgical document in the history of the Christian Church!

  8. David Englund

    So, Derek,
    I do appreciate and learn from your blog. I have been an Episcopal Christian for 10 years, and a priest for five years. I love the Prayer Book, love the liturgy, and count myself blessed by God to be able to do this. You have help me considerably to appreciate the Anglican, as well as the great Catholic tradition. However, a question. I have heard you opine regarding Axiom #3 several times. I like to believe that it is true. But the question, from a historical reading, where has the Prayer Book tradition actually worked as you suggest in Axiom #3. When I read English Church history, I see the Prayer Book as shaping liturgical realities, and it is possible that for some monastics and other learned scholarly types, the Prayer Book did actually provide a ‘rule of life’. By the time of the Wesley’s, it does not readily appear that the prayer book was funcioning in English Church life as you suggest. Again, I recognize the ideal, and understand that various people throughout history have written about the ideal, but where did actually form life in ordinary people as the ideal would intend?
    I do believe that the Prayer Book tradition should function as the ideal suggests, but my admittedly limited experience of American Episcopal Church life suggests that the Prayer Book tradition hasn’t come close to the ideal here either.

  9. Derek the Ænglican

    You’re right, David, axiom 3 is an ideal. My initial response that whether it has occurred en masse historically or not it is still a worthy ideal… My second would be to say that it’s a very difficult thing to assess, partly because so much of it falls into what people were doing without having to say anything about it. You’re right to point out the Wesleys, though. I’d suggest that the third point of the General Rules for the United Societies proposes just this (as the members were Anglicans…).

    I’m not a big reader of American History but I’ve been struck several times when reading historical speeches from the 1800’s (especially Civil War era) how many of them contain references to the Benedictus and other Office texts (which were, of course, their “Sunday Service” texts as well). I think that’s the clearest and best kind of evidence to answer the specific question you’re asking and I don’t have the kind of evidence to hand to argue it.

    That having been said, I think we can say that it: 1) was an original ideal of Cranmer based on his preface to the first BCP, 2) it has been a consistent ideal that Anglicans theologians and teachers have returned to time and again over almost five Anglican centuries, 3) it remains a worthy ideal for a church that seems unclear as to its own spirituality and theological roots. This doesn;t mean that every Episcopalian will come close to this. But if the fact that such an ideal even exists can be circulated, I think it will be a plus.

  10. David Englund

    Thanks for this. I can attest in my own life to the power of the Offices as practiced on a regular basis. In addition, my wife has reecently joined me in daily practice of Morning Prayer. Just a few minutes ago she was talking about what a powerful effect it has been having on her.
    So, I am not against the ideal. There are two places where I would tend to want to add. The first is the regular practice of disciplines like fasting. I know that in the Bidding on Ash Wendesday, faasting is enjoined, however I think there could be more emphasis. It has again produced powerful results in my life, not in a dramatic way but over a long period of time. The second place where I would like more emphasis is on the “study” of scripture. Coming from an evangelical “biblical” tradition, I am always amused at how much the Prayer Book tradition uses Scritpure as opposed to how much scripture one encounters in an evangelical setting. I do not mean the more academic study of scripture as in EFM, but rather the study of individual books and the Scriptures as a whole as a “system of thought.” I know that this will betray some ofmy prejudices, but I find that modern Episcopalians have a rather cavalier attitude to Scripture that encourages peacemeal approaches. In other words, lots of Episcopalians take portions of scripture (as in the lectionary portions) and insert them into a Modern/post-modern worldview. They do not seriously engage Scripture as a world view that is radical. Probably what I am talking about is something akin to the great tradition of Expository Preaching on biblical books.
    With all of that, I am still grateful to be a part of this tradition. It is indeed rich and fruitful.

  11. Derek the Ænglican


    I can’t help but be amused as I just read these words in Wesley’s General Rules:

    It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

    Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:
    The public worship of God.

    The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.

    The Supper of the Lord.

    Family and private prayer.

    Searching the Scriptures.

    Fasting or abstinence.

    Seems that the fundamentals of being “Anglicans in earnest”–which was his goal–still remain the same!

  12. Pingback: Prayerbook Appreciation: Core Principles « haligweorc

  13. Matthew


    I’ve read and enjoyed both this post and its successor: thank you for them. The only quibble I’d offer is that I make much less of the Vatican II than you do, and would point to it as a highly significant but not authoritative endpoint of the liturgical movement as a whole. I’ve been greatly enjoying George Guiver’s _Vision Upon Vision_ on the nature of liturgical renewal, and your posts are helping me to think through some of the points Guiver argues.

  14. Derek Olsen

    Thanks, Matthew. As a medievalist I tend to make less of Vatican II than appears here. However, there is so much of Vatican II and the agenda of the Liturgical Renewal Movement enshrined in the ’79 BCP that to use this book as a normative standard means bringing the council into more active conversation than I might ordinarily.

  15. James

    Regarding the ruberics of the 1928 Prayerbook (USA), most Anglo-Catholics ignored them and to hell with what the bishop said. St. John’s in Detroit, MI ( is a fine example of a historic Anglo-Catholic Parish that still uses the 1928 Prayerbook as it’s main text. St. John’s also uses the American Missal for it’s daily eucharist. The American (Missal) is far a better liturgical text than the ECUSA’s Book of Alternate Services or rather the 1979 Prayerbook.

    I live in an area now where all parishes use the ’79 Prayerbook, but I still use the 1928 Prayerbook in my own recitation of the Daily Office. Currently I recite Morning Prayer and a Prayer to St. Michael; and Evening Prayer with the Ave, Regina calorum and another Prayer to St. Micahel. I believe the Angelus belongs at the end of the mass and not recited at the Daily Office. Although, If anyone wanted to recite it before the office than that’s really a personal taste. Why not pray the rosary with it’s coresponding mysteries as a seperate devotion?

    Also not everyone who uses the ’28 Prayerbook is a conservative-fundamentalist. I’m rather progressive, I support ordination for all who wish to serve the Lord and thier fellow man. But, I abhor liturgical “innovation”; I much enjoy classical Anglicanism celebrated in a catholic context. I guess that makes me a Prayerbook Catholic, as those innovations I see in the ’79 Prayerbook do not appear to be Anglo-Catholic, but “Roman” Catholic. Anglo-Catholicism and Catholicism as practiced on the continent were and are not the same.

    I did thoroughly enjoy the article and all the others I have read here. It has given me new insight into the ’79 Prayerbook and removed some of the prejudice I have against that book. But, all in all the ’28 Prayerbook is still for me, well in a way. I actually use the Book of Common Prayer by Lancelot Andrews Press. It is the premiere version of the ’28 Prayerbook for catholics and loyalists to the older liturgies, especially with the inclusion of the other Prayerbook Eucharistic Canons. This gives the ’28 Prayerbook a little more variety, and that’s ok too.


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