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A concise prayer book

Editor’s note: This is the eighth piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appears in the Feb. 26 issue. Mark Michael’s “Are we done with the ’79 prayer book?” is the well-known first piece in the series. Further essays in Necessary or Expedient? will appear here in the coming weeks and months. Click here to find and then bookmark the series. 

Many wise voices today point out that we do not need to revise the 1979 prayer book, as we do not embody all of what it has made available to us. I agree. In my experience with seminary students, many of our younger generations do not want a new and improved, expanded prayer book. Rather, many want to be reconnected to a tradition from which they feel distanced. They want ancient, connected, continuous, simple, transformative liturgy. That is something we need to remember when we consider any revisions. When we decide that the time is right for prayer book revision, the real work will be to figure out ways to revise the 1979 book so that all of the liturgical gifts it already gives us can be more fully embodied in our churches.

There are two movements, two motions — pendulum swings — that characterize the history of liturgical revision throughout Church history and within the Anglican and Episcopal tradition. One movement pushes boundaries, expands, grows, and adds. As historian Robert Prichard has observed, the other movement looks to contract, to sort, or to shift in order to find lasting value. The 1979 prayer book is an example of pushing boundaries and expansion for the sake of comprehensiveness, experimentation, and even restoring more ancient practices. Due to our culture and the precedent set by the 1979 prayer book, our temptation now is to add, to compose, to proliferate. But the next best move should be toward contraction: not for constriction’s sake, but to progress by sorting and shifting so that we find a selection of liturgy of lasting value, a concise prayer book that contributes to truly common prayer.

An important consideration in future prayer book revision is what to do with the distinction between traditional language and contemporary language. For example, in the case of the Daily Office, there is absolutely no distinction in rite between Rite I and Rite II. The only dissimilarity is in language. So, I suggest first and foremost that we collapse the distinction between Rite I and Rite II and move to one shared rite — even for the Holy Eucharist, which would take a good bit of work.

[alert type=white ]Many want to be reconnected to a tradition from which they feel distanced. They want ancient, connected, continuous, simple, transformative liturgy. [/alert]

A simple solution to this can be found in the way the Book of Common Prayer has been translated into other languages and authorized by General Convention. We could default to our traditional language as the inherited language of our liturgy and have a single, authorized traditional-language book. Then we would produce official translations, including one into the contemporary idiom, also approved by General Convention. In order to increase availability and distribution, the prayer book and its “translations” would be available through the web. They would be offered as print-on-demand titles for simple pew editions. The rite would be searchable and liturgical planners could copy and paste into bulletins or even create local worship booklets for the pew. (Church Publishing offers such features through its ritebrain liturgical library.) In this way congregations could easily maintain both traditional and contemporary services. Church Publishing would also publish personal and gift editions.

Using this principle of contraction for sifting and focus, we gain some clarity with room for guided expansion in supplementary material like the Book of Occasional Services, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and other well-intentioned and well-sorted supplementary material. So, for example, any Rite III services should be moved to the Book of Occasional Services because those services are only for occasional use. Doing so aids us in making a necessary distinction between common prayer and occasional prayer. Rearranging infrequently used liturgy from our current prayer book into the Book of Occasional Services, and vice versa, then becomes a natural step of revision.

Such Rite III services are An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist, An Order for Marriage, and An Order for Burial. I would include A Form of Commitment to Christian Service and the Blessing of a Civil Marriage. We could make things like the Penitential Order and the Order of Worship for the Evening alternative entrance rites to the Eucharist.

Services to move from the Book of Occasional Services into the Book of Common Prayer include the additional material many congregations already use for special liturgies for seasonal occasions, such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. My students are often surprised to find that the foot-washing on Maundy Thursday is in the prayer book but the stripping of the altar is in the Book of Occasional Services. Material such as this in the Book of Occasional Services could migrate to the prayer book because we use them regularly; they have become common prayer. There are rites we could move from Enriching Our Worship into the next prayer book, including the biblical canticles, the Nicene Creed, and material from the burial rites.

The loss of inherited language, especially for our rite of baptism, from previous prayer book tradition could be remedied through careful redaction while retaining the important gifts we have received in our renewed rites of initiation. That said, I would like to turn to one final point about the Prayers of the People.

Although a congregation may compose the Prayers of the People, many complain that this option has not been used sufficiently in the Episcopal Church. Unused resources toward this end continue to proliferate. But this lack of composing prayers is not a sign of laziness or lack of training; rather it is an example of the people telling the hierarchy and the scholars what they really want on a Sunday. This is the voice of a liturgical church — the Episcopal Church — telling leaders that it wants liturgy. That congregations in the main tend to use the forms given in the prayer book, and tend to use only one or two based on parish or congregational custom, shows that we are simply a liturgical church.

The solution is not to pressure people to compose their own prayers but to answer actual use by moving all of the options to write prayers into the Book of Occasional Services, with more and better explanation of how to do so. Couple this with a revision that allows more obvious insertion points for the needs of the local community into the Prayers of the People with sufficient explanation in the additional directions on how to make those insertion points in creative, meaningful, yet clearly liturgical ways.

The postmodern architect Christopher Alexander, who is famous for his pattern language, says that “all living systems tend toward simplicity.” We need to shift toward fewer liturgical options, for the sake of greater continuity, greater commonality in prayer, and thereby greater unity, as well as greater opportunity for spiritual transformation.


  1. There is some good stuff to ponder here. Let me raise a couple of flags–not red, perhaps, but yellow. First, while I would agree that there is no substantive ritual difference between Rite I and Rite II in the daily office, such a generalization is less evident in the Eucharist, and simply not plausible in the Burial Office. Second, in the 1970’s, the “language divide” was between the inherited Elizabethan idiom and a more contemporary vernacular. Might it be that the language divide today is more theologically driven? For the last 30 years, the impetus for liturgical innovation (revisions of BOS, authorization of EOW and other trial use materials) has been to remove masculine pronouns for God and generally purge words like “Lord” and “Almighty.” So I suspect that the more pressing need for “translation” less to do with contemporary vs. traditional *diction* and more to do with contemporary vs. traditional *theology.”

    • Agreed. As the rector of a “Rite I” only parish (yes, there are a few of us out there still), I am quite concerned with the thought of a synthesized (or contraction of) Rite I and Rite II form of Holy Eucharist. Far too often simply changing the idiom actually represents a change to the theology. And, if my guess is correct, some proposed changes will simply be a bridge too far for many.

  2. Very well written article. As a young Millennial, I’m newbies about the traditions that will not be passed on to my own generation after yet another possible prayerbook revision. I’m scared there won’t be an Episcopal Church in the future after another revision, especially one that seems guided by a generation of Episcopalians who I hoped remember the lessons from the 1979 revision. I hope they are not willing to trade away the rich history of American Anglicanism for a chance to compose yet another prayerbook which will reflect the same generation who composed the last one.

    And for whom is this prayerbook? For themselves? Certainly not for me or my generation. If you go and speak online to Millennial Anglicans, they too question the necessity of a new prayerbook revision. In fact, many are, like me, nervous that a revision will be the end of American Anglicanism as we know it. They are thankful the inroads the Episcopal Church has made for gays and lesbians but question the changes such a radical revision of the actual core of what it means to be an Anglican in America.


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