I just reread a slightly obscure essay by the late Urban T. Holmes, sometime dean of the School of Theology of the University of the South. The essay, “Education for Liturgy,” comes from the festschrift Worship Points the Way (1981), written for the great liturgical scholar and Episcopal priest, Massey Shepherd, who, among other things, wrote the definitive commentary on the 1928 American Prayer Book. Holmes’s contribution describes some of the processes, scholarship, and theological considerations that led to the construction of the Episcopal Church’s current 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), as well as the significant role that Shepherd played in that process. What has stayed with me is how Holmes described the theological currents that drove those tasked with that enormous project of revision.

“The 1960s was a time when theologians became aware of the bankruptcy of so-called ‘classical theology,’” Holmes explained (131). Those who resisted the new BCP, as well as the charismatic renewal movement, reflected “a nostalgia for a classical theology which many theologians know has not been viable for almost two hundred years” (137). The need for a new liturgy, he argued, was “a question of truth for our time…. The task that lies before us is to show how in fact lex orandi is lex credendi and to rewrite our theology books in the light of our liturgy” (137). In other words, a new theological approach was necessary. And the way to change the theology — particularly in a tradition that does not have instruments of authority that can teach in an authoritative and binding way — is to alter and update the liturgy.

And what is this new theological outlook that is expressed in the 1979 BCP? Holmes is a little vague on this point. But he’s clear that for Shepherd and others, by about 1961, they had concluded (and these are Shepherd’s words), “that Cranmer’s work was no longer adequate. We were going to have to start from the beginning” (129). Thus, “the shift in liturgical renewal in the Episcopal Church [was] coming at this time away from Cranmer and the Tudor deity” and that this shift “should not then be at all surprising” (131).

But what is this shift “away from Cranmer and the Tudor deity?” At the least, it is a move away from the structure of the Eucharistic prayers in English BCPs, all of which reflect his handiwork. The first BCP (1549) was based on the Roman Canon and those that followed retained a threadbare prayer of consecration: a prayer of thanksgiving and summary of salvation, which concluded with an institution narrative but no concluding doxology. In one sense, after its re-founding, the Episcopal Church never knew such a limited prayer, thanks to our adoption of the much more robust Prayers of Consecration from the Scottish Episcopal Church. It was taken over wholesale, save for one small edit: instead of invoking Word and Spirit for the bread and wine to “become” the Body and Blood of Christ, they were invoked that “we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood.”


What makes the Holmes/Shepherd declaration (“we must move away from Cranmer and the Tudor deity”) so provocative is that many trumpet the 1979 BCP as the “triumph of the Anglo-Catholic movement,” and this movement was most certainly committed to the “classical theology” that Holmes and Shepherd, among others, deemed no longer “viable.”

We should remember that there are some very good reasons why the current BCP’s Catholic identity is hailed, and I’ll list these items in order from the book itself. We have:

  • A more robust calendar of saints, including (1) the return (to the American Prayer Book) of the feast of St Mary Magdalene and (2) the placement (for the first time in any BCP) of a primary feast for the Blessed Virgin on August 15, which is the traditional date of the Feast of the Assumption. Remarkably, the 1979 BCP collect reads, “thou hast taken to thyself the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
  • The appearance of a Noonday Office (based on the “little” medieval offices of Prime, Terce, and Sext) and of Compline
  • Robust provisions to celebrate saints days not in the already-expanded calendar, with general collects gathered around some traditional headings (martyrs, monastics) and some newer headings (missionary, pastor, theologian/teacher). Also, corresponding propers for all these days.
  • Robust provisions for masses — i.e. masses in honor of particular Mysteries (the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation), of the Holy Angels, the Holy Eucharist (using Aquinas’ collect for Corpus Christi), and even Requiem Masses (202, 253, 928).
  • Liturgies adapted from the Roman Rite for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week (a significant dearth first filled in Anglican prayers here)
  • Many argue that the Rite I Eucharistic prayers are more “catholic” than the Rite II prayers, in that the Real Presence is articulated more clearly. I am less compelled by this argument and believe that a careful comparison of the rites does not lead to a conclusion that the Rite II prayers are any more “catholic” (a word with a moving-target definition, just like its more negative counterpart “Roman”).
  • The classic and weighty absolution that was in the Visitation to the Sick (the place to which some would point to emphasize that private confession was not rejected by the Church of England) moves into its own rite, Reconciliation of a Penitent, with even the classic beginning, “Bless me, [Father], for I have sinned.”
  • More robust prayer for the departed and the assumption that the faithful departed also pray for us (395; on 489, we ask that we be “aided by their prayers”)

The adoption of Gregory’s Dix’s “four-fold action” theory (i.e. the idea that all historic eucharistic liturgies reflect the four actions seen in the feeding stories and Synoptics institution narratives — taking, blessings, breaking, distributing) is another that was hailed by Anglo-Catholics, despite the fact that there are significant theological and historical problems with the argument (fodder for a different post). One way to understand the decision to move the Confession and the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church from after the Offertory to before it is that their previous location obscured the movement of the action from the “taking” in the Offertory to the “blessing” of the Great Thanksgiving.

One could certainly list other “catholic” aspects of the 1979 BCP, but the question still remains: How does the “Tudor God” differ from the God of the twentieth-century? What aspects of the new Prayer Book expresses a “postcritical [sic] apprehension” of the Christian experience, more consonant with Paul Ricoeur, “Husserl, Heidegger, Otto, and Rahner than [with] Barth or Brunner,” as Holmes would claim (137)? Broadly speaking, the introduction of a greater consciousness about creation and the environment might be fairly placed in this “post-critical” column. I know I always cock my head every time I hear, “give us all a reverence for the earth” (388). “Reverence?” I wonder.

In the 1979 BCP, there is a wider picture of the salvific power, not just of Christ’s Passion, but (as the Litany has always said) of his Incarnation, submission to the law, and especially his Resurrection and Ascension (the last two, joined to the Crucifixion, are commonly gathered under the term “paschal mystery”). This latter point seems to me quite proper but hardly “post-critical.” Wrong adjective, I think.

What else? The concerns raised by some like the late Peter Toon seem a bit over blown He claimed that the opening acclamation of the 1979 BCP’s Eucharistic rite (“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”) forwarded Modalism because there are no definite articles…seems a bit of a stretch, to me. But it is clear that there was a conscious intent to introduce theological change by revising the Prayer Book. This isn’t debated.

One of the most serious of these changes concerns baptismal theology and ecclesiology, which in turn affects the theology of confirmation and of Holy Orders (and possibly other significant matters as well). This issue is explored with seriousness and depth in Colin Podmore’s important essay “The Baptismal Revolution in the Episcopal Church” (Ecclesiology 6), which every Episcopal priest and seminarian should certainly read. This approach is in real contrast to the “communion ecclesiology” expressed so well in the landmark statements of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and in the work of John Zizioulas (Being as Communion and Communion and Otherness), or even the eucharistic ecclesiology expressed by Paul McPartlan.

Many self-described conservative bishops and priests laud the new baptismal liturgy and its relationship to the now functional/psychological approach to Confirmation. They speak about how Anglicans recovered the patristic theology of confirmation as “ordination into/of the laity.” Not only is this a historical fallacy — the idea appears to have originated in the twentieth century — but Podmore shows that, while the 1979 BCP drafters considered this approach, they went one step further. Not Confirmation, but Baptism is ordination, and it is from this that the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons springs. While baptism is certainly related to the historic three-fold order, Catholic theologians have rightly been concerned at how this has become the avenue by which the theological way to ordination is paved for both women and LGBT persons. And this concern is expressed even by those Catholic theologians in favor of both. Louis Weil, former liturgics professor at Nashotah House and then Church Divinity School of the Pacific and participant in the work of the 1979 BCP, explains:

This insight into the tradition on the foundation of a baptismal ecclesiology has similar implications for the current debate about the suitability of homosexual men and women for ordination, a question that is more closely related to the issue of the ordination of women than many have been willing to admit. If discernment concerning suitability for holy orders is grounded in a baptismal ecclesiology, then the fundamental issue is not a person’s gender or sexual ordination, but rather the evidence of the charisms the church needs in its ordained leaders (Weil, quoted by Podmore, 23).

Obviously, there have been different kinds of arguments for both of these particular theological shifts, and honestly that is not the main point here. The more significant feature is both the introduction of a fourth “order” — the laity — and the seemingly contradictory claim that the other three orders spring from that order. This, in fact, is a tension in the 1979 BCP: while “Concerning the Service of the Church” (13) and the Catechism (854-856) lean in this direction, the “Preface to the Ordination Rites” (510) seems to express a more classic theology of orders, recognizable to both East and West.

“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (298). As odd as this sounds, this claim in the preface to the baptismal rite might very well be perplexing to earlier generations (including medieval and patristic theologians), and it all hangs on what we mean by baptism. Is it water and the classic formula derived from Matthew 28, or is there more (laying on of hands by a bishop or priest, chrism, prayer for the Holy Spirit, etc.)? The new book is said to consciously reject “the old understanding of Confirmation” as “theologically, historically, and psychologically untenable” (Holmes, “Education for Liturgy,” 137). But since it was clear that the bishops were not going to cave, Holmes explains, “the alternative was to make the Confirmation rite as ambiguous as possible in the hope that eventually greater theological clarity would emerge and the rite would be an appropriate expression of that new clarity as a source — not a resource — for understanding the meaning of the sacrament” (138).

An issue that requires more careful study is what other revisions the 1979 framers made to “Cranmer and the Tudor God.” As it stands, the 1979 Prayer Book defies categorization: it cannot be simply lionized or patronized, even if, for priests in the Episcopal Church, it must be used (and I certainly use it). But just as there is much reconsideration of twentieth-century theology underway at the present, similar sifting, reexamination, and proposals for correction are necessary for our official liturgies.

In fact, one of the most central and most neglected questions in the liturgical revisions is this: What constitutes the Eucharist? Not, “how is Christ present” or “in what way is the Eucharist a sacrifice.” The bigger question is a serious systematic question, the study of which reveals that many of the post-Reformation debates (Catholic/Protestant, as well as interconfessional debates) were often hung up in the weeds and did not ask the right questions. Dix proposed an answer that provided some fruit but finally proved unsatisfactory. Let us hope that a generation of liturgical theologians might arise after the order of some theological giants of the last century: Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The featured image is “Book of Common Prayer” (2010) by Bryan Sherwood. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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8 years ago

Very helpful in pointing out both what is good and what is problematic about the 79 book. I think perhaps you dismiss old Peter Toon a little too quickly though. I agree with you that he took some shots at the 79 BCP that were not called for, such as his worry about modalism in the opening acclamation. But Toon’s main issue with the 79 book was that it sidelined atonement in its eucharistic rites in favor of a pattern of various types of theological motifs that obscure the true nature of the eucharistic sacrifice. Toon conceded that the things… Read more »

8 years ago

This is really interesting; I will have to look up the Holmes essay for its remarkably blunt statement of lex orandi taking precedence over lex credendi. I’ve often wondered whether this was indeed the assumption of many liturgists in the American church, and it would seem that it is and has been a working assumption for some of them for many decades. I also touched upon the matter in my post “Liturgical Anti-Intellectualism,” if you are interested. There has been some debate between English and American theologians on baptismal ecclesiology. I spend some time discussing this in my introduction to… Read more »

Fr Ian Wetmore
8 years ago

Thanks for this, Father Matthew. Having been formed by, and used the classic BCP in its Canadian iteration from ordination until coming to TEC two years ago, I certainly see a lot of differences in attitude and viewpoint toward baptismal and confirmation theology. I maintain, based on the lessons from Acts as read in the old Confirmation rite, that that clearly is ordination of the laity, and can see how that sacrament is drastically downplayed in 1979. But it also seems to me that, for all the agenda-pushing by Holmes et al, they didn’t achieve a radical revolution. They certainly… Read more »