Derek Olsen, a member of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Committee on Music and Liturgy, has given us another fantastic, strategic, and theologically rich piece on the so-called Rite III in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (see pp. 400-05). The 78th General Convention made provision for parishes to go beyond the rubrics of the BCP, or at least read provided a reading of them that allows this option to be used on Sundays or weekday services with the permission of the bishop. Go read it first!

There are a good many things about this piece that I want to highlight, but I’ll offer just two. First, he notes the inherent problems with Rite III:

I’m not a huge fan of “Rite III” because it alters that balance of power; clergy, in their eagerness to be fresh and relevant, can do what they like without the input of the laity upon whom it is being inflicted.

This is important for many reasons. One of them is that often the laity are not aching for new eucharistic prayers. I’ve heard clergy complain about saying the same prayer over and over and getting board with them. Yeah, a priest. They’re probably bored with the Bible too; you know how we have to read it over and over and over.

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Second, he notes how younger people are coming to the Anglican way (and other historic, sacramental churches) looking for depth and richness in their worship. Not only that, he talks of his growing concern with so-called liturgical evangelism, if that means altering the liturgy so that people who don’t know much about church will find it more accessible.

What he offers, then, is this:

… a proper Rite III prayer that follows the rules as I understand them. It’s a mash-up of the Tudor-era canon of the Mass attributed to Miles Coverdale (though likely not by him), the Eucharistic canon of the 1549 prayer book particularly as adapted in the current Rite I, and the required texts laid down in Form 2.

In other words, Rite III need not be only about prayers that move way beyond “Enriching our Worship.” It could actually point us in the opposite direction. D050: Authorizing “An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist” as a Principal Service makes it possible for Rite III to provide a more historic and catholic eucharistic celebration.

And I happen to think his Canon is marvelous. The “Tudor-era canon” to which he refers was actually Coverdale’s translation of the Roman Canon, the oldest Western eucharistic prayer (it dates in its current form to the sixth century) but whose roots go back even further (we can see an earlier version of it in “On the Sacraments” by St. Ambrose). If you were to put the Roman Canon and the Eucharistic Prayer of Cranmer’s first BCP in 1549 (including the “Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church,” which in 1549 appeared just after the Sanctus as the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer), you will see a remarkable similarity (as my students do when they undertake this as one of their assignments in class). What Derek has done is done a mash-up of the 1549 Prayer (using as much of it as is present in Rite I, Form I, which is a good deal) and a Cranmerian version of the Roman Canon, and including Rite I versions of the Form II prayer of Rite III (see BCP pp. 404-05). The Roman Canon, we must recall, was what was used throughout England and really the whole of the Catholic world before the Reformation; it was the Canon in the Sarum Rite (along with the other English rites or usages in England).

I would like to offer below a slight editing of Derek’s proposal, with a few footnotes to go with it.

So, a few introductory comments:

  • I follow Catherine Pickstock in After Writing and her general arguments about the Roman Canon when compared with contemporary compositions. The latter, as part of “contemporizing,” cut the one long prayer that we find into discrete sections such that we now think of the various “parts” of the Eucharistic Prayer (the thanksgiving, Institution Narrative, oblation, epiclesis, and so forth). What the earlier prayers demonstrated by their syntax was lost, namely, that this is one prayer in which each part bears a real relationship to the other aspects found therein. The same issue can be found in the liturgy as a whole: too sharp a distinction between the Liturgy of the Word/Catechumens and the Liturgy of the Altar/Faithful. I have tried to make this clear in my adaptation. One of the ways I expressed this was my removing “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” a refrain that entered into the Roman Canon at a later point but tends to obscure somewhat the unified nature of the prayer.
  • Pickstock also highlights the circular nature of the Roman Canon (something that can also be seen in many of the Eastern prayers). There is not sense of a “formula” that must be followed, at least in the sense of a proper order that makes something valid. Rather, there is repeated offering and blessing, offering and blessing, with the assumption that the transformation of the gifts into the Body of Christ occurs in their acceptance by God. Thus the prayer below is not short and has similar petitions in multiple places, repeating ourselves as we offer adoration, petition, gifts of all sorts, all in a spirit of adoration and holy fear. We can do no other when we come into the presence of the God of Israel, the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.

Canon Comparisons by TheLivingChurchdocs

And now for a few specific notes of explanation:

  • I begin like Derek and Cranmer with the opening two paragraphs, adding only “All glory be to thee,” which comes from the Scottish, and thus the Easter liturgy, as a most fitting way to begin the prayer. Since Cranmer’s is preceded by the Prayer for the Whole State, which does not have something equivalent, and the Roman Canon rather famously begins en medias res (“We therefore humbly pray and beseech thee” — most scholars think that in some earlier form there was a paragraph that preceded this or that there was no Sanctus, and so the Preface moved straight into the prayer).
  • I moved Cranmer’s second paragraph (which recalls Our Lord’s Passion as the basis of our eucharistia) back to its original place. Derek had placed it later, after the commemoration of the apostles and martyrs. This prayer seems to more properly come at the beginning of the prayer, especially since many of the Prefaces make to mention of this; it basis our corporate action in a particular historical event, but does so in the form of praise to the Father.
  • The Te igitur of the Roman Canon follows this, to which I have restored the “Therefore” of the Roman Canon to Derek’s version, thereby linking what follows upon the scriptural/historical/theological basis that was declared in what preceds it.
  • We must remember that the absence of substantive intercessions in the Eucharistic Prayer in the Anglican tradition (outside of 1549) is a bizarre anomaly, historically speaking. The use of these prayers from the Roman Canon is most edifying and proper.
  • Cranmer made two great contributions to Eucharistic Prayers: 1) he added an explicit self-oblation of the priest and people, something that is complete concord with the eastern and western tradition, and 2) he makes the “epiclesis” explicitly Trinitarian — that is, in a prayer addressed to the Father, we ask that God transform our gifts not just by the Holy Spirit, but by “thy Word and Holy Spirit,” wonderfully playing up the multivalence of Word (Jesus, Scripture, etc.). The Roman Canon has no explicit epiclesis and in almost every Eastern prayer, the epiclesis (request for change of the gifts by the Holy Spirit’s word — or that of the Word, in the case of the Egyptian Prayer of Sarapion) comes after the gifts are offered. Thus, both East and West, change occurs in our gifts being accepted by God. For this reason, I’ve moved the self-oblation (“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves…”) after the Commemoration of the Saints.
  • The next two paragraph, the Hanc igitur and the Quam oblationem of the Roman Canon, was at times thoughts to be a veiled epiclesis (especially the latter). But a careful reading of the Latin makes it clear that it is a prayer that God will change the gifts in their acceptance. Reading the two paragraphs in tandem makes this clear. Derek moved the Quam oblationem to after the Institution Narrative, but I have kept it here, as I’m not reading it as an epiclesis (at least in the Eastern sense).
  • The Institution Narrative follows, using the language of Form II. Note how this serves as the hinge of the whole prayer, the explicit historical basis upon which all that precedes and follows it is based. Note that I have added the relative pronoun “who” to reflect the ancient pattern and connect it to what precedes it.
  • The “Wherefore” paragraph that follows is from Cranmer, altered only by the addition of anticipation of the second coming, explicit mentions of which are absent from both Cranmer and the Roman Canon.
  • The Supra quae that follows this links this eucharistic offering with all those that have preceded it under the Old Covenant, which can be seen as a theological reading of the book of Hebrews.
  • The Supplices te, which Cranmer kept also completely, is restored here to its original form: 1) it is changed back to a single angel (which is key, as both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are referred to as “angels” [e.g., messengers of the highest sort] and thus it retains a proper elasticity about its referent) and 2) the request is not just that our prayers would be taken, but all our gifts (our praise, petitions, gifts of bread and wine, and finally all of us) would be taken to the heavenly altar.
  • The commemoration of the departed, another mainstay of historic prayers, is also restored here, along with the historic conclusion to the Canon, most of which Cranmer retained.

Come let us worship and fall down.

The featured image is a detail from Pontifical Mass-15th Century, a Project Gutenberg eText, via Wikimedia Commons.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary 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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James Scott

I love your point about Canon comparison…I’ve done the same thing and now done the same thing with the Latin to get the best elements from the Roman Canon that are lacking in Cranmer and the novel elements of Cranmer (e.g. Here we offer and present unto thee our selves etc.) in one. (As an aside, I tried to word the Latin version to make the elements that were too high church for some grammatically non-essential/independent while retaining the latin incipits of the various portions of the Roman Canon as (slightly free in some places) translations of the corollary Cranmer… Read more »