Eucharistic Prayers
By Samuel Wells and Abigail Kocher.
Eerdmans. Pp. 365. $40

Review by Robert W. Prichard

As the Episcopal Church edges its way toward supplementing or revising the Book of Common Prayer, it makes sense to pay attention to proposals that are being made for liturgical revision both within and beyond the Episcopal Church. This volume represents one such proposal.  Abigail Kocher is a United Methodist pastor, and Samuel Wells a priest of the Church of England. While their introduction appeals to “the United Methodist and Episcopalian (Anglican) traditions” (6), this effort grew out of collaboration of the two authors at the Duke University Chapel and may be best understood against the background of United Methodist liturgical proposals.

Kocher and Wells have high expectations for the eucharistic prayer. It should be “a flame of holy fire kindled in the hearts of all who are gathered, stirring memories and hopes, evoking gratitude and exaltation, taking worshipers to heaven to sing with the angels and to Calvary to face the horror of the cross and to the tomb to experience the wonder of the resurrection and to voice the groaning of creation and the dream of Christ’s second coming, finally leaving the congregation lost in wonder, love, and praise” (2). And so they propose prayers that “underline that a universal story and sacrament are made flesh in particular people with a specific people and with a specific time and place,” an approach that they hope will offer the worshiper “innumerable insights, perspectives, and challenges” (3). It is an ambitious goal.

Advertisement

Such enthusiasm for the reworking of eucharistic texts is relatively new. There was little change in the content of the eucharistic prayers used by Western Churches from the time of the Reformation until the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). In the Anglican tradition, for example, almost all prayers in use in the Communion before 1965 were variations of either the eucharistic prayers of the 1549 or 1552 Books of Common Prayer.

American Methodist liturgies generally followed the 1662 revision of the 1552 Eucharistic Prayer (which John and Charles Wesley would have used). It appeared with minor changes from the time of John Wesley’s The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784) to the United Methodist Church’s The Book of Worship for Church and Home (1964).

In the Roman Catholic Church, the eucharistic prayer in the rite that took its name from the 16th century Council of Trent (the Tridentine Rite) replaced those of other Western rites, with a limited number of exceptions.

Other denominations were similarly consistent in their eucharistic praying over the centuries. Elements such as the frequency of celebration, the architectural setting, and the music and ceremony that accompanied the recitation of the texts, changed relatively often; eucharistic texts did not.

This textual stability ended with Vatican II’s embrace of the insights of the 19th and 20th century Liturgical Movement. One such insight was that contemporary Christians could learn from the diversity of forms of eucharistic prayer that marked the Church of the 4th and 5th centuries. Many post-Vatican II liturgical books applied that insight by offering multiple eucharistic prayers.  The revised Roman Missal has four different prayers. The Lutheran Book of Worship contains three.  Between Rites I and II and “An Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist” the 1979 Book of Common Prayer has eight. For the next two decades, this idea of a small core of eucharistic prayers served most liturgical churches, though many individual celebrants may have been timid in the use of these options, and many parishioners unaware of the range of choice.

By the 1990s two new trends were evident in liturgical revision. First, mainline Protestant Churches began to alter their eucharistic texts in order to avoid exclusively male images and pronouns for God. The English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC) assisted in this regard by publishing a revised form of the sursum corda and other portions of the Eucharist. Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) incorporated the ELLC texts. The Episcopal Church produced four supplemental eucharistic liturgies, the last of which was Enriching Our Worship, which is still authorized for use today. It contained three new eucharistic prayers and a revision of the two forms from the 1979 “Order for Celebrating Holy Eucharist.” It also made use of ELLC texts.

A second trend evident by the 1990s was a proliferation of eucharistic texts beyond the three or four that had been typical in the 1970s. The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) is the prime example. It added thirteen new prayers that were created for use on specific seasons or Sundays of the Church year. The Episcopal Church tried to do something similar with greater economy of space in the Supplemental Liturgical Texts (1989), which printed a Eucharistic Prayer with eight “seasonal embolisms . . . provided for insertion into the Christological section of the Eucharistic prayer to correlate the prayer more specially with the aspect of the life and work of Jesus being remembered at the particular period in the Church year”  (Introduction, Commentary on Prayer Book Studies 30, c-34). Other American denominations did not follow this broad seasonal expansion of Eucharistic texts, and the Episcopal Church abandoned it in its subsequent Enriching Our Worship.

Wells and Kocher’s Eucharistic Prayers continue in the trajectory of the proliferation of Eucharistic texts, however. Their volume contains a separate eucharistic prayer for each Sunday of the three-year Revised Common Sunday Lectionary and for some “special occasions.” The only exception to the three-year cycle of texts is for “Sundays when the readings in each of three years are so similar that only one prayer seemed necessary” (3).

These prayers draw out and reinforce lectionary themes.  The allusions to the lessons are not limited to the gospel lesson; there are also allusions to the psalm and Old Testament (Cycle One) and the epistle as well. The prayer for Lent 5, Year A, for example, draws heavily on Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37:1-14) and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) that are specified for that day. The prayer concludes with the following intercessions:

Make us, your church, a place where dust can dream, where dry bones become flesh, where nobodies become your body. Reveal through Lazarus a foretaste of the resurrection of all creation, when every tearful eye will gaze upon your consolation, and every weary throat will be filled with your song; until every stone is rolled from every tomb and you sit in glory, the resurrection and the life . . .   (145)

The affirmation that “nobodies become your body” may strike some as too informal a turn of phrase for a solemn liturgical celebration. Nevertheless, it is a forceful presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ’s conquest of death.

The prayer for Epiphany 4C is but one indication of the way in which prayers also draw upon the epistle. The lesson is from 1 Corinthians 13, on love. The eucharistic prayer declares:

Revealing God, you give us prophesies, but they come to an end; you give us tongues, but they cease; you give us knowledge, but it is only partial. Give us in this sacred meal faith to move mountains, hope in the power of your transforming kingdom, and love that never comes to an end… (95).

Readers will also find occasional allusions to other elements of American religious culture in some of these prayers. The prayer for 2 Advent B, for example, combines Isaiah 10:2’s image of God speaking tenderly to those in captivity with James Weldon Johnson’s hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Gentle God, you feed us like a shepherd and gather your lambs in your arms. Speak tenderly to all who linger under the shadow of exile, imprisonment, exclusion, or rejection. Give your children the joy of knowing they have served their term. . . . God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, hasten the coming of our new day begun (45).

Curiously, the authors have chosen in their introduction to bypass a half-century discussion on the content of early eucharistic prayers and of the regional differences among them. The revisers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer were well aware that East Syrian, Alexandrian, and Roman eucharistic traditions differed from one another, and this is reflected especially in Prayers C and D.

In contrast to this appreciation of diversity of forms, Wells and Kocher explain that all eucharistic prayers have eight elements that “always following in the same order, except in the case of the epiclesis [the prayer for the descent of the Spirit upon the gifts and the people], which sometimes precedes the words of institution and acclamations, and sometimes follows them” (9).  It is not surprising that the only source cited in the introduction on the structure of eucharistic prayers is Gregory Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy, which sought to establish a uniform shared structure for all eucharistic prayers.

Wells and Kocher’s own choices in structure may seem a bit unfamiliar to some Episcopalians. The authors place the epiclesis on the gifts before the words of institution in all of their prayers.  They also frequently divide the epiclesis, with epiclesis on the people later than and separate from that on the eucharistic elements. The first of these decisions is opposite the order in the majority of texts used by American Episcopalians since 1789. The second is what Episcopal liturgical scholar Byron Stuhlman labeled “A failed Experiment” in his A Good and Joyful Thing: The Evolution of the Eucharistic Prayer (158). There are certainly arguments to making the choices that Wells and Kocher have made; it would have been enlightening to hear them.

Is this work an example that the Episcopal Church should follow in future revisions of the Book of Common Prayer? Positively, the authors have some success in spanning the gap between the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the table, providing pointers back to the lessons of the day. They have expanded the range of theological themes in the eucharistic prayer, thereby responding to two of the issues raised by faculty in Episcopal seminaries in the Issues in Prayer Book Revision (2018) from Church Publishing. James Farwell of Virginia Theological Seminary suggested that future prayers needed to pay more attention to Christ’s teaching and ministry, and Amy Schifrin of Trinity School for Ministry called for more attention to the Holy Spirit’s work of unifying the church. Both of these things happen in many of the prayers. Wells and Kocher have also lessened the potential for monotony in repeated prayers.

Negatively, there is the experience of the 1990s, when few Episcopalians were moved by the idea of seasonal embolisms in Supplemental Liturgical Texts. There are also practical problems with following Wells and Kocher’s example in any future edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Few would argue that any usable printed edition of the Book of Common Prayer could easily accommodate an additional 350 pages of eucharistic prayers, or indeed that clergy of the church are making full use of the four eucharistic prayers we currently have.

More importantly, one might also ask whether this approach runs the danger of losing the forest in the midst of the trees, concentrating on the individual elements in the narrative of God’s people to the exclusion of the broader story of Christ’s redeeming work. The prayer for Lent 4A, for example, echoes themes from the 23rd Psalm and the anointing of David (1 Sam. 16:1-13) in a way that might be described as obscuring the unique saving work of Jesus Christ. The opening thanksgiving uses the call of David and the 23rd Psalm to describe a “shepherd king” who has come “out of the House of Jesse.” The introduction to the words of institution are then:

Anointing God, Samuel poured oil on the head of David, and your Spirit came mightily upon him. Send your Holy Spirit upon your church to make us faithful disciples and with your same Spirit, anoint these gifts of bread and wine that they may be for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; who at supper with the disciples, took bread…

The supplications that follow the acclamation do not contain any mention of Jesus Christ, thought he does appear in the acclamation and the closing doxology (138–39). A worshiper might understandably be confused about the specific roles intended for King David and Jesus.

However one answers the question of the applicability of Wells and Kocher’s work to the future revision of the Book of Common Prayer, there is no question about the degree to which they have offered a thoughtful and interesting proposal.

The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Prichard is professor emeritus at Virginia Theological Seminary.

5
Leave a Reply

3 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
1 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
4 Comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
C R SEITZ

More special prayers and more special orders for the eucharist: energizes the creators, but to what genuine end for the catholic worship of God and/or outreach and mission?

If there were one classical order that embodied the Gospel and its testimony in Holy Scripture, that would be one less consumerist option in the name of catholic belief and life in Christ.

Robin Jordan

A primary reason that the Anglo-Saxon Church adopted the Roman Rite over the Celtic Rite was its simplicity and its brevity. The Celtic Rite was long, complicated, and wordy. Anglicans and Episcopalians do not need a eucharistic prayer for every Sunday of the three-year lectionary, a mini-sermon in prayer form, based upon the description in the article. Our services often are onerously long as it is. From what I have observed is the longer the eucharistic prayer, the greater the temptation to rush through the prayer. Lengthy, wordy prayers fail to stir the heart. The younger generations who set great… Read more »

C R SEITZ

I heartily agree. Intellectualizing and prolix novelty distracts from prayer and child-like participation.

Many thanks for this review! One wonders how much of the authors’ proposal is influenced by the Church England’s experience with Common Worship. Having had the privilege of celebrating in many congregations of the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe during my episcopate, I found Common Worship to be sometimes quite daring on the one hand, often very good, and yet with too many alternatives. And this from an Episcopalian! Many times I heard English bishops say they wished they could everything in one book, like ours. Underlying all liturgical reforms is an attempt to influence the theology of the church… Read more »

Gary Sturni

Regarding the review of “A Striking Proposal for the Revision of the Eucharistic Prayer,” it seems clear that CS Lewis’s demur from novelty in worship is to the point. (“The perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing than worshipping … ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.”) The place where innovation is helpful, IMHO, is in the Prayers of the People: Artfully crafted… Read more »