Rubric Note on the Prayer Book System

As has been mentioned here before, we understand the Book of Common Prayer most clearly when we grasp that it is more than just a book of prayers—rather it contains an implicit rule of life. One of the difficulties in former days as well as our own is the full enacting of this rule. Because it is implicit rather than explicit, it requires a careful reading of the book to discern the collective wisdom of the church that has handed it down to us.

The really short form is this: The Daily Offices are our daily set prayers; Eucharists are for Sundays and other Holy Days; private prayers—whether extemporaneous or fixed—occur throughout the day and night.

Throughout most of our history, the Eucharist point has been problematic. For generations, puritan-prompted practices have prevailed in many places and the Eucharist has been infrequent at best. These days, naturally the tide has turned, certainly in the American Church, and now we seem in danger of losing the Office…

My point, though, is this. The current American BCP lays out the pattern in our first full paragraph of the book:

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)

But where do we get the same sense from our predecessor books?Yes, the fact that there are Collects, Epistles, and Gospels appointed for all Sundays and Holy Days in the English BCPs does recommend it, but doesn’t determine it.

I stumbled across the answer quite by accident while looking through John Jebb’s The Choral Service of the United Church of England and Ireland: tucked into a rubric after the communion service in the 1662 book is this gem:

And in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, and Colleges, where there are many Priests and Deacons, they shall all receive the Communion with the Priest every Sunday at the least, except they have a reasonable cause to the contrary.

In looking back, this principle isn’t clearly stated in the first 1549 book, but, oddly in the most protestant of our books, the 1552 revision, the rambling post-communion rubric of 1549 is trimmed and altered to this of which the 1662 rubric is only a slight expansion:

And in Cathedral and Collegiate Churches, where be many priests and deacons, they shall all [who all—the priests and deacons or all present?] receive the communion with the minister every Sunday at the least, except they have a reasonable cause to the contrary.

So—there you have it. Even in our most protestant book, we find the legislated rule on the reception of the Eucharist. Of course, as Jebb points out, this rubric (in its multiple forms) was widely ignored. Furthermore, in the rubrical abbreviation of the first American book, it disappeared. Nevertheless, its early presence despite its lack of practice reminds us that there is a fundamental pattern of piety taught in the Prayer Book even if it has only been followed in fits and starts.

6 Replies to “Rubric Note on the Prayer Book System”

  1. Very interesting indeed! Here I used to think the reason Episcopalians (1960’s/1970’s) only celebrated The Holy Communion once a month was because of Calvinist influence (maybe it was) but as pointed out, it was not to be so from the beginning. Guess, that shows Episcopalians weren’t all that smart after all.

  2. I know this is so simple as to be almost childish, but the fact is that the Daily Office truly “works well” only for those who use it consistently and regularly, whereas the Eucharist “works well” even for every-now-and-then-ers. The Daily Offices have a kind of “string” attached which runs through them all; and the Eucharist doesn’t.

    In every parish where I have been a full-time parish priest I have always scheduled both Daily Office and Daily Mass — and the practical fact is that generally folk would much rather come to a weekday Eucharist than to a week day Office. And I think my initial statement above is the reason.

    (And, by the way, doesn’t the fact that Cranmer required four Communions a year — a minimum which soon sadly became a maximum – have some play here?)

  3. Matthew,
    The Church of England in the Hanoverian period was distinctly Protestant in part because most of bishops and senior clergy of the High Churchmen were Non-jurors. That is, they had sworn allegiance to James II—England’s first and last Roman Catholic King since the Elizabethan Settlement. Under his reign, they had fought to keep the Church of England Protestant, yet still in touch with its catholic roots. With the revolution and the following accession of the (Dutch Reformed) William and Mary, they refused to forswear their oaths to the former king and were promptly kicked out. As a result, the leading churchmen of the day were either of a Reformed temperament or were latitudinarians (the future Broad Churchmen). So “Low” was the norm. As a result, even with the Scottish Episcopal influence, the American Church inherited practices from a fairly low system as can be seen by comparing our very sparse kalendar in our first book to the English 1662 or the Scottish 1637.

    Fr. John-Julian,
    Right as usual!

  4. I would venture to guess that the abeyance of the Every Sunday rubric in the earlier American Books may have been due, in addition to the prevailing “low” tendencies of the era which you note, to the paucity of clergy in the colonies — a practical reason for the rarity of communion was the lack of presbyters; this circumstance could not but amplify the trend towards use of the Office as a primary form of worship in many places.

  5. Are you at all familiar with ‘The Prayer Bood Pattern: A Consideration’, by ‘Caroline Adams’ (pseudonym of a Solitary of the Church in Wales) , goes on to say, ‘offers a pattern for worship and life, and the key to the meaning of this pattern lies in a full understanding of the Holy communion order as the focus and llimax of the church’s offering….”
    My copy has no date at all, but I think it was published in the late 1950s.
    I commend it to you all.
    Rdr. James Morgan

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