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The Liturgical Movement and the History of Prayer Book Revision

By Calvin Lane

The appearance of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was many generations in the making, and it was the fruit of a remarkable convergence of factors: historical research into the early Church, warm and creative ecumenical relationships with other Christians, a renewed focus on baptism’s relationship to both the life of the Church and the Paschal Mystery of Easter, and perhaps most importantly an orientation to the apostolic Church in our evangelism and worship. This was the Liturgical Movement.

This is the first of two posts, and my focus here is tracing the history of the movement, noting especially a long gestation — close to four centuries — to rites that have only been in use for about 40 years. The hope is that this may put current initiatives for prayer book revision in context. The second essay will highlight the methods of the movement and reflect on the absence of many of those critical elements today.

If we look at the Novus Ordo of the Roman Catholic Church (1969) and the emergence of new forms of Anglican liturgy in the last quarter of the 20th century (e.g., the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) what we see are not jumped-up experiments from the middle of the 20th century, but the long-awaited attempt to bring into the mainstream principles of worship and ecclesiology that had been fermenting for centuries.[1]

The place to begin is with a group of French Benedictines near the end of the 17th century. Starting in 1672, the brothers of the Congregation of St. Maur began a serious study of ancient liturgical texts, and Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) is worthy of particular mention. Among his many efforts, he produced a new edition of the Ordines Romani, which remained a scholarly standard until the 20th century. These ordines provided better windows into late antique and early medieval Western liturgy than scholars had possessed until that time. The great contribution of the Maurists was to topple the then-dominant assumption among many Roman Catholic theologians that the Roman Rite in its Tridentine form was the ancient Western form of prayer. The work of the Maurists came to an end during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when many monasteries were closed (the last Superior General and 40 of his monks were guillotined in 1792).

We should also note the work of the Jansenists. Although their movement was quieted in 1713, a good deal of their ideas about the early Church influenced calls for liturgical reform during a synod in the Tuscan town of Pistoia in 1786. They wanted more vernacular elements in worship, including exposition of Scripture; they wanted to end the multiplicity of altars in churches and to have instead only one table; they wanted a pruning back of candles and relics on that one altar, which could distract from the eucharistic action. In the 18th century, there was also a call for a clear celebrant’s chair off to the side of the altar. These are reforms that Vatican II would endorse nearly 200 years later. Pistoia, like the Jansenists, was rebuffed, but we should note the primitivist sensibilities at work.

In 19th-century England, the Oxford Movement featured a renewed emphasis on studying the Fathers, and likewise in Germany, departments of history emerged in universities. The new Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in France arose, whose claim to fame was the revival of Gregorian chant, and the Benedictines of Maria Laach in Germany appeared as yet another powerhouse of liturgical scholarship. The interest was the worship life of the early Church.

Many examples of liturgical and ecclesiological ferment appeared in the 17th through 19th centuries: the Maurists, the Jansensists, university scholarship, Solesmes, Maria Laach. But their work was not mainstream. An opportunity emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. Many in Christian leadership believed there needed to be more lay participation in worship, and these concerns paired with worries about the rampant individualism engendered by the Enlightenment. For example, Pius X’s decree Tra la Sollecitudini (1903) called for restoring earlier patterns of music, eschewing Baroque settings of the Mass more reminiscent of operas than Christian assemblies for the Eucharist.

The desire for lay incorporation was also starting to be felt, and here we come to the Abbey of Maria Laach during Holy Week in 1914. In this Benedictine community south of Bonn, the abbot invited lay people living nearby to join the monks for the week’s liturgies, and the monks worked in earnest to find ways for the people to participate, to make responses, and to form a united worshiping community. It would be an important model for the future.

By the middle of the 20th century, Anglicans on both sides of the Atlantic were engaged in thinking carefully about the possibility of liturgical revision and, concomitantly, the nature of apostolic Christian worship. We might think of Massey Shepherd, a key founder of a movement in 1946 called Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission (often simply Associated Parishes). Associated Parishes’ contribution was having parishes offer Holy Communion every Sunday. This is something we now take for granted in the Episcopal Church, but it certainly was not the case even just a couple of decades ago. The visceral confusion many people who were formed by the 1979 BCP feel when presented with that fact is instructive. In England the same thing was going on, but it was called the Parish Communion or Sunday Communion movement.

Without question, the most important figure among Anglicans in the Liturgical Movement in the middle of the 20th century was, for better or worse, Gregory Dix (1901-52), a member of the Anglican Benedictine House at Nashdom. I’ll write more about his efforts in the next essay.

While Dix and others were at work, an unprecedented level of ecumenical cross-fertilizing occurred as well, especially in the Church of South India that came into existence in 1947. Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars were talking to each other! The efforts of the Liturgical Movement were becoming increasingly visible — and worked toward the patterns of worship we take for granted today.

The Roman Catholic Novus Ordo (the Mass of Paul VI) appeared in the 1960s, and the American revision of the Book of Common Prayer appeared in the following decade. Considering the history of the movement, this was not that long ago. Other Anglican provinces followed suit, developing liturgical forms in keeping with the ideals of the Liturgical Movement. Among the Anglicans we think of folks like Massey Shepherd, Ronald Jasper, H. Boone Porter, and Marion Hatchett. This long-awaited bloom in liturgical revision paired new insights about the early Church with a healthy and improved understanding of ecumenism, one that was truly post-Reformation.

My point in recounting this story is that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was not just years in the making, but centuries. Its contours are not reflective of the passing fancies of the middle of the 20th century, but of the collective wisdom of nearly 400 years of patristic scholarship and ecumenical engagement. A present-day commitment to the 1979 BCP is hardly hidebound traditionalism. Rather, such a posture reflects a commitment to the methods and priorities of the Liturgical Movement as it developed over centuries. In the next essay, I will focus on those sensibilities and raise questions about the absence of those critical elements today.


[1] This essay draws on John Baldovin, SJ, “The Liturgical Movement and its Consequences,” in Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck (eds.), The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 249-60; Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement prior to the Second Vatican Council (Ignatius Press, 2005).


  1. Thank you for this. My father, The Rev. William J. Spicer, was one of the founding members of AP. Discussing th Liturgical Movement was commonplace at our dinner table. The writings of the AP members are in the archives. They wrote some terrific curricula for lower grades through adult teaching. Dad’s last parish was, I believe, the first in Wisconsin to have a free standing altar unless John Keene’s church did so. I could go on. My real comment is simply, Thank you.


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