Taxonomical Observation on the 79 Prayer Book

In pondering two volumes on my shelves, it occurs to me that they are taxonomically distinct. The first is the Deposited English 1928 BCP from Canterbury Press containing the Office readings (affectionately known as “the brick”); the other is my standard American 1979 BCP.

The Deposited ’28 is a missal/breviary combination with an affixed ordinal and ritual.

The ’79 BCP is a sacramentary/expanded psalter combination with an affixed ordinal and ritual.

I wonder what the significance of this is…

To expand on this briefly, a missal is itself a combination of books: a sacramentary (which contains the ordinaries and proper prayers of the Eucharist) + an evangeliary (the Gospel readings for the Mass) + an epistolary (the Other biblical readings from the Mass classically taken from the Epistles) + a gradual/mass antiphoner.

All English BCP and American BCPs before the ’79 have included the first three, and it’s worth the redundancy to underscore that the Gospels and Epistles for all Masses in the year were printed in the prayer book. The American 1979 BCP is the first to contain a lectionary list rather than the texts themselves.

The first English BCP made an attempt at a restricted protestant gradual but the second reduced it to a tiny vestige in the Offertory sentence and the pretense rather than the substance thereof has been maintained since. Where the ’79 BCP goes a step farther—arguably a large step farther—in regard to the gradual is in the clear recognition of its absence. At each point where an element would be sung from the gradual it provides permission for a “hymn, Psalm, or anthem” (with the exception of the readings where it suggests a “Psalm, hymn, or anthem” clearly intending the use of a gradual Psalm from its lectionary). Rather than pretend that the space has been filled or that no space exists, it draws attention to the space within the service.

A breviary is likewise a combination of Office books: a psalter (which contained a kalendar, the psalms, the canticles, and some of the commons of the hours) + a legendary (which gave the readings and, in some taxonomies, itself incorporates the homiliary, Bible, and Martyrology from which these readings are drawn) + a collectar (which gave the collects both proper and ordinary—and sometimes a sacramentary was used instead as it already had the collects) + an antiphoner (which had the propers) + a hymnal.

BCPs have always contained an expanded psalter with an integral collectar thanks to the repurposing of the Mass collects; the antiphoner was largely dropped at the Reformation. Both readings and hymns appear in some printings and not others.

The conclusion that I draw is that the ’79 BCP appears to present itself as a more taxonomically primitive rite whose historical analogs flourished in the early medieval period of the Western liturgy.

So—what are the take-aways here? I don’t know, I’m still working through them. I can think of two, however:

  1. The text of the ’79 BCP requires more supplementary material and books in order to create a complete rite. At the very least, a valid rite whether Mass or Office cannot be performed without a Bible or a lectionary book of readings whereas at least Mass could be said with no other sources in the past.
  2. As we see in the early medieval rites, the lack of incorporation of more elements gives a greater flexibility—which is sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes neutral. We can’t fail to observe that this flexibility has already been significantly leveraged: the mass lectionary originally printed in the ’79 book has already been removed and the Revised Common Lectionary put in its place.

I’m still thinking—what are your thoughts?

17 thoughts on “Taxonomical Observation on the 79 Prayer Book

  1. Christopher

    The BCP in one version or another has been the devotional book for many Anglicans for many centuries. I don’t want us to lose that. The unbounding of our book, which John Baldovin warned us about quite some time ago, is the unbounding of us as a community.

    It is the need for many books that is one of the things that makes less friendly the Offices in ’79, at least for me. I think especially of when I’m traveling. One could always resort using the lections for Sunday in the past. Now, what I tend to do is use one of the Opening Sentences. Or take Monastic Breviary instead, which has a handy set of passages for the traveler. Or with my handy new iphone, just go St. Bede’s… It could be that smartphone technology may be a way for many to use the Prayer Book in ways that prevent our loss of it as our devotional book par excellence… Flipping through several books in the palm of my hand feels very different from the other…

  2. John Bassett

    Not having the readings in the book served not only to keep the thing at a reasonable size, but also allowed for a variety of approved translations to be used. If the readings had been printed in the book, we’d have been been stuck with the RSV forever.

  3. C. Wingate

    John, you say that as if it were a bad thing. :)

    The bigger issue as far as the office readings is concerned is that the 1979 readings take you through so much material that the book would have been gargantuan if they were included. IIRC each one year volume of daily office readings, as they come from Church Publishing, is the size of the whole BCP.

    OTOH the 1979 also offers its “ultrabrief-iary” in the form of the “daily devotions”, which scripture and all fit on a card that will fit in your pocket.

  4. Derek Olsen

    Ding, ding—John gets a gold star!

    The proliferation of Bible translations was no doubt a major factor in why the Gospels and Epistles (and First Lesson) were no longer printed in the book. Not only had the number of readings increased by at least a factor of five (!) but there was no longer one preferred translation of the Bible into contemporary English.

    And, one that note, John’s comment also reminded me that my taxonomy of the current BCP is incorrect: it’s actually a sacramentary/another sacramentary/expanded psalter combination with an affixed ordinal and ritual.

    Each of the two rites has its own full sacramentary. (Note that we don’t have a correspondingly doubled psalter since the key factor—the psalms—aren’t included in their Rite I form.)

  5. Derek Olsen

    C., True—there’s a reason why we call the Canterbury Press ’28 “the brick”…

    Yes, there are the little family offices (which were also found at the back of the American 1928 book). And in raising this you address yet another class of book which is folded into the BCP—the prymer. I’m actually in the middle of a study which I hope to start producing here soon that lifts up the prymer as one of the more overlooked but important antecedents to and influences on the BCP generally and the English-language Daily Office in particular.

  6. Christopher

    A problem however with this approach is that it sets aside the idea of a bible that is meant for liturgical use. How often it is still KJV or RSV texts that are so deeply ingrained in me, that I can recall them at a moment. What Lutherans might call the Christusresonanz is decreased in impact by everchanging rounds of translations, useful for many things, but not necessarily for formation liturgically.

  7. C. Wingate

    I was going to make some not-well-informed remark about books of hours but I see that the prymer discussion will encompass them. BTW I gather that Wikipedia’s identification of one with the other is not really correct?

  8. Derek Olsen

    Well, Christopher, as we’ve discussed there are precious few Bible translations that function well for liturgical reading or were intended for such. By all accounts the best “contemporary” one for such use is the Revised English Bible which is not common but which is directly sanctioned for use in our church by Canon 2.2.

  9. Derek Olsen


    The Wikipedia connection between Books of Hours and the prymer is not wrong, it’s just not expressed very clearly there. Rather, I’d say that books of hours are a subgroup within a larger category of prymer.

  10. C. Wingate

    That’s what I meant: it seemed clear from other material I came across that the one was a subgroup of and not synonymous with the other.

  11. Former Postulant

    Dr. Olsen,

    You wrote, “All English BCP and American BCPs before the ’79 have included the first three,”. My copy of the 1549 BCP, which was published in 2003 by Morehouse has only the lectionary list of Epistles and Gospels listed under each Collect, which is also the case for the 1552 reprint done by Kessinger. Thus the 1549 is quite a slim volume while the 1552 is a bit larger because it also contains the Ordinal.

    This, your website, does not seem to have a facility whereby one might contact you directly by Email. I would like to discuss some of your points about CWOB, to which I am opposed, directly rather than in comments. Now that you have my Email address that is possible if you are willing. If not, you will not hear further from me.


  12. Derek Olsen

    Former Postulant,

    It is true that some of the modern reprints don’t have the biblical texts. The original editions as printed at the time of their adoption did.

    I hadn’t noticed that my email had dropped off—likely in the last template change… I’ve sent you a note.

  13. Stephen Houghton

    But not having a prefered translation is extreamly problimatic. The most important role of tradition is the interpritation of the scriptures. That understanding is exactly what should be reflected in a good translation.

  14. John-Julian Swanson

    What some of you young’uns have forgotten is that in the old missal days, 99.5% of the time it was one guy at the altar who very often did all the introiting, reading, gradualing, tracting, gospelling, offertorying, and post-communion praying single-handedly (only if he was an extreme radical did he face the congregation for the Gospel — an notably awkward thing to do with a weighty 30 pound book in your hands — and try turning a page!). And also remember that there were virtually no vocational Deacons to proclaim the Gospel.
    One of the points of the 1979 is that all those things are actually intended to be done by someone other than the Presider, so there was no point in putting them all in the Presider’s book (or in the people’s pew books). I think this is one almost unnoticed “plus” — I well remember the universal tops of heads I could see from the altar when I was proclaiming the Gospel and they were all buried in their 1928 BCP’s (I always accused them of checking upon me and making sure I didn’t alter a word of the KJV). Now (aside from Church Publication’s subversive bulletin inserts) there is at least an inclination for the congregation to listen to the readings. And even to participate in the gradual, etc.
    And, come on, Church Publishing produces a handsome little two-volume set (Year 1 and Year 2) with the Offices, Psalter, and readings for when one travels.

  15. Virginia S. Moe

    I just came across this tonight while doing some research. I am a cradle Episcopalian Music Director/Choir Director/Organist working in an Episcopal church, and you folks are over my head historically, but I can address the practical side of things. The result of the many choices in 1979 BCP has been catastrophic in terms of the congregation knowing the liturgy, knowing the texts of the historical mass parts, singing service parts and hymns, and knowing scripture. Clergy have been so excited by all the choices that they want to use all of them every week. Many musicians now spend a lot of time trying to reduce the many choices of the 1979 BCP into a steady musical and liturgical diet which, when used over and over throughout the years, will produce a well rounded Episcopalian. Congregation members think that the choices of lections, hymns, mass parts (or other substitutes) prayers, and all liturgical actions are completely arbitrary, and in my experience, these congregants are often right. Rather than choosing music and liturgy based on reason, tradition, scripture, lectionary amd pastoral concerns, choices are often made on personal preference of the clergy. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a priest say “Oh I love XXX, let’s sing it.” It makes the congregation think the entire service is ll just for fun, and having worked in a few other denominations, I can tell you that just arbitrarily chosing liturgical content is poison for a congregation. It devalues the service which is our core value and necessarily other values (like doctrine or clergy idolization) take over. It is difficult to lead a congregation into being strong Episcopalians when there is litle clear guidance from the BCP.

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