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Fresh and familiar

By J. Neil Alexander

Editor’s note: This is the second piece in The Living Church’s Necessary or Expedient? teaching series in prayer book revision. It appeared in the Oct. 16 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.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer embodies the liturgical and sacramental thinking of the mid-1970s. To say that things have changed — in the world and in the church — might well be the understatement of the year. Such change will inevitably affect the way we pray, sing, worship, and celebrate sacraments.

Change, especially healthy change that builds community, is tethered in important ways to its source; it progresses while staying connected, it is fresh and familiar. That is my greatest hope and most significant concern about prayer book revision. Simply put: our prayer book needs updating and enrichment, but the book that replaces it must be recognizably ours. It must be a book that serves the whole church: stable, reliable, and deeply rooted in the liturgical frameworks of Anglicanism. At the same time, a new book must be elastic enough to meet the needs of non-traditional missional environments.

Prayer books in the Anglican tradition generally share a common body of content: the calendar of the Church year, the daily offices, liturgies for Christian initiation, for the Holy Eucharist, and for ordination, plus the psalter. Most editions include pastoral rites for marriage, for the sick, and for burial. Whatever the details of a particular edition, Anglican prayer books have a recognizable shape. I hope we will not lose that.

This raises the question about what rites need to be in the prayer book and what rites need to be in auxiliary books authorized for use. We have often held that rites in the prayer book establish doctrine, whereas auxiliary rites are consonant with our theology and approved for pastoral use, but are understood to reflect rather than establish a theology and pastoral practice. Perhaps such a division is still a good place to begin the conversation.

As I think about revision, I find myself interested in something like BCP 1979: 2.0. I do not believe we need, nor is the church interested in, a wholesale revision in which everything is thrown out and we start from scratch. That’s not a particularly Anglican approach, of course. We are not likely to abandon our inheritance and the prayers and rites we cherish and that shape our identity. We are much more likely to think in terms of evolving along a trajectory very much in line with the current book. While some tweaking is certainly in order, the structures of our principal rites are sound, flow beautifully, and wear well. Where they do not, the fix is relatively simple, non-jarring, and would be unnoticeable to most people.

Taking the Eucharist as an example, what would enrichment look like? We have three opening acclamations: for general use, for Lent, and for Easter. What about opening acclamations for Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, and All Saints? These would follow the same structure, maintain the same ritual feel, but add a bit more seasonal variation. We have only two post-Communion collects in Rite Two; only one in Rite One. What if we kept them for general use, but added more seasonally specific post-Communion collects for the Christmas and Easter seasons?

In the Sunday assembly, among the most important things we do is pray. God’s people intercede for the Church and for the world, for the sick and for those who have died. The 1979 book gives us great flexibility and encourages us to shape the prayers according to the needs and concerns of the community at prayer, but in many parishes the models (Forms I-VI) have simply become the prayers as is, with little modification or enrichment. Perhaps the revision could provide stronger encouragement for eucharistic communities to shape their own intercessions and provide clearer guidance on how to do that well.

The rites of Christian initiation — baptism and confirmation, and the catechumenal processes that prepare for them — need refinement, mostly to make still more visible the centrality of baptism for Christian life and practice. The 1979 book took baptism out of the shadows as a custom of culture and repositioned it as the source from which flows the living water and spirit of Christian faith and discipleship. Our rites are strong and we should tinker with them cautiously, but some serious reflection on the structure of the baptismal rite — less the text, more the structure — might well yield richer fare sacramentally and pastorally.

Given recent decisions in the ecclesiastical and civil arenas, the marriage rite(s) will need thoughtful revision. Much of what is there is to be cherished and preserved, while broadening the scope to cover a wider field of familial constructs. Richer biblical and theological imagery is also needed to sustain those who make marital commitments.

Similarly, good work has been done in our church with respect to the burial rites. Collects, litanies, and prayers, particularly for use at the death of a child, and liturgical materials for use when one has died in particularly tragic circumstances, would be helpful enhancements. Again, the concern is for amplifying and enriching the rites, tweaking them, not replacing them.

The liturgies for Ash Wednesday, Palm/Passion Sunday, and the Paschal Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil) also need review. These rites continue to wear well in most contexts, but 40 years of pastoral use have given us a sense of where the weaker links in the ritual structures are, where they need to be abbreviated, and where in other places they need perhaps to be lengthened or enriched. Although the ritual “thickness” of the Holy Week rites is generally well balanced, some relatively minor emendations and optional additions might be considered.

The ordination rites came a long way in the 1979 revision. The realignment of our rites so that they are more consonant with the length and breadth of the catholic tradition has been a powerful change in a positive direction, but the effect of those changes has only begun to be understood among our bishops and those preparing for ordination. I worry that the progress we have made in the 1979 ordinal will be too quickly set aside without plumbing the depths of the history and theology that brought us where we are. We shall need to think again through the thorny theological issue of one or two ordination rites for deacons, permanent and transitional, and whether we are prepared to depart from today’s ecumenical and catholic consensus by providing for direct ordination to the priesthood. The language of the ordinal, particularly the ordination of bishops, needs updating.

Speaking of language, updating our liturgical language will surely cause the church more heartburn. Finding the balance in language so that the new book can serve the widest possible swath of the church is going to be the hardest part of the task. Even after 40 years of Rite Two, a substantial group in our church still prefers traditional language as embodied in Rite One. Some prayers make us who we are, notably the eucharistic prayers of Rite One, that do not exist apart from their Rite One version. While I am confident I could spiritually survive if I never again attended a Rite One liturgy, the pastor in me would be loath to take away the possibility of traditional language from those eucharistic communities of our church who desire it. I would also hate to run the risk of losing so much of the Anglican choral tradition and the blessings of a traditional, fully sung Evensong.

The language of Rite Two was, for much of the church, a highly successful updating of liturgical speech. It was carefully and thoughtfully done; while imperfect, it has worn pretty well for four decades. When compared to the modern language rites of other provinces of the Communion, its quality continues to stand out. That said, for many, the language of Rite Two is quite dated and needs to be revised, particularly with respect to gender-inclusive language. Many of us, myself included, would hope that a revision would mine the depths of Holy Scripture for even more expansive language for God.

That we need to revise and update the language of the prayer book is, for me at least, a given. What worries me, however, is that we will simply get into a war over pronouns, making uncritical substitutions, and flatten the range of meaning so that the highly rich, often intentionally ambiguous ritual language that feeds our souls will become narrow and pedestrian. The revision of the prayer book’s language needs to be done, not by language activists, but by poets, writers, linguists, musicians, and theologians sensitive to the rich complexity of the ways we use words to pray.

The Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander is dean, professor of liturgy, and Charles Todd Quintard Professor of Theology at Sewanee’s School of Theology.


  1. I have to say that I find myself mostly in disagreement with this, and in particular, its assessment of where things were in the 1970s. Rite II Prayer A was already written by then (with some minor amendments); the issue of gender and God arose in that era (Beyond God the Father having been published in 1973), and it is very far from a settled issue. The acknowledgement that Rite I still has a constituency is gracious, but the major problem is going to continue to be that “inclusive” god language tends not to be orthodox god language; I don’t feel an engagement on this that is going to produce a rite satisfactory to all.


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