Liturgical Revision’s Unintended Consequences

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1549 Book of Common Prayer | Photo: Wikipedia

By Lawrence N. Crumb

Liturgical revision always begins with good intentions, but often ends with unintended results. When Archbishop Cranmer compiled the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, he was concerned with a situation in which the laity attended Mass every Sunday but received Holy Communion only once a year. To correct the situation, he included a rubric: “So many as intend to be partakers of the holy Communion, shall signify their names to the Curate” (spelling modernized here and elsewhere).

Since the laity were reluctant to change their familiar pattern of behavior, few if any signed up, and the service had to stop after the Offertory. The unintended consequence was that the typical Sunday morning service for the next 300 years was Morning Prayer, Litany, and Ante-Communion, with a quarterly compromise of the full service, with all receiving, on Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, and a Sunday between then and Christmas. In view of this truncation, the 1552 revision, also by Cranmer, expanded the Morning Prayer segment with a consequence that was not immediate and will be mentioned later.

The 1559 book was part of the so-called Elizabethan Settlement, which settled nothing. Like many reform movements, it went too far for some and not far enough for others. Combining the 1549 words of administration (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ”) with those of 1552 (“Take and eat this, in remembrance”) was intended to provide a comprehensive formula that all could accept. The result was a plurality of understandings of the eucharistic presence (or absence) that remains to this day. The Ornaments Rubric, requiring “such ornaments [i.e., vestments] in the church as were in use by authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth,” was intended to establish a national norm that all would follow. The objection of the Puritans resulted in the surplice being the de facto priestly vestment until the mid-19th century, at which time there were lawsuits over just what the rubric means.

The Restoration Settlement is now widely thought to be the point at which the Church of England became Anglican in the sense that the word would be used for the next 300 years. The “proto-Anglicans,” influenced by Archbishop Laud and the Caroline divines, were in the ascendant and would have liked a more Catholic book like the Scottish book of 1637.

But the regime of Charles II, like that of Elizabeth I, based its claim to legitimacy on the concept of a return to the status quo ante, and a more moderate revision was required, the introduction to the 1662 Prayer Book asserting, “It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Public Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variations from it.”

It was intended that the book be generally accepted, but the retention of such ceremonies as the ring in marriage and the sign of the cross in baptism was not acceptable to the Puritans. The result was the ejection of about 2,000 ministers who would not conform, and the beginning of England’s “Noncomformist” churches, the ancestors of today’s Baptists and Congregationalists.

The first American book of 1789 adapted the English Prayer Book to the American situation, including a drastic reduction of the marriage rite, since many weddings took place in private homes. All references to the king were removed, but the new prayer for the president, used at Morning and Evening Prayer, was a minimal adaptation of the old prayer for the king, and inappropriate for a head of state elected to a fixed term of office. (A less regal alternative was added in 1928.)

The first real revision was not of the texts but in how they were used. The General Convention of 1856 declared that Morning Prayer, Litany, and Holy Communion are distinct services and can be used separately, an unintended consequence of the expansion of the Morning Prayer segment in 1552. This provided a needed flexibility in the Sunday service, especially on the frontier, but changed the balance between material from the Old and New Testaments, with most services now having several psalms, a lesson from the Old Testament, and only one from the New.

Conversely, the quarterly Communion service had two lessons from the New and nothing from the Old. The imbalance was increased in the revision of 1928, which provided for a slight addition to the number of canticles from which to choose at Morning Prayer. The intent was to provide more variety, but the result was an almost universal and every-Sunday use of the new, shorter canticles, each of which was from the Old Testament or its Apocrypha.

By this time, parishes were starting to have Holy Communion at least once a month, so the imbalance was not as great as it might have been, although the more frequent alternation of services may have caused some confusion between the emphasis on a transcendent Creator one Sunday and an immanent Redeemer the next. (The Order of Morning Prayer was only part of the complete service; the hour was completed with the addition of sermon, offering, altar prayers, and blessing, all vestiges of Ante-Communion.)

The revisers who produced the (current) 1979 Prayer Book had the intention of providing liturgy in contemporary language for contemporary people, naively assuming that the alternate rites in traditional language would die out with the older members.

The late Thomas Talley, professor of liturgics at Nashotah House and the General Theological Seminary, observed, “We’re reducing the ritual and putting the liturgy in contemporary language to appeal to young people, while young people are burning incense and saying prayers in Sanskrit.” He had also observed, in reference to the list of occupations in the Prayers of the People in the first trial rite of 1967, “We’re trying to be relevant to people in terms of their work at a time when their work is no longer relevant to them.”

The intention to provide new material while avoiding archaic words and dependent clauses led to the unintended result of adding several masculine pronouns to the service that had never been there before (opening acclamation, Nicene Creed, Sursum corda, Benedictus qui venit).

As we gingerly tiptoe into our next experiment in liturgical revision, it’s worth asking, what will be the good intentions that result in unintended consequences?

The Rev. Lawrence N. Crumb is vicar of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Cottage Grove, Oregon and the author of The Making of the American Prayer Book of 1928,” Anglican and Episcopal History, June 2020.


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