By Andrew McGowan

Editor’s note: This is the third piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appeared in the Oct. 30 issue. Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 prayer book?” is the well-known first piece in the series. Further essays in Necessary or Expedient? will appear here in the coming weeks and months. Click here to find and then bookmark the series. 

The Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 was seen by supporters and detractors alike as a step toward making the liturgy more relevant to contemporary experience. The main inspiration for its changes, though, was more ancient than modern.

Across the 19th and 20th centuries, liturgical scholars of different traditions focused on the practices of the ancient and undivided Church. They believed this ancient pattern of liturgy was especially reflected in documents like the Apostolic Tradition, a Church Order commonly attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, and the fourth century catecheses of Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem.

This scholarly consensus deeply influenced liturgical changes made through the mid-20th century, not just in the American Book of Common Prayer but in the Roman Rite, in other books of the Anglican Communion, and in many Protestant traditions. These parallel reforms promised not only a renewal of faith from ancient sources but a future in which the commonality of Bible, creeds, and sacraments drew Christians closer in worship and mission.


The results are familiar, if often taken for granted: the centrality of the Eucharist as the principal Sunday gathering; the reclaiming of the older term of Eucharist, with its emphasis on communal thanksgiving (over against Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper); reducing penitential and individualistic aspects; changed lectionary patterns, with renewed emphasis on the Old Testament; renewal of distinctive seasonal practices and rites, not least for Lent and Easter; and the understanding of baptism as a single, complete sacrament of conversion and incorporation.

All these are important to the current Book of Common Prayer, and all came from renewed engagement with ancient Christian practice. yet while familiar, none of these changes has actually been neatly or completely received in the Episcopal Church, even as it starts to plan for a new book. Though more energy is focused on what General Convention described as the need to “utilize the riches of our Church’s liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender, and ethnic diversity,” the ancient question of being “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is even more fundamental, and invites fresh attention.

Learning to give thanks

While the Sunday Eucharist has certainly become the norm in the Episcopal Church, as in the early Church, the understandings accompanying it have not always developed quite as the book’s framers might have imagined. Many Episcopalians were not accustomed to a norm of eucharistic worship, and the Eucharist is sometimes assimilated to previous patterns and assumptions. The theology of the prayer book’s rite is broadly catholic, but the sacramental sensibilities of many worshipers today are … not so much.

The retreat from penitential language in the 1979 book, and from one-sided attention either to the consecrated elements or to personal readiness for Communion, were intended to give way to a joyful sense of Christ’s presence that joined elements, actions, and community. This is often a real characteristic of the best Anglican worship, of course. A new book, however, does not in itself replace older patterns and understandings, at least not in one or two generations.

At some points older ritual habits and understandings still undercut the text of the book. In many places the offertory has been reclaimed as significant, and the people bring the gifts — bread and wine as well as their own monetary and other offerings — as a clearly eucharistic action. Elsewhere, however, more fuss is still made of the money offering (Old Hundredth sung stirringly to underline its importance) while the eucharistic elements appear at the table as though from nowhere.

Other features of liturgy certainly seem to have changed, in appearance. The now-widespread interest in the aesthetic accoutrements of liturgy can seem like a nod to the value of art or ritual, rather than a testimony to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Episcopal Church is too diverse to claim that any one eucharistic theology is at work now. There are places where it feels as though Morning Prayer is still being conducted, but with different words, more colorful vestments, and some bread and wine thrown in.

The high tide of ecumenism that molded the book’s eucharistic shape and language is now at a much lower ebb. Episcopalians of various stripes are much more focused on Anglican liturgy’s distinctive elements, even while disagreeing about what these are. General Convention called for a revised book reflecting Episcopalians’ diversity — a notably introspective language with no hint of a unity beyond denominational identity.

This introspective shift makes the existing ecumenical borrowings within the eucharistic rite seem rather hollow, perhaps especially those from eastern Orthodox liturgy. These include the opening acclamation, the use of trisagion, Eucharistic Prayer D, some elements of prayers of the people, and the wordy translation of ta hagia tois hagiois as “the gifts of God for the people of God” at Communion. While these elements have been used long enough to be absorbed into Episcopal experience quite deeply, there are some important lessons here about appropriation without real relationship, even amid efforts to reflect greater cultural diversity. The prayers of others, formed from specific historical experience, are not just our liturgical toys.

Baptism and initiation

The changed theology of initiation in the 1979 prayer book also involves mixed blessings and incomplete projects. The “baptismal ecclesiology” that the book embodies, certainly of ancient Christian inspiration, means that lay participation has increased greatly, and full inclusion of baptized children in the Eucharist has become widespread. Current pressure to welcome the unbaptized to Communion, however, reflects a different view, namely that inclusion is more significant than baptism. This flags the persistence of Protestant emphases on personal choice over Catholic ones of community or sacramental distinctiveness.

The shift in the 1979 book to make baptisms public events at particular feasts, drawn from early Christian custom, is often a noble failure. The framers of the book imagined that, as Christendom dissolved, the catechized and converted rather than the culturally Episcopal would become the center of these celebrations. Weary clergy and parishioners, however, still find themselves welcoming the same well-intentioned families, seeking rituals of civic welcome and then disappearing.

The celebration of baptism also tends to be half-hearted. The 1979 rite presents immersion as the norm, as in ancient practice. Pouring is not the norm but is allowed as an alternative. Few priests observe this rubric or grasp the possibility of using water generously, making the sign adequate to the sacrament. Here again the persistence of old (but not ancient) sensibilities subverts the book’s doctrine.

Prior to the drafting of the 1979 book, the Standing Committee on Liturgy had proposed removing confirmation as a distinct rite, given that the ancient Church knew no such sacrament and used water, oil, and hand-laying together in a single sacrament of initiation. The bishops, however, would have none of it, and the prayer book we know still has confirmation, albeit relegated to the Pastoral Offices. This result is a compromise that sits awkwardly not just with pastoral practice but with the stated baptismal theology of the book. Confirmation and other assorted hand-layings by bishops (some of them quite odd in rationale) have continued and developed since the 1970s, reflecting a persistent desire by individuals and communities to share rites of affirmation with the bishop, whether the theology makes sense or not.

The stirring words of the Baptismal Covenant have also attracted considerable attention, but have come to be understood in many places as a framing of denominational identity rather than as one attempt at expressing catholicity. This is another point at which the ecumenical spring in which the book was brought to light seems to have given way to a cooler season of denominational self-focus. Even more problematic is the widespread assumption that the text is the baptismal covenant, rather than a verbal expression or report of it. The prayer book seems really to intend that it is God who acts in baptism; the covenant is God’s action too, not only ours, and is not words.

Shifting ground, new possibilities

There is at least one area in which the 1979 book did not make as much progress: the Daily Office. Since the church was shifting focus from Sunday use of Morning Prayer to the Eucharist, the compilers do not seem to have expended the energy on daily prayer that was given to baptism and the Eucharist. The current rites tone down the more egregiously penitential aspects of the 1928 Offices and offer a greater variety of canticles and alternative suffrages, but there is no new structure or sense of what the Office is. The framers of any new book have a different kind of task ahead for the Office, should they choose, of seeking the sort of ancient wisdom that was harnessed to the baptismal and eucharistic rites. The recent Daily Prayer for All Seasons is not the model for this, however useful it may prove for private devotion. Other questions have arisen as scholarship has continued to recast our understanding of the ancient Church that inspired the 1979 revision.

The Apostolic Tradition, which Dom Gregory Dix and others promoted as a Roman liturgy from early in the third century, turned out to be a later compendium, perhaps a desk exercise rather than anyone’s ancient prayer book. Yet it still provides us with numerous important precedents: it has the first eucharistic prayer in the later recognizable shape, including the institution narrative in an extended prayer of thanksgiving. It also reflects a seriousness about catechesis and an integrated baptismal rite that does seem to represent an early Christian norm.

The ideal of catechesis as found in Cyril of Jerusalem’s time, with hundreds flocking for instruction before dramatic dramatic Easter baptisms, was the practice of a very particular time and place, just as the Church was undergoing that Constantinian conversion now so widely bemoaned otherwise. The framers of 1979 may have been ahead of their time in imagining the unravelling of Christendom and a situation in which baptism was closely linked to catechesis, adults were the usual candidates, and the consequences were more profound. This story may yet find its real readership.

The claim by Dix that a four-fold shape of eucharistic celebration — taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing — characterized “every eucharist rite known to us throughout antiquity from the Euphrates to Gaul” has been subjected to particular scrutiny in some quarters. Current scholarship acknowledges that a variety of specific structures for ancient meals was known — the meal, the prayer, and the presence of Jesus being the crucial and common elements of Eucharist.

Some have extrapolated from the emphasis on “shape” far beyond Dix, to the view that structure and order are important in themselves. There are some important structures, such as the Word/Table nexus in the Eucharist, that have been rendered more obvious by the 1979 book. More generally, though, the emphasis on structure has been relied on to allow the use of alternative songs of praise, eucharistic prayers, etc., where commonality of text once prevailed. The extent to which this is viable, at least within a meaningful understanding of “Common Prayer,” is contestable. It is not really an authentic echo of the ancient Church, despite the diversity we find between different communities there.

Dix’s real point, the four-fold shape, is in fact still defensible. Though it may not be a universal pattern, it is a deliberate echo of the narratives of Jesus’ shared meals, found across stories of miraculous feedings, the Last Supper, and resurrection meals. The model thus stands up better as biblically based than it does as quasi-patristic. The point here is imitating Jesus, not aping ancient liturgy. But this is what the ancient Christians would have said too.

The Very Rev. Andrew McGowan is McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School and dean and president of Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.

About The Author

In continuous publication since 1878, The Living Church remains focused on the whole state of Christ’s Church, amid major shifts in the landscape and culture of global Christianity. We are champions of a covenanted Anglican Communion as a means of healing the wounds of division in the body of Christ.

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  1. Robert Eaton

    When referring to the ancients’ use of a single rite with multiple components in your dressing down of Confirmation, to which ancients were you referring – those of the first century as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, or the ancients of the 3rd century, and perhaps late 2nd c.?


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