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The ACNA BCP 2019: A Critical Appreciation

By Ben Crosby

In June, the Anglican Church in North America authorized the 2019 Book of Common Prayer at their Provincial Assembly. What makes this text particularly significant is that it is the first consciously post-liturgical movement Book of Common Prayer authorized by an Anglican ecclesial body.

That is, rather than seeing the ACNA prayer book as continuing the trajectory of the liturgical reforms that transformed Christian worship worldwide in the middle of the twentieth century, its framers situate it as a sort of “reform of the reform” of these Anglican liturgies, and above all of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Archbishop Robert Duncan, chair of the ACNA Liturgy Task Force that produced the 2019 BCP, puts it like this: the ACNA Book of Common Prayer “takes what was good from the modern liturgical renewal movement and also recovers what had been lost from the tradition.”

Much has already been written on this new BCP, including Drew Nathaniel Keane’s exhaustive comparison of the final draft of the 2019 ACNA BCP with the 1979 and earlier Anglican liturgies on Covenant. More recently, there has been an online exchange regarding the relationship of the 2019 BCP to the 1662 Church of England Book of Common Prayer, and whether the 2019 is in fact faithful to the doctrine and worship of the 1662 (see here, here, and here).

My aim in this piece is not to analyze all elements of the prayer book or intervene in debates within ACNA, but simply to assess the success of this Book of Common Prayer as a “reform of the reform” in its treatment of the daily office and the Eucharist.

Particularly for those of us in the Episcopal Church committed to preserving classical Anglican worship as our own church body gingerly embarks on liturgical revision, the 2019 BCP provides a helpful example. It shows the potential strengths of retrieving the Anglican liturgical tradition while warning us against creating a dichotomy between a supposedly-unified classical Anglican liturgical past and the twentieth-century liturgical movement. I hope that despite our very real differences with the Anglican Church in North America, this prayer book will be taken seriously by Episcopalians in our own processes of liturgical revision.

The fruits of the ACNA approach to revision are particularly evident in the 2019 BCP’s daily office, which is significantly simpler and more user-friendly than the 1979 office precisely because it more closely follows traditional Anglican daily prayer. It preserves the four-fold pattern of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, but modifies morning and evening prayer especially so that they follow traditional forms in contemporary language. For example, the confession that opens morning and evening prayer is a fine contemporary-language rendering of Cranmer’s confession prayer at the office: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.” The line “there is no health in us” which was removed from Rite I of the 1979 makes a welcome reappearance here, albeit softened with the qualifier “apart from your grace.” (Notre Dame professor Samuel L Bray has explored the history and etymology of the line in arguing that the qualifier should have been omitted.)

The invitatory material then breaks new ground for the American prayer book tradition; the preces follow the 1662 and the entirety of Psalm 95 is provided for the first time in an American prayer book. The psalms follow the much-anticipated Revised Coverdale Psalter, which (as its name suggests) is a revision of the traditional prayer book psalter rather than a wholesale new translation as in the 1979 BCP and the 1985 Canadian BAS.

In one of my favorite changes, only the traditional canticles at morning and evening prayer are provided in the text of the prayer order itself, with the other canticles from the 1979 BCP provided in a supplemental section (all, of course, are in contemporary language). This allows variety for those who chafe at the restrictions of the traditional canticle setting, while emphasizing the use of the Gospel canticles and making it easier for newcomers to the daily office to decide which canticles to say. The only shortcoming here in my view is that the framers chose to make the Benedictus es Domine the alternative to the Te Deum in Lent, rather than the Benedicite as in the 1662. For the collects, both the seven-day cycle of the 1979 BCP and the invariable collects of the earlier prayer book tradition are provided as options, although here the seven-day cycle is favored by being set out in the text itself, with the invariable collects listed as an option in the rubrics.

The result of all this is quite attractive indeed, especially when combined with easy-to-follow typesetting, with congregational responses always in bold, material spoken by one person in plain type, and rubrics and instructions in italics. In the end, ACNA has produced a daily office that restores the elegant simplicity of the pre-liturgical movement office in contemporary language and is easier to pray than the 1979, but also preserves approximately the same seasonal content and other variations of the 1979 in optional material for those who seek it out.

For the Holy Eucharist, the 2019 BCP provides two forms which it calls the “Anglican Standard Text” and the “Renewed Ancient Text.” The latter is very similar to the 1979 Rite II Eucharist, with additional classical Anglican elements such as the Summary of the Law and the Prayer of Humble Access added; the eucharistic prayer draws from the same ancient text as the 1979’s Prayer A. As one might expect, the Anglican Standard Text is the communion service which mostly clearly engages in a retrieval of classical Anglican liturgy.

Here, however, the results are more mixed than at the daily office, because this eucharistic liturgy unfortunately posits a single, unified Anglican communion service, deviated from only by the twentieth-century liturgical movement. The rubric Concerning the Holy Eucharist says as much: “The Anglican Standard Text is essentially that of the Holy Communion service of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and successor books through 1928, 1929, and 1962.”

The first oddity here is that it is not entirely clear what prayer book is meant by the 1929. The deeper problem is that there is no single Holy Communion service across those prayer books: the Scots-American prayer of consecration (which one finds in the US 1928 BCP) and the English prayer of consecration of 1662 (which also appears in the Canadian 1962) are not, in fact, the same. While much of the text is identical between the two prayers, their ordering is significantly different, and the Scots-American prayer includes an epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit, and an oblation, or offering, of the elements which the English prayer does not. Indeed, over Anglican liturgical history, much ink has been spilled on the relative merits of both patterns – most publicly around the proposed English prayer book of 1928. While it is probably true that these two patterns are closer to each other than either is to the liturgical movement eucharistic prayers, it stretches the evidence to suggest that there is in fact one Anglican standard eucharistic order.

While this does not cause any problems through the bulk of the service, it does render the eucharistic prayer rather muddled and confusing. In short, this BCP cannot decide whether it wants to be in the Scots-American tradition or the English-Canadian one, for its rhetoric of retrieval relies too heavily on the idea that there was a unified orthodox Anglican liturgical past which was ruptured only by the liberal excesses of the liturgical movement.

Moreover, ACNA itself marks an unprecedented break in the tradition of Anglican polity and liturgy, attempting to merge congregations in the US and Canada with very different prayer book traditions. ACNA itself, to say nothing of its prayer book, is attempting to be both a Scots-American and an English-Canadian church, and the invocation of the 1662 and the 39 Articles as foundational cannot entirely disguise this fact.

And so, the Anglican Standard Text prayer of consecration is mostly in the Scots-American ordering, but with the epiclesis before the words of institution in the so-called Roman position – a position which before the liturgical movement only occurs in Anglican liturgy in the 1549 English BCP and the 1637 Scottish – and with the oblation of the gifts removed. Moreover, several paragraphs of the prayer are listed as optional, and there is a footnote suggesting that the entire prayer can be conformed to the 1662 ordering instead (the Additional Directions Concerning Holy Communion at the end of the Communion liturgies provide more information as to how to do this). It would have been preferable to provide two prayers of consecration for the “Anglican Standard Text,” the 1662 and the Scots-American, or simply to make a choice between the two prayers, rather than a single prayer with a plethora of options. The result is a return of the confusing variations which this BCP so helpfully limited in the daily office.

Perhaps the lesson of the ACNA BCP for us is this: thoughtful contemporary-language retrieval of classical Anglican liturgical texts and forms is very possible. Far from being stodgy or forbidding, this approach often makes liturgies more user-friendly by cutting down on the vast number of variations introduced during and after the liturgical movement. However, when such retrieval sets up a uniform classical Anglicanism against errors or excesses of the liturgical movement, it can smooth out of differences in the classical Anglican tradition in a way that produces less-than-coherent liturgies.

The story of Anglican liturgy is more complicated and more interesting than unanimous orthodoxy giving way to liberalism and modernism in the twentieth century. Yet there is much to be said for the 2019 BCP, especially for those like me who believe that the prayer books inspired by the liturgical movement, for all their very real gains, regrettably neglected elements of the Anglican liturgical tradition focused on penitence and the cross. I hope its strengths will inform those in my own church who will be charged with revising the 1979 BCP, that we too may seek to bring together the best of both the liturgical movement and the classical Anglican traditions that preceded it.

Ben Crosby is a postulant for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. He is currently a second-year student at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, and has a particular interest in the retrieval of classical Anglican liturgy and theology.

This essay has been slightly revised from the original version, in order to more accurately reflect the status of the epiclesis in earlier Anglican liturgies.


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