One of my favorite things about the Anglican prayer book tradition, at least as it appears today, is the relative freedom of its texts. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer exists in officially authorized forms, of course, thanks to the oversight of the Custodian. But the texts may be freely and licitly copied, adapted, reprinted, set to music, or what have you, without any fear of copyright infringement or unofficial censure by the liturgical mafia. I do not know if this has always been the case, or if it is simply more visibly the case in this age of digital media. In comparison, the Roman Catholic liturgical world is plagued by copyright issues on official text translations, leaving the impression, especially regarding music, that anyone wishing to make creative offerings for the liturgy must submit to the governing intelligentsia.

The free availability of texts, however, does not mean that texts are freely available in useful forms. Church Publishing, the official book production arm of the Episcopal Church, does an excellent job of making prayer books and hymnals. This would be sufficient, perhaps, in an earlier age of prayer book use, but it falls short in the post-1979 liturgical scene. Earlier prayer books, like the American 1928 book, contained almost everything needed for a normal Sunday or feast day liturgy. Most importantly, the lections of the day were printed with the other propers. The 1979 book, with its sprawling devotion to new resources (including the sacred triduum, a triumph of the Oxford Movement if there ever was one), cut these out in the interest of space. What remains is a liturgical resource more than a Book of Common Prayer proper; to use the 1979 prayer book requires other books in almost every instance.

The same can be said of the various other resource books to come out of General Convention and Church Publishing in subsequent years, including A Great Cloud of Witnesses — an admirable improvement on Holy Women, Holy Men in the coherence of its content, but still a work so large that it must fit in a gigantic three-ring binder, and even then cannot be used on its own. In other words, we have done a good job of creating and publishing codices of texts, but we have not done as well on publishing the kinds of books that churches need to live the liturgical life envisioned in 1979.

On that front, Church Publishing does indeed publish at least four items of enduring utility: the Altar Book (in two formats), a Gospel Book, a large-print lectern edition of the Episcopal version of the Revised Common Lectionary, and a similar version of the Occasional Offices (including weddings and funerals). These are essential items for most parishes in their celebration of the Sunday liturgy.

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A few other items are available in PDF from the old Rite Word series of 2009, now barely still available in the now-defunct Rite Stuff 2.0 (which Church Publishing abandoned wholesale in late January): a lectionary, available in both RSV and NRSV, of texts associated with Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, as well as PDFs in both translations of the two lectionaries available in print, plus the lectionary printed in the 1979 BCP, now obsolete in most places. Church Publishing also continues to produce a few other items designed for private use, particularly the Daily Office Book (a lovely leather-bound set used mostly by clergy), and a separate four-volume set of the Daily Office Readings, available only in paperback.

This may seem like a long list, but note the following absences:

  1. A gospel book (for liturgical use) containing the gospels for the lesser feasts and the Various Occasions listed on p. 927 and following. The standard book includes those for weddings and funerals, but nothing else.
  2. A gospel book in the Revised Standard translation, still used in many places, and especially preferable when using Rite I.
  3. A lectionary book in the Revised Standard translation.
  4. A large-scale lectern print edition of the propers for the lesser feasts.
  5. A large-scale lectern print edition of the Daily Office readings.

None of these items strikes me as terribly unusual or difficult to produce. If anything, they seem like reasonable and even essential material accompaniments to the 1979 prayer book’s vision of Anglican worship. Without them, parishes and other institutions are forced to copy and paste, to paperclip printouts into existing books, to produce their own liturgical books, to use books from other traditions (e.g., the very common use of the daily Roman lectionary in parishes with daily Eucharist), and in some places to be excessively idiosyncratic. Rare places with conscientious readers may of course use one of the large old lectern Bibles, but in my experience this is harder and harder to promote.

What prevents the production of such useful books? I wonder if the principal reason these books remain unavailable (even where some were once available) is, sadly, an ideological commitment on the part of Church Publishing to pressure congregations into conformity through the control of print resources. Several years ago, when I served a parish using Rite I exclusively, I asked a Church Publishing editor why the common lectionary inserts were unavailable in any translation besides the NRSV. She told me that my parish needed to “move into the 21st century.” Certainly that seems to be the strategy with the Revised Common Lectionary. Even while General Convention has approved continuing use of the 1979 lectionary as locally authorized, it seems that Church Publishing has no intention of assisting that project.

The secondary reason, I fear, is just as ideological. It seems that Church Publishing has focused its interests elsewhere. Perhaps (even probably) this is a financial necessity. I see nothing wrong with publishing books of interest for laity and clergy, but it does strike me as problematic that a corporation founded specifically for the publication of prayer books and hymnals should place that mission to one side while it promotes Richard Rohr’s progressive pop theology.

I live and work in a school community of roughly 300 souls with 10 public liturgies per week, including Sunday Masses, daily Masses, and the daily office. As I try to plan and train readers and sacristans, one of my constant frustrations is the necessity of idiosyncratic adaptations to do what the prayer book seems to think we should do. I have to switch books over and over, explain when to use one book over the other, track down gospel readings in reverse lectionaries, or bedeck Bibles with sticky notes. When the church keeps producing more “resource” books, why is it so hard to find the practical resources that we need? It’s great to have an abstract discussion on liturgical revision when you celebrate a random feast day once a month. I don’t have that luxury. My teenagers do not need theological drivel printed in mass-market paperback; they need the material tools to do their work, which is leadership in regular Christian worship.

As conversation continues on the possibility of prayer book revision, surely part of the conversation needs to be the way that the church’s institutions, including Church Publishing, have aided or hindered the full implementation and practice of the prayer book that we already have.

About The Author

Fr. Sam Keyes serves as Chaplain at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland. He is a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His current academic interests center on the development of medieval theology in the 12th and 13th centuries.

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