Explaining Our New Prayer Book

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When the first Book of Common Prayer was released on Pentecost in the year 1549, it was such a shock to the liturgical and theological intuitions of some portions of the Church in England that riots and rebellions broke out over the matter. Especially in Norfolk and in Devon, and most memorably in the city of Exeter—there were sieges and full-scale acts of destruction in the name of the Old Liturgy. The Crown enforced the new uniformity, and the rioters were punished. One, the Rev. Robert Welsh, vicar of St. Thomas’ Church in Exeter, was placed in an iron cage, hoisted to the steeple of his church, and exposed to the elements until death.

The Prayerbook Revision of 2019

When the 2019 revision of the Book of Common Prayer was set to be released, it did not come with a Royal Act to enforce it, so there was no fear that the reaction would be quite so drastic. Nevertheless, changes to the Prayer Book are taken very seriously by the Church—clergy and laity—and rightly so. The conservative instincts of the Faithful (sensus fidelium) is one of the Spirit’s gifts to the Church in safeguarding the Faith once for all delivered, as well as the patterns of worship in Spirit and Truth that convey that Faith. The Church ought always to be suspicious of changes to the Liturgy.

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Every successive revision of the Book of Common Prayer since 1549: 1552, 1559, (1604), 1662, 1789, 1892, 1928, and 1979 has been met with caution and inquiry, and this is not a bad thing. In fact, a sensibility of suspicion is especially sharp among the older members of the Anglican Church in North America, who remember in the early 1970s back in The Episcopal Church when the ‘trial liturgies’ (e.g. “The Zebra Book”, etc.) were being tested that would become the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was arguable not an evolution built on predecessor Prayer Books but a revolution based on then-current ideologies. While it did bring with it many gains (in terms of comprehensibility, comprehensiveness, proper liturgies, flexibility, and ecumenicity), the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was also utilized as the means of relaxing the Ancient Discipline of the Church, and many parts of it were very unfamiliar to the classic Prayer Book tradition (“This fragile earth, our island home…”).

So, as one of the central committee members of the Liturgy Task Force and its designer (in terms of layout and production), I was very grateful that Anglican Compass (then, Anglican Pastor) was willing to publish a number of small essays explaining some of the unexpected features of the “new” 2019 Prayer Book, to help ameliorate suspicion and mitigate fallout from another new recension of the Prayer Book tradition. Some of these essays were things I wanted to be made known, and some were asked of me by the editors of Anglican Compass.

Explaining the Prayer Book

The first aspect of the 2019 BCP, which would flag itself as “new” to an Anglican, was the “look” of the pages. A bit of explanation might help folks acclimatize to it and be able to see what strengths it may contribute for new Anglicans, and this suggested ‘Designed for Mission: The Typography of the ACNA’s New Prayer Book.

Another element that would quickly present itself as being very different from the 1979 BCP is the Daily Office Lectionary of the 2019 BCP. But something that only a liturgical scholar would be likely to already know is that the general structure of the 2019 Daily Office Lectionary actually resembles very closely that of the earliest Prayer Books, from 1549 to 1662, in that it follows the Calendar Year, and has longer readings that take you through the Old Testament in (almost) its entirety each year, and the New Testament twice each year. This suggested ‘Designed to be Read: The Architecture of the ACNA Daily Office Lectionary.’

As folks dug into this new feature, a number of Anglican Compass readers asked the editors why, in fact, there are some omissions from the Old Testament in the lectionary—a fair question!—and so I was asked to explain the mind of the committee as to the omissions, and this became the article, ‘Lessons in Omission: Why Are Some Chapters Missing in the Daily Office Lectionary?

Dovetailing into the topic of liturgical Calendar was the need to explain the Calendar of Saints, in general terms, together with an explanation of why these particular names are included in the 2019 Calendar,‘The Calendar of Saints: A Rookie Anglican Guide.’

And then downstream from this discussion, I had become aware that the Christian notion of ‘feasting’ was getting a bit muddied with worldly notions of the same, and so I got a chance to explain what the Prayer Book means by ‘feasting’ in the article, ‘Christian Feasting vs. Cultural Feasting: What’s the Difference?

As the 2019 Prayer Book began to finds its first footing in the Anglican Church in North America, a number of folks from more evangelical backgrounds perhaps encountered afresh the question of “is this Biblical?” The late J.I. Packer famously remarked that the Prayer Book is “The Bible arranged for prayer” and so Anglican Compass’ editors asked me to write a small piece extrapolating on this dictum, ‘The Bible in the Book of Common Prayer.’

Lastly, some folks who were approaching the 2019 BCP from a background where the 1928 BCP was used were surprised to find that the 2019 BCP version of The Apostles’ Creed declares that Christ “descended to the dead” when they had previously been used to professing that he “descended into hell”, and so a small explanation was requested, ‘Where Did Christ Descend To? The Rationale Behind the BCP 2019’s Translation of the Apostles’ Creed’.

The Prayerbook and the Front Porch

Archbishop Duncan’s vision for the 2019 book was that its content would so commend itself that it would need the Act of Uniformity to enforce its use, but Anglicans across this continent would want to use it for its theological clarity, its rootedness in historic Anglicanism, as well as its ease of use. Though it would be premature to assert that this has been accomplished outright, the fact that the publisher (Anglican House) has sold in excess of 50,000 copies is very encouraging.

I am grateful that our Anglican Church has a digital “Front Porch” in Anglican Compass and that we, the present generation of Anglicans, can explore, discuss, and explain features of our Prayer Book and our rich Prayer Book heritage with charity and clarity in a way that builds up the church.

Let us prevent the recurrence of anything like what happened in poor Exeter five hundred years ago!

Published on

December 19, 2022

Author

Ben Jefferies

Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.

View more from Ben Jefferies

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