The Episcopal “Reform of the Reform”

The Episcopal Church is passing through a watershed era. I believe that as the Baby Boomers begin to fade out and Generations X and Y begin asserting our voices, yet more changes remain on the horizon. As these changes are coupled with the growth of information technology, emerging/evolving soical media, and widespread social changes, I think we’re only at the start of a larger, more complicated, more convoluted process than we may suspect.

The Roman Expression

As I read the runes, I believe that one of the coalescing centers that will have an impact on the Episcopal Church to come will be a burgeoning “Reform of the Reform” movement. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is a movement within the Roman Catholic Church that seeks to understand the Reforms of Vatican II within a “hermeneutic of continuity” rather than a “hermeneutic of rupture.” I.e., proponents argue that much of what occurred after the council was not in keeping with either the texts or intentions of the Council Fathers and that many of the changes (and resulting abuses) were beholden to the “Spirit of Vatican II” rather than the texts of the same. (Apparently the Spirit of Vatican II may be recognized by its penchant for felt banners, guitars, and a faux folksy style of presentation…)

One of the central public expressions of this movement is the New Liturgical Movement blog. From perusing that site one can easily be led to believe that this reform is primarily about embracing the Traditional Latin Mass and colorful processions with lots of brocade and lace. Something deeper and more substantial lies below this superficial surface, however.  As I’ve said many times before, liturgical change is fundamentally theological change. Chant, baroque vestments, and classical ceremonial point to a set of theological issues promoted by this movement which include but are not exhausted by the following items:

  • Reclaiming the liturgical heritage of the Western Church in terms of texts, music and ceremonial
  • Emphasizing the liturgy as a central locus of the faith experience and highlighting classical qualities of God-centeredness, reverence, and solemn beauty
  • Re-energizing the new liturgies promulgated by Vatican II by emphasizing the continuity with the Traditional Latin rite
  • Connecting an embrace of the liturgy with  the classic doctrines of the faith
  • Recapturing the spirituality of the Liturgical Year through the emphasis on the official chant propers that ground the Liturgical Year as a fundamentally one-year cycle despite a three-year lectionary in the Novus Ordo

The strongest parts of this movement are not (as sometimes found in the comboxes of the NLM) those who seek a roll-back of Vatican II but those who appreciate the genuine advances of the council yet seek to restrain some of the excess committed in its name.

The Episcopal Expression

I suggest that there is a “Spirit of ’79” that was born from and exists in parallel to the “Spirit of Vatican II.” That is, the 1979 BCP embodied wide-spread changes that were rooted in the scholarship of the Liturgical Renewal that was embodied in Vatican II’s Novus Ordo liturgies. Like the Spirit of Vatican II, the Spirit of ’79 has understood the generous freedoms and liberality of the ’79 BCP as a authorization of liturgical license in general rather than a provision of space for legitimate options. Furthermore, I believe that this Spirit was not simply introduced in the texts but as part of a socio-liturgical movement. It’s no secret that many current Episcopalians are former Roman Catholics. Many, especially some of the more outspoken clergy, swam the Channel because they believed Vatican II did not go far enough and that the journey further could be facilitated within the Episcopal Church.

The time has come to say “enough” to the Spirit of ’79.

As in the best expression of our Roman cousins, I believe that we need to re-assert a hermeneutic of continuity—and not rupture—and embrace the ’79 BCP within the context of classical Anglican liturgy and theology and within the historic expression of the Christian Faith which we understand to be rooted in the Canon of Scripture, the Creeds, the Apostolic Succession, and the Great Sacraments.

What I will not say is that such a movement needs to be started; it already exists albeit in a variety of fragmented forms.

Indeed, I think that an Episcopal Reform of the Reform is the true home for Anglo-Catholics who remain within the Episcopal Church; after all, they were Reform of the Reform before there was a Reform… The movement for more visible creedal orthodoxy on the part of the Episcopal Church is part of this. So is a return of 20-30 somethings who prefer their churches to look and sound like they remember church. So is a backlash against some of the more extreme expressions of liturgical license.

The issue, then, is one of connections—connecting these groups and individuals within the church to one another and helping us find a common voice.

The Common Voice

If there were a common voice for the Episcopal Reform of the Reform, what would it say? I shall offer a few points that I think I hear:

Main Points

  • Fidelity to the ’79 BCP as an authentic expression of the Historic Western Liturgy. The ’79 Book has some infelicities of sound and thought—some notably dated language in some places (yes, Prayer C, I’m looking at you)—but is nonetheless a book that stands within the Historic Western Liturgy and participates within the move ad fontes that restores both Eastern and Western elements to the liturgy. Thus, to paraphrase our Roman cousins, “Read the black; do the italics.”
  • Reorient towards the faith and practice as witnessed in the early days. I.e., reading and teaching the Scriptures and the Church Fathers. Furthermore, not just echoing their words, but learning from them how to think theologically. They used the best science of their day combined with reason directed by the Spirit and shaped by the virtues. The monastic elements of the BCP and the early Anglican attraction to pre-Scholastic monastic practices and teachings commend in my mind special attention to the thought of John Cassian and the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
  • Submission to the Rule of Life inherent in the BCP and the Liturgical Year. This means living it and searching out the riches in it rather than changing it because we fail to see its depths.

Minor Points proceeding from the Major

  • Continued use of both rites. Rite II gives us our prayer in our daily language. Rite I gives us our prayer in language that is apart from our daily language. Both are important vehicles of our Anglian spirituality and theological heritage.
  • Recover the proper place of the Daily Office. Early expressions of Anglicanism over-emphasized the Office to the detriment of the Mass. Our current American practice is an over-emphasis on the Mass to the detriment of the Office. The original intention in the early medieval period and in the Reformation attempts to recapture the early medieval scheme are a harmonious balance of the two.
  • Respect the Creeds. I.e., use them and explain them.
  • Respect the Sacraments. I.e., use them and explain them. Baptism, our inclusive sacrament, prepares us for Eucharist, our intimate sacrament.
  • Emphasize the dignity and God-wardness which is our heritage. Whether the congregation prays eastward (per the rubrics of the ’79 BCP) or facing the priest, let our common prayer be focused on God, not ourselves or the clown up front.
  • Restoring the proper place of both Anglican Chant and Plainchant.

What do you hear?

33 thoughts on “The Episcopal “Reform of the Reform”

  1. David Bennett

    Well said. I agree that a lot of the blame people place on Vatican II, the Novus Ordo, the 1979 BCP, etc, is really an issue with the way in people took them and misused them beyond their original intention. I see nothing in the documents of Vatican II about a lot of the stuff people do in its “spirit.”

  2. Scott

    Amen, haligweorc. All I can do here is enthusiastically sign my name to what you have written here. Couldn’t improve on it if I tried.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Grant, the clown up front… I’m so tired of priests celebrating versus populum who use it as an opportunity to show me their expressiveness and theatrical skills.

    1. Pray the prayer like you mean it, please!
    2. You’re praying it with me, not to me!

  4. Vicki McGrath


    I like all of what you have to say here; it makes a great deal of sense to – and is largely in line with what I do anyway. I have two comments: 1) several years ago before Bishop Vincent Pettit died (he was on the ’79 BCP Committee), he mentioned to me that the editors’ intention for the Prayers of the People was that they would serve not only as usable pieces of liturgy, but also as models for parishes to write their own petitions as seemed fitting. He seemed disappointed that more parishes weren’t doing that. And 2) all of your specific and well-detailed examples seem to coalesce around the move to recover a sense of the transcendence of God, without losing the sense of the immanence. This may probably seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you the number of people over the years who have said to me that that have rejected the “God-out-there” to focus only on the God-within.” But my contention is that if we can’t pray “up”, we can’t really go to the depths of prayer either. The two are necessary aspects of God, worship and the devotional life. And where they have been separated, it has been to the detriment of the Church and , I think, to the detriment of individual believers.


  5. Tim Cravens

    Excellent post.

    Although I spent many years in the Episcopal Church, I am now an Independent Catholic. I have seen ad orientem celebrations done quite well, indifferently, and quite badly, and I have seen versus populum celebrations done quite well, indifferently, and quite badly. I regularly celebrate the Eucharist with congregations both ways, and I have had celebrations that felt to me good, indifferent, and bad in both ways (although it should be pointed out that the priest’s experience may not match the congregation’s). And, being part of a jurisdiction that values authentic liturgical diversity (including the 1979 BCP — and now that our jurisdiction has three seminarians in the minor order of exorcist, I would love to stage an exorcism of the “Spirits” of Vat II and ’79 ;-), I certainly support offering both ways of offering Mass to meet the needs of different people.

    However, having said all that, I find that celebrating versus populum is very distracting for me — it is difficult — not impossible, but difficult — to be prayerful, because even as I avoid “meaningful” eye contact, I can feel the eyes of some congregants on me, and I worry about things I do distracting the congregation. In contrast, when celebrating ad orientem, I find myself much more prayerful, much more drawn into the mystery we celebrate in this great Sacrament, and rather than being distracted by the congregation, I find that sometimes, I can tangibly feel their prayers.

    This is just my experience, and others may have a very different experience, but I just wanted to offer my observations for what they’re worth.

  6. Grant

    Buh bye. I get enough arrogant judgmentalism from so many directions. Please, in your liturgically ‘correct’ corner, do not forget the why and what of the Gospel. I see little of it in this post for all the good ideas mixed into the attitude.

  7. Annie

    That’s a curious response. I’m not reading any attitude here. This seems a very moderate and measured position.

  8. Joe Rawls

    Hear, hear!

    For what it’s worth, I’m a boomer ex-RC who swam the Thames largely because papal authoritarianism and folk masses had become too lethal a combination. I have been spiritually formed to a large degree by the 79 BCP and see no need for any major revisions for at least another generation.

  9. Christopher

    Whether toward the people or toward the East, worship should be toward God. We have tended to think of transcendance as “out there” rather than other-than-ourselves, avoiding a Word other ourselves to us. Immanence as “in here” rather than other-than-ourselves speaking to us among and from within. You cannot have a Christian understanding of one without the other.

    Not only in language but in theology, Rite I speaks outside of our usual range. I have to say I’ve grown fonder of Prayer C as time has passed. It contains Cranmerian elements that I would want to keep. Again, thinking of the BCP as a canon is important to my way of approaching our common praying.

  10. Christopher

    One quibble, I still have a hard time myself identifying as “AngloCatholic” unless it is of the type of Temple or Ramsey or Benedictine balance of Mass and Office. The dismissiveness toward fellow High Churchmen of the time who very much thought themselves catholic in the Caroline mould, liturgical archaeology, and sometimes quick jumps to Roman Catholic understandings of matters like apostolic succession, absolution, etc. of the early Oxford movements are turn offs as is often a want for Roman ecclesiology at odds with our own (in its dispersed authority, communion rather than church emphasis, and lay input) as actually considered beyond theory. Bp Sykes work on this latter is the best I’ve read.

    I would suggest that the Carolines are the Reform of the Reform(ation) long before the Oxford Movement and continue with a balance of drawing from East and West that is a part of what it means to be “Anglican”. They are in continuity with a deepening of the return to the Patristics that Cranmer et al so represented. Often, in fact, we don’t have “reforms of reforms” at all, but multiple inputs of reform at any given moment of our life from Puritans, from Methodists, from Evangelicals, from Oxford, etc. This keeps us healthy.

    What we are seeing is a particular concern for Prayer Book practice which is a traditional Anglican emphasis and one that has been in danger of being undermined by the Spirit of ’79. A spirit which is on the whole at odds with the intent of those who led the changes.

    Rather than “continuity” or “rupture,” I would like to see us deepen in the Prayer Book for a long season.

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    Christopher, I’m not saying that anyone has to be Anglo-catholic; I’m just saying that the Anglo-catholics who are ok with staying would seem to fit naturally into this camp along with others who are not. If Anglo-Catholicism is defined narrowly as nostalgic Victorian Scholasticism then no, I don’t qualify either.

    Prayer C isn’t bad once you get past the opening bits. I find that the call & response doesn’t allow me to pray it as smoothly as Prayer A. (I’m also not as familiar with it as I am with A.)

    I entirely agree on deepening in the Prayer Book for a long season.

    Vicki, I thought this sounded in harmony with what I’ve heard about your parish—and I think you’re an example of one who is not formally “Anglo-catholic” yet still abides in this ethos.

    Thanks for your input, Bishop! Since I’ve (clearly) never celebrated in either direction getting the clergy perspective helps. I think it can be done well (and badly) both ways but my sense is that it may be easier to be done well eastward assuming that the congregation understands the practice and can hear clearly.

    M said exactly the same thing as you when I asked her about directional preference.

  12. John-Julian, OJN

    Christopher, I am definitely with you.

    As a consultant to the BCP ’79 Commission, I was in on everything starting in 1967 (first year our parish was asked to use an “experimental” liturgy), and I think BCP 1979 is a liturgical triumph!

    Here’s the problem: ’79 was created by the best liturgical minds in the Church – most of whom were at least in their 50’s. We had all known long years of 1928 (or the Missal). We had, as it were, a common rock to stand on when we proposed 1979. We looked East and West and backwards and forwards. We saw what 1979 was about, what it was for, what was the logic of the changes, what we dreamed “might be”, what we hoped would come about.

    And then before long most of us began to die off!

    And a generation (and a half?) rose in our place and did NOT have that “common rock” on which to stand. Most seemed to be developmentally disabled when it came to liturgy and history. And, also, Evangelicals appeared (for whom liturgy was poor second to individual “salvation”). The entire culture swung towards an individual-orientation (i.e., liturgy was to please people, make them feel good, etc.)

    So 1979 tended to stand out there as a “new creation” rather than the fruit of dozens of ancient roots. And those who did not know those ancient roots began to make free with the book — claiming one’s “individual rights” to “localize”, with no sense of appreciation of (or concern for) the antiquity. We must be “now” — we must be “relevant” — liturgy must “move” people (or “grab” them).

    I think the time has come to emphasize and promote BCP ’79, not to disclaim it or mess with it! To hold to it with all our power. To take it absolutely seriously. To demand obedience to its content and it rubrics. To bring charges against clergy who fool around with it. It is just too good, and it has not yet had a real chance to soak into the woodwork.

    Anyway, I suppose my reactions are predicable for one in his 77th year! But the past still has immeasurable value.

  13. ambly

    An excellent post Derek. I echo John-Julian’s reverence for the ’79 Book, however, in that I live in fear that I shan’t die before the dreaded new one appears…

  14. Marshall Scott

    Interesting and wonderful, Derek.

    I’ve said it often enough as to surprise no one that I’m ready for revision of the 1979 Prayer Book. However, my thoughts (as I hope I’ve expressed them) are, I think, in line with “Reform of the Reform.” I think we ought to have a Prayer Book that we can all use and all stick to, without those tweaks week by week that interfere with formation by and incarnation of common prayer. And until we have such a new Prayer Book, then I agree that we should stay within its parameters.

    Now, as one of those “clowns” (which can incorporate the image of the “holy fool,” if done carefully), I do find myself being expressive. This is in part an expression of my own pentecostal streak (narrow, but deep; but, then, my contention is that Anglo-Catholic liturgical form is how Anglicans do “pentecostal”); but it’s also because the people I worship with are no longer simply verbal. Jonathan Edwards may have had people swooning based on the words alone, delivered, we understand, in nearly a monotone. Our people, however, educated by radio, film, and television are familiar with inflected speech and reading. The material is poetic, and I think a poetic presentation is not only reasonable but contributes to the congregations engagement of the text.

    Note that I said “worship with.” Whether I face toward or away from the congregation (and as a supply priest I have sufficient opportunities to do both) I do feel I am worshipping with. As I think about priest as ikon Xristi, facing the congregation makes sense; but having been thoroughly convicted of the liminality of the priest (I learned my theology of the priesthood under Holmes), I don’t think that’s necessarily in conflict.

  15. Paul Goings

    To bring charges against clergy who fool around with it.

    I suppose that, unlike the saintly Fr Tooth, the clergy of S. Clement’s won’t have to suffer imprisonment for their many and grievous rubrical offenses, but only deposition and banishment. However, the ones I really feel sorry for are the hapless clergy that will be sent to replace them. Lord have mercy!

  16. ambly

    Yes, Paul, I missed that remark – and while I would hope our bishops ( a vain hope perhaps) would be wiling to speak to the necessity of adhering to the rubrics and encourage a careful and reverential liturgy,
    I think the memory of Fr Tooth should be held in the greatest of esteem.

  17. Caelius Spinator

    Mtr. Vicki–

    “…several years ago before Bishop Vincent Pettit died (he was on the ‘79 BCP Committee), he mentioned to me that the editors’ intention for the Prayers of the People was that they would serve not only as usable pieces of liturgy, but also as models for parishes to write their own petitions as seemed fitting. He seemed disappointed that more parishes weren’t doing that.”

    Back when I was young and foolish, I was asked to do intercessions on the Sunday after Ascension.

    So I proceeded to give each of the intercessions in one of the BCP forms prefaces connected to the Lectionary for the day, always making sure I ended as the Prayer Book did, so that the people would know when to respond. This idea went over extremely well. I was specifically asked by letter to provide a copy to the Liturgy Committee of the parish. And no one ever did anything of the sort ever again.

    My present parish doesn’t use the Prayer Book form in any way, shape, or form but proceeds to write intercessions that often feel alternately Wiccan or written by one of those 20th century liberal Protestant theologians who apparently believed God took the form of a large solar power plant (possibly encased in a Dyson sphere).

    Therefore, I think the good bishop didn’t realize he was in a dilemma. If you don’t give parishes the ability to use alternate forms they’ve written, they may feel stifled in their praying. If you do, they may decide not to be formed by the excellent forms provided as examples and go off in some very bizarre directions. I think I may have inadvertently found a compromise in my adolescence, but no one seemed particularly eager to implement it.

  18. Vicki McGrath

    Caelius Spinator,

    Thanks for your good example, and of course the Rite II prayers of the People rubrics do give guidelines about how to compose such prayers. At my parish we don’t as a rule, write our own POPs – in fact, hardly ever. Only for an occaisional youth Sunday when the kids have been learning the structure of the Prayers or for something like an A.A. Gratitude service where there are some concerns very specific to that particular congregation and also some Episcopal Church-related things that are outside the purview of that group.

    What we DO practice, however, is a full cycle of using all the Eucharistic Prayers and all the POPs at our 10 am service (with Rite I during Lent and EOW during the Season after Epiphany). I realize that this means it takes newcomers a little longer, perhaps, to get the rhythm of how we worship, and be able to sink down into the flow of the liturgy. But it has seemed the best way, to me, to form worshippers who have a real comptency with the BCP. And if our parish has a “default setting” it’s Eucharistic Prayer A, POP III or VI, which we use for all of our weekday services.

    And yes, Derek, you are right. I am not formally an Anglo-Catholic, but a good deal of my heart and sensibility is there. And not only in the aspects of parish worship, but also in the recovery of the full ministries of both parish and monastic orders. I became an Associate of the Community of St. Mary (Peekskill) when I was 20 at the suggestion of my Rector who was then teaching physics at St. Mary’s School. Then several years ago I ended my association there and moved over to the Community of St. John Baptist (Mendham, NJ), where I had done both my pre-ordination retreats and is only 30 minutes down the road from me. These relationships have deepened my worship and understanding of ministry ummeasurably, and are part of what make me what to keep faith with the community of faith throught time as well as space (as in geography).

  19. Christopher

    I ditto Fr. John-Julian’s desire for us to take the BCP seriously. It is a matter of stability.

    We won’t likely see enforcement, but in our own practice, and teaching, and parish interactions, we can lift up the Prayer Book.

    And with Derek’s note, perhaps I can consider myself Anglo-catholic after all, just one at the end of some very long conversations over the course of a century.

  20. John Robison

    I posted a link to this over at my own place and left a bit of a comment there.
    Thank you for this, it says what I’ve been thinking for some time.

  21. Christopher

    Fr Mark at Preludium picks up on your post as filtered through Fr Matt. When the “grump” is in his thirties, it certainly messes with the standard line.

  22. FrSean


    Thank you for your thoughts. As a Gen Xer, I am thankful that I was able to be a part of the last class to have Marion Hatchett at Sewanee for liturgics. Hatchett once stated in class that the rubrics of the 79 Book were written thinking that its new readers would have knowledge of the 28 BCP.

    I recently taught a group of candidates for the diaconate about the 1979 Prayer Book and liturgical theology and one of them said, “I am so surprised to find the ancient roots of the 79 Prayer Book.”

    I teach about it all the time.

    All of that said, there are some minor adjustments needed to the baptismal rite… water bath and chrismation together rather than with the “we receive you” prayer between them.

    After 10 years of ordination and changing the Eucharistic prayer per season of the church year, it seems to me that we could use another 2 or three additional Eucharistic Prayers in Rite II with the heft of historicity of D and B. I am with Derek on Eucharistic Prayer C – it is dated and needs some updating.

    Hatchett still calls for the next revision. I can’t imagine a revision unless the next book is essentially 79 with minor tweaks and an additional option or two. Everything I read says we aren’t headed towards a revision any time soon.

  23. Luiz Coelho


    Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to comment here. Especially because people here have longer intellectual discussions and it’s not fair to leave a post and go away without caring about its possible replies.


    This is a wonderful post, and I need to say AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN to that!

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  25. Alex Scott

    I was just poking through the archives, but I have to add an “Amen,” myself.

    I came to the Episcopal Church from Catholicism in 2006. I’m 28, so the post-Vatican II and post ’79 churches are the only ones I know. Since then I’ve gone all over the theological map, and right now my beliefs are probably closest to traditional Orthodox theology. So I guess I’m Anglo…Byzantine? However, I’m more than happy with the TEC the way it is now, and I consider the BCP ’79 one of the most valuable books I have. I’d love to see it build on the strengths of the liturgy and develop more in its theology so it can present a clear, authentic, Anglican, and especially Christian voice.

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