UPDATE: When I originally wrote this article, a year and a half ago, I was convinced of these conclusions. I still feel that much of what is said here is correct, but I am no longer able to say with confidence that the ultimate conclusion about the 1979 BCP’s treatment of the atonement or its consistency with prior books is accurate. I will eventually write an article updating this, but for now I leave this post up as a marker of where my thought has come from and for the sake of some of the better parts of my argument that I still believe are true.
The other day I was pleasantly surprised to receive in the mail a copy of Mandate, the magazine of the Prayer Book Society. I can only assume that I ended up on their mailing list by having attended the Mere Anglicanism conference this past January in South Carolina. For the uninitiated, the Prayer Book Society is an organization that, in their own words, “promotes the use and understanding of the traditional Books of Common Prayer.” For the Society in the USA, the last prayer book revision that they believe to be appropriate was that done in 1928. The current American BCP, last revised in 1979, they believe to be a dangerous departure from traditional Anglican doctrine and practice.
I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the points that the Prayer Book Society makes about modern Anglicanism in general and the 1979 BCP in particular. Modern Anglicanism has lost touch with its historic roots, particularly in the west. The turbulent liturgical revisions of the last half century are no doubt in part to blame for this. Indeed, the magazine that I received makes a good case for going back to the historic lectionary, in that it was designed to systematically teach the doctrines of the Church rather than just firing out indiscriminate shotgun blasts of scripture and expecting the people to catch up (as we now get with the newly mandatory RCL).
In my opinion, though, the greatest flaw of 1979 is not one that the Prayer Book Society has explicitly picked up on. The organization of the 1979 book is so haphazard that it is extremely difficult for a person new to the service to figure out what is going on. There is way too much flipping back and forth between multiple Eucharistic prayers and collects and musical resources. It all but necessitates any parish with an evangelistic mindset to print its own bulletins at a considerable cost.
Yet, for all its flaws, I must speak up in support of what the 1979 BCP gets right. It maintains what is best about the Anglican theological and liturgical tradition while expanding the available resources that parishes can use to live that tradition out.
There has been perhaps no more articulate and prolific spokesperson for the Prayer Book Society’s position than their now deceased past president, the Rev. Dr. Peter Toon. In his 2003 essay, “The American Episcopal Prayer Book of 1979: A Critique,” Fr. Toon writes that he believes that the 1979 BCP would have been perhaps acceptable if it had been introduced as an alternative service book rather than the official Book of Common Prayer. Along those lines, he cites the following features of the 1979 BCP as being of some benefit:
1. The traditional language parts (especially the Rite I Holy Eucharist) can be seen as the provision of a new and experimental structure for the Holy Communion, adapting the Cranmerian order in the direction of that found in the rites preserved by the works of Hippolytus of the third century. Here there is an exchange of the Peace to mark the end of the ministry of the Word and the beginning of the ministry of the Sacrament, and the fraction (the breaking of the Bread) is placed after the end of the Eucharistic Prayer, rather than during it.
2. The new rites for Baptism and Confirmation can be seen as an attempt to put into practice the doctrine that “Christian initiation is complete in baptism,” so that Confirmation is not to be seen as a separate Sacrament.
3. The new translation of the Psalter in “expansive language” can be seen as a first attempt to provide a liturgical Psalter in a language which does not offend feminists and which seeks to include all church members (even of the most tender sensibility) in the daily prayer of the Church.
4. The new rite for the reconciliation of a penitent can be seen as providing a pastoral means of dealing with those who experience the need to make a private confession of sin in the presence of God and His priest.
5. The new structure and content of the Ordinal (listed under “Episcopal Services,” as “the Ordination Rites”) can be seen as providing an alternative to the modified Western (Latin) Ordinal of the BCP 1928, by drawing on material from the early Church, and from the works of Hippolytus in particular, as well as making it possible for women to be ordained (rubrics with “he/she”).
6. And then the provision of additional services for Holy Week, and especially Easter, can be seen as making available for all an ancient set of Rites long forgotten even in the Roman Catholic Church until they were restored after Vatican II.
This is an impressive list, and aside from the abysmal decision to use “inclusive” language in the psalms (which Fr. Toon rightly criticizes later in the essay), I am in complete agreement. In fact, I would add to that list the re-introduction of the Holy Eucharist as the major worship service for Christians and the normative worship service for Sunday mornings. That particular change, long overdue, places us squarely in line with not just many of the Anglican Reformers, but also with the early Church where regular Eucharistic worship was clearly the norm.
So, given all of these advantages, which Fr. Toon largely accepts, what then is wrong with the 1979 BCP? The major problems that Fr. Toon cites all circle around a perceived inconsistency of doctrine in the 1979 book which makes it incompatible with the books that preceded it. Most of his doctrinal criticisms are based on highly strained readings of the modern language that the 1979 BCP employs. It is doubtful, for instance, that the use of the phrase “by the power of the Holy Spirit” in the new translations of the creeds is meant to insinuate that the Virgin birth was not virginal, particularly when we consider that the Blessed Mother of God is referred to throughout the 1979 BCP as “the Virgin Mary.” Fr. Toon makes similar claims that the 1979 BCP does away with the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus in the Incarnation, both of which are categorically absurd.
Less easily reconciled is the claim that the new Eucharistic liturgies obscure the character of the atonement, substituting an ethic of social justice for the classical doctrine of our redemption from sin through faith in the Blood of Jesus. It is, of course, a fallacy to suggest that the classical atonement language has been lost from 1979. In Eucharistic prayer C, for instance, the most awkward and “hippy” sounding of the prayers available, the whole congregation says together, “By his blood, he reconciled us / By his wounds, we are healed.” At the conclusion of the Good Friday liturgy, the priest prays, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.” So it is clear that language about the atonement still abounds, and yet it is also clear that there is a greater emphasis on social justice than one finds in previous BCPs. Fr. Toon points out that the Baptismal Covenant has become a focus for the Episcopal Church, and he postulates that with it a new centering on “civil rights” to the exclusion of classical doctrine has emerged.
It seems to me that part of the problem here is that Fr. Toon has fallen victim to a well established PR campaign forged by ascendant voices in The Episcopal Church. There is no more precious sacred cow in modern Episcopalian circles than the notion that we in TEC are somehow unique because we include a promise to “strive for peace and justice” and to uphold “the dignity of every human being” in our Baptismal Covenant. And yet, what lies at the very heart of that covenant but the story of salvation as laid out in great splendor in the Apostle’s Creed? Peace, justice, and dignity all come at the end of the covenant, following promises to resist evil and to continue in the teaching of the Apostles and Eucharistic fellowship, all of which can only be accomplished with “God’s help.” One could criticize all of this on the grounds that it swerves dangerously close to Pelagianism, but not for putting a false gospel of social activism ahead of the true gospel of salvation that comes in the blood of Jesus. The fact that the reigning revisionists within The Episcopal Church have used the Baptismal Covenant for cover does not mean that it was designed for such a purpose.
Despite all that I have said here, it is not my purpose to deride the Prayer Book Society or those who still use the 1928 BCP. There are things that deserve to be criticized in the 1979 BCP, and the existence of a devoted and intellectually savvy group of traditionalists who bring these problems to light can only be a gift to the Church. Moreover, since the purpose of prayer book revision is not to topple over the doctrine of the Church but to make that same doctrine clearer to the people and ever more rooted in the apostolic deposit of faith, I see no reason why our churches shouldn’t be allowed to use the 1928 BCP if they want to, or even the 1662 BCP for that matter.
But to toss the baby out with the baptismal water would be a grave mistake. The merits of 1979 far outweigh its problems. Fr. Toon calls the revision of 1928 a “gentle revision.” But not everyone thinks so. There have been people who have been upset every time the BCP has been revised, and sometimes with good reason. The first American BCP in 1789 has some particularly problematic departures from 1662 which still haunt The Episcopal Church today. The goal of revision is supposed to be clarity, not change, yet there are always going to be those who will seek to take advantage of the situation. Indeed, Cranmer himself took advantage of the situation when he carefully edited the material he received from the Sarum Rite, the York Rite, and a dozen other sources into the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The question is not whether these intrusions take place during liturgical revision. The question is whether, by and large, the core of the faith is maintained and passed on. It seems to me that there can be little doubt that the 1979 BCP upholds and passes on the historic faith as it has been received in Anglicanism.