This is part THREE of our series, which will trace the development of our Prayer Book.
Part ONE of the series, which will served as an overview and introduction to the ideological issues at hand, can be found HERE.
Part TWO, where we talk about the concept of liturgy itself, can be found HERE.
Enriching Our Worship was the result of General Convention legislation going directly back to the 71st Convention in 1994, which called on the Standing Liturgical Commission to begin a plan for the revising of the Prayer Book. Which means that, back when our current BCP was only 15 years old, we began talking about revising it.
A case can (and has!) been made that we ought not revise the 1979 Book of Common Prayer until we’ve actually used it to its fullest potential. To put it another way, can we revise something if we’ve not really given it a chance? How can we effectively identify a thing’s limitations in such a short time? And, further, EOW’s arrival in 1997 could suggest the dissatisfaction of a particular “camp” who have been hammering their position for the past twenty or so years.
I’m not advocating that any of the above is accurate, by the way. I’m simply making a few statements. Part of what I want to do with this chapter of our series is to trace the development of our current liturgical resources. Another part is to suggest that BCP “chicken littles” might have a significant misunderstanding of The Episcopal Church’s overall ethos about our worship and, specifically, our Prayer Book.
Our story starts in an upper room in Jerusalem, during the Pesach festival in the dawning years of the Common Era. At a likely crowded table, an eccentric teacher is sharing a meal, a meal shaped by long-standing cultural custom, meant to evoke the hushed and hurried meal eaten by Egyptian Jews on a very dark night some several millennia earlier, eagerly awaiting word of their long-sought liberation. In the midst of that meal, the eccentric teacher—Yeshua bar Joseph (or Joshua, son of Joseph; or, as we’d know Him through His Greek name, Jesus)—picks up one of the cups of wine sitting on the table, He holds up a round loaf of bread, likely a stiff and brittle piece of matzo. He tells the small crowd gathered that the cup of wine is His blood, poured out for them, and the bread is His body, broken for them. He then says to keep gathering and eating bread and taking sips from the cup of wine as a way to keep His memory alive.
Out of this, the early Christian communities develop their own customs. From what we’ve been able to piece together over the centuries, the earliest Christians gathered (and some even lived) in sizable houses and shared a meal. In the midst of this meal, the host of the gathering—a person chosen from among the local Christian community to preside over the group—would take bread and wine and recall Jesus’ words and actions.
Among the earliest recorded examples of this gathering are found in the Didache and the First Apology of Justin Martyr. The Didache is a very old writing, a sort of church manual, that held near-canonical status for awhile in the Church (this is fancy way of saying that it almost “made it” into the Bible). Justin’s writing is a bit later and was done as a way to help alleviate some of the persecutions levied against the early Church by explaining to the Roman emperor what Christians were up to behind closed doors.* In both of these sources we see that this sacred meal—what came to be called the Eucharist, or Thanksgiving—began with a sort of rough outline and was likely an extempore prayer.
After a few centuries, the Roman Emperor Constantine is converted to the Christian faith and he, in turn, makes Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. This has a pretty profound effect on the Church. Not only do they suddenly go from being an obscure and persecuted group, they also find themselves dealing with theological disputes with the official backing of the Empire (as opposed to a more loose “in-house” series of squabbles). In order to address theological controversies and to help give shape to “official” Church teaching (what we would call “orthodoxy”), books and manuals being to be written and codified. The first Bibles begin to appear on the scene at this time,** as do the first liturgical manuals. Among the most important of these first Christian liturgical manuals is one known widely as The Liturgy of Saint Basil—remnants of this liturgy (particularly its eucharistic prayer) are today found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which I’ll talk about in a bit.
The liturgy of the Church of this time is, more or less, similar to what Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians are using to this day. A major difference is that, as Christianity spread over the ancient world, each of these liturgies are in different languages. This is partly due to the fact that many of these provinces (Armenia, Ethiopia, etc.) are autonomous nations apart from the Roman Empire. It is also partly due to the eastern half of the Empire being a largely Greek-speaking populace (owing to Alexander’s conquests in the late BC era) and the western half being a Latin-speaking populace.
The Western half of the Church engages in active missionary movements aimed at the pagan peoples outside of the Empire. The (unintended?) result of this is that Latin becomes the liturgical and scholarly language of these peoples. In the East, the wide variety of communities have established churches in their respective vernaculars and they wind up spending more time debating/fighting theological battles rather than missionary endeavors (aside from a notable mission to China in the 500s).
This long era is characterized by the wider cultural issues surrounding the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, the decline of the Eastern (or Byzantine) Empire, and the Great Schism of 1054 CE, which led to mutual excommunication between the Western and Eastern Churches.
In the West, Christianity continues to flourish, despite the collapse of Rome, and the Bishop of Rome asserts himself as the official head of The Universal (or, Catholic) Church (being called the “vicar”—or “stand-in”—of Christ on earth). This is one of the key actions that leads to the Great Schism. This puts the pope in a powerful political position and, in moves that echo the pax Romana of earlier centuries, Latin Christianity becomes the Church of the various feudal states. The Latin mass is thus the only liturgy of the Western Church for a period of around 400 years.
This begins to change in the late 1300s. Men like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe begin leading a charge to get the Bible and the liturgies of the Church translated into the vernacular languages spoken by the people. The concern is that most people do not read or write in Latin and only passively participate in the services of the Church, with no understanding of what’s happening or with what is written in the Bible. These sorts of revolutionary individuals recognize the corruption of the Church at this time and see the work of translation as a corrective to the sorts of abuses being endured. Both Hus and Wycliffe are martyred for their efforts.
But their work later inspires a German monk named Martin Luther.
Later individuals, often called “the Radical Reformation”—people like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli—make further challenges to Western Church leadership, setting off a number of often violent skirmishes and much confusion throughout the Church.
The Latin Church, now being known as The Catholic Church, responds to all of this with The Council of Trent, which reaffirmed and reasserted certain doctrines being challenged and rejected by the Protestant Reformation movement. Key among this was the retention of the Latin Mass.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others all gave rise to a plethora of differing understandings of Western Christianity, defined over and against “Catholic” Christianity. Chief among these was the emphasis of the role of the Bible in corporate worship, somewhat downplaying the importance of the Eucharist (Calvin and Zwingli and their followers would go further than Luther in this regard, giving rise to denominations such as the Presbyterian Church, the various kinds of Baptists, the Quakers, the Amish and Mennonite communities, etc.).
But over on the British Isles, something else was taking shape.
A little history on the ABC: the very first Archbishop of Canterbury was Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who was a missionary to the British in the 500s. He was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the King of Kent, Aethelberth and the Anglo-Saxon people to Christianity. There had been a previous Christian presence in Britain, but it had faltered over a period of years and was largely gone by Augustine’s arrival. This work was also somewhat parallel to the missionary work of a certain Patrick—born in Roman Britain and called to Ireland as a missionary to the Celtic peoples there. From what little we know of the Celtic Church, it seemed to represent a fairly unique and independent body of believers, thus setting the stage for what would come a thousand years later.
Given the distance of England (and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland) from Rome, English Christianity tended toward a tense relationship with the Pope and Latin Christianity. During the political turmoil of the Reformation era, the popes Leo X and Clement VII fought to maintain the strained relationship with England. But this came to a head when Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was deemed “against God” by Archbishop Cranmer, and this coming after Henry declared that the pope had no political or ecclesiastical authority in England.
By this time, Cranmer had been influenced by the Lutheran Reformation and was learning more of Calvin’s work. Henry authorized a vernacular translation of the Bible and a liturgy, following Cranmer’s (and other’s) prompting. It was this that would give rise to Thomas Cranmer’s great gift to the worldwide Church: The Book of Common Prayer (1549).
The liturgies of the Catholic Church had grown complicated and elaborate, a far removal from the simple (Jewish) meal eaten in an upper room or the furtive ritual observed in the pre-dawn light of ancient Rome. The Missal was a large and expensive book and was exclusive to the priesthood and the episcopate. The Bible was another large and expensive book, limited only to those educated enough to read it. Then, there were the monasteries and convents. Since the early days of Christian Rome, the Church had given birth to an impressive monastic tradition. And each of these dedicated religious persons and communities had their own books of prayers and breviaries. And then there was the peasant class, who were at the whims of the professional clergy and cloistered religious for their faith instruction and devotion.
Thomas Cranmer took all of this and whittled it down to the essentials, translated into English, and given to the entire Church in England. The Book of Common Prayer is a remarkable gift to Christianity in that it simplified the practices of the Church and provided equal access of its gifts to everyone, whether bishop, king, priest, farmer, queen, pauper, seamstress, or blacksmith.
Cranmer’s book was revised during his lifetime and in response to new movements happening in Europe. England shifted back and forth between Catholic and Reformed (and in that, between Lutheran Reformed and Calvinist Reformed), until Thomas Cranmer is burned at the stake by Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter and a staunch Catholic. She is succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth, who, under the guidance of a theologian named Richard Hooker, develops a compromise as a way to bring a degree of peace to England. It makes the Church in England The Church of England, with worship conforming to the Book of Common Prayer (the 1559 revision), and summarized in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, which lay out the theological grounding of English Christianity. Commonly, this is expressed as the “via media”—the middle way—between conflicting extremes and has come to characterize Anglican Christianity.
The Prayer Book then goes through further revisions until we get to the 1662 revision, which remains to this day The Book of Common Prayer used in England‡. Once authorized, it became the BCP of the British colonies in the New World and remained so until a little incident we call The Revolutionary War (or the War for Independence) began to change things in the late 1700s.
The first American revision of the BCP was made with a pencil line. Non-conforming clergy would cross out the line “O Lord, save the King,” found in the suffrages of Morning and Evening Prayer (in addition to refusing to say the prayers for the king and the royal family appointed for Evening Prayer).
The 1662 BCP is a decidedly monarchical book. Patriot priests and lay-readers could not, in good conscience, offer prayers in support of a figure they saw as tyrannical and oppressive. This situation became even more complicated by the fact that The Church of England required an oath of allegiance to the king in every ordination—added to the reality brought about by their refusal to appoint a bishop for the American colonies, which required those called to the Anglican ordained ministry to have to travel across the sea to London.
At the same time, a number of the founding figures of the United States of America were members of the Church of England. At the end of the war, for instance, Martha Washington called for the cleaning and repair of the closed Christ Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts so that prayers could be offered once again.
And so, as with England and her tense relationship with Rome, the colonial Anglicans had a tense relationship with Canterbury. Many Anglicans in the colonies felt ignored by their bishops, cut-off by distance. The growing movement toward independence only served to make this tension more pronounced. In a lot of ways, the Anglican Church in the American colonies had been left to its own devices. The war only made that feeling into reality.
There’s an old Episcopal Church joke that says that, after the first US Congress signed the Constitution, they walked across the street and formed the Episcopal Church. This joke is partly rooted in reality, as many of the signatures on the Constitution were self-identified Anglicans. It is also a joke that gives a bit of insight into the ethos of Episcopal Christianity.
After the war, colonial Anglicans were free to do whatever they wanted. They could have formed an entirely new church (as with the Wesleyan Christians), or merged with another denomination. Instead, these Anglicans wanted to maintain their historic ties to the Ancient Church through their heritage in the Church of England.‡‡ Which necessitated a church governed by bishops, thus an “episcopal” church.
In 1783, the state of Connecticut elected a man named Samuel Seabury to serve as their bishop. He was sent to England to receive ordination. The Church of England refused to ordain him on the basis that he could not make the oath of allegiance to the king. In turn, he was received by the Episcopal Church of Scotland and was ordained a bishop there in 1784, thus becoming the first bishop ordained to serve in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States (since shortened to The Episcopal Church, of course).
American Anglicans had long been “latitudinarian” (a kind of fancy way of saying “broad church,” which is often understood as existing between the “high-” and “low-churches”†). This was partly the result of latitudinarianism being effectively the stance of the Church of England during the most active parts of Britain’s colonizing efforts in the New World. Latitudinarianism came about as a sort of call-back to the “via media” of Richard Hooker and sought to find a degree of “latitude” between various movements within The Church of England—which had undergone its own reformation with the Puritans and, later, the Methodists. There were Catholic- and Lutheran-leaning “high church” Anglicans and more Reformed “low church” Anglicans. After years of (sometimes violent) infighting, the latitudinarian impulse helped to settle English Christianity for a time.
This latitudinarianism remains a crucial feature of American Anglicanism. In the mid- to late- 18th century, various theological movements had influenced American Christianity at large. The Puritans had formed some of the most prominent New England settlements and gave America her first theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Reformed-leaning, evangelical Anglicans had begun to spread a religious fervor among the colonies, an event known as The Great Awakening. And the Wesley brothers, after a failed Anglican mission endeavor to Georgia, had been moved by Moravian Christians and began their own reform movement of The Church of England known as “methodism.”
The religious milieu of colonial America is difficult to mis-convey. The colonies had become a sort of catch-all of various fringe movements from Europe thrown together. Many of these fringe movements were responding to English culture, itself informed by The Church of England. As such, there was a degree of reservation about returning to the Anglican Christianity of yesteryear, while also wanting to maintain the sort of “purity” they had come to find in their particular “camp” of Anglican Christianity. The latitudinarian impulse was essential to making the new Episcopal Church work because it allowed a number of disparate parts to hold together.
The 1789 BCP reflects this reality. It is a book that provides space for both low- and high-church ritual practice (though the book, overall, is noticeably more low-church than our current BCP). The preface to this book (which is maintained for posterity in the current BCP) reads:
It is a most invaluable part of that blessed "liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free," that in his worship different forms and usages may without offense be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people, "according to the various exigency of times and occasions.” (BCP, 9)
As we see here, from the get-go The Episcopal Church recognized that liturgical revision was going to be necessary, so long as “the Faith” remain the same. And so, almost immediately, the issue of Prayer Book revision was taken up.
“Churchmanship” played a role in wanting to see the liturgy steer either more low or high, but overall revision was done in the name of clarity and function and was fairly minor in scope. However, by the late 1800s, there was a desire to wholly revise the BCP (rather than minor tweaks to individual services or prayers). A main driver of this push was The Rev. William Reed Huntington. He and others in the Episcopal Church wanted to see (even) more flexibility available in the liturgy. And so a fairly modest revision of the BCP was released in 1892.
An important facet to note about each of these revisions is that they largely came about alongside new discoveries and scholarship in regards to historic Christian liturgical custom. Old documents were uncovered and translated and published throughout the worldwide church. One of the things that we will discuss in a later entry in this series is the role that technology has played in shaping liturgical revision—as the printing press led to the Reformation, the internet is leading to something altogether new (what Phyllis Tickle has attempted to call “The Great Emergence”).
In the early 20th century, there arose what has been called “the liturgical movement” where various Christian denominations began discussions and revisions of their own patterns of worship. How this was reflected in The Episcopal Church was a strong recovery of more ancient Christian expression, leading toward a clearly high-church direction.
One example of this change is reflected in clergy vestiture. Throughout the 1800s it was most common to see an Episcopal “clergyman” wearing a frock-coat during the week and a cassock and surplice during the Sunday liturgy (where Morning Prayer would have been the normal service of the day). As the century turned, it became more and more common—particularly in urban parishes—to see the Episcopal priest vested in cassock, alb, chasuble, and stole. During that shift, altars became more prominent in church architecture, supplanting the pulpit as the focal point of the space. Added to that, the deacon began to return to a more liturgically prominent role (and women began to be added to the church as “deaconesses,” which was a quasi-nun-like role).
At that same convention was formed the Standing Liturgical Commission, tasked with Prayer Book revision. (Yes, you read that correctly. The same convention that gave us the 1928 BCP also immediately began the process of revising it.)
The work of liturgical revision was interrupted by a period of war, but picked up steam in the 1950s and 1960s. Beginning in 1967 The Episcopal Church began a long decade of trial use liturgies, culminating in the (in)famous Services for Trial Use of 1970 and Authorized Services of 1973.
The 1979 BCP marks a drastic shift in The Episcopal Church’s understanding of itself. It is a definite product of the high-church movement, placing the Eucharist as the principle Sunday service. It also made Easter the major feast of The Church, centered in the ancient Great Vigil of Easter. This particular change also intentionally placed Baptism (back) as the primary sacrament of The Church.
Prior to the 1979 BCP, baptisms were often private family affairs, commonly held at home. The liturgical movements of the twentieth century sought to reassert Baptism as the central ritual of the Christian Church, making it a public event to take place primarily at Easter, but also on crucial (and ancient) Christian feast days.
This move also establishes the BCP as an ecumenical work. The emphasis on Baptism, which is common to all Christian traditions, helps in getting Episcopalians to see themselves as part of a universal and ancient body of people. Additionally, the 1979 BCP includes a total of six eucharistic prayers (retaining the two forms from the 1928 BCP, while also adding four others). Among those is The General Eucharistic Prayer (known as Prayer D in the 1979 BCP), which is based heavily on the liturgy of Saint Basil and is shared in common by Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and other similar denominations.
Additionally, this shift in our understanding of Baptism has brought a new emphasis on inclusion in The Episcopal Church. The ancient “covenant” that is part of the baptism ritual includes additional language which expects Christians to seek social justice and love for neighbor across difference and in reflection of Jesus’ own teaching. These lines (found on page 305 in the BCP) are included as a response to the American Civil Rights movement and in recognition of The Episcopal Church’s own failures in regards to racism.
Which, of course, brings us to today.
Much of our liturgical history is marked by cultural and ecclesiastical concerns, “inside baseball” kinds of concerns. Our liturgy as Episcopalians has been shaped, largely, by technical and scholarly work. But now we have reached an important epoch. Because not since the Protestant Reformation have we had such concern and dialogue over language.
The 1979 BCP was also revised to reflect contemporary language (while, again in latitudinarian spirit, keeping the more traditional language of previous BCPs as “Rite I” services). This itself reflects the major changes happening with biblical scholarship in the twentieth century—where ensuring that the Bible is translated in such a way as to be understood in conversational language was a major concern.
But now we face the intersection of much of our previous discussions on the matter: the place where theology, vernacular language, and (for lack of a better term) “churchmanship” collide.
In the late nineties, General Convention authorized supplemental materials for our worship, each volume reflecting both linguistic criticism and various pastoral need. These materials are all found in the five-volume Enriching Our Worship series (already mentioned above). These works are the first strides made toward “inclusive and expansive language.” We will take a look at these as part of our discussion on what, exactly, that term even means.
(Click HERE for Part 3.5)
* This is because Christians were quite secretive in their day. Which made sense, what with all the persecutions and whatnot. As a result of this secrecy, the Romans developed some interesting thoughts about Christians—such as them being incestuous (calling everyone brother and sister and many living in the same household would lead to some confusion) and being cannibals (since they talk about eating and drinking someone’s body and blood).
** Of course the books of the Bible existed before this time. However the single-volume, “official” collection of 66 books (plus Apocrypha for some) was not codified until much much later.
‡ This is due to the fact that the BCP is authorized by Parliament. There was a proposed BCP made in 1928 (which was different from The Episcopal Church’s 1928 BCP), but it was not accepted by both Houses. In time, The Church of England developed their own modern liturgical resource, a collection of “alternative services” entitled Common Worship, which has become a sort of de facto BCP.
‡‡ This notion is rooted in a concept known as “apostolic succession.” The short of it is this: the original apostles of the Church appointed other leaders and their own successors—this done by the laying-on of hands. As such, this creates a traceable lineage of bishops. A number of Protestant churches intentionally broke their line of succession during the Reformation, however The Church in England never did so. This means that Anglican Christianity claims an historic connection to the Ancient Church, seeing themselves as alongside Orthodox and Catholic churches.
‡‡‡ By the way, at this point, I am using Marion J. Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book for reference.
† Here’s a quick primer on the terms “low-church” and “high-church:” Low-church is minimal in its ritual actions, often preferring plain and simple church architecture, and tending toward the “office” services of Morning and Evening Prayer, with a marked emphasis on preaching. High-church is very ornate and ritualistic (sometimes referred to as “smells and bells” to refer to the use of incense and sanctus bells), with much of the service chanted. High-church practice tends toward the Holy Eucharist (often called by the more “Catholic” sounding name, “the Mass”).
FOR FURTHER READING:
Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy
Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book
Robert Prichard, A History of the Episcopal Church
Byron Stuhlman, Prayer Book Rubrics Expanded