We Need to Hold the Prayer Book Close
In the present state of the church, every Episcopalian should hold the Prayer Book close. By “Prayer Book” I mean the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church. It is a solidly orthodox volume, and we need to recognize both that it is orthodox and that it is a volume. This, I believe, is a necessary and good foundation for our part in the rejuvenation of Christianity in our time. Holding the BCP close needs to be a high priority for us especially during the pandemic. I intend to write about it often in this year of our Lord 2022.
First, we need to deal with confused thoughts that still linger. The 1979 Book was seen as a radical departure from the BCP tradition. Most obviously, contemporary language was used and, for some rites, especially the Eucharist, multiple options were given.
With the perspective of a few decades’ distance, however, we can see that “radical” puts it too strongly. “Radical” means “root” (I tell students: Think of “radish”). And it is not true that the 1979 Book changed us at the root.
Prayer Book language had been slightly changed in each of the previous Prayer Books, as both words and theological understandings changed in meaning. At Saint Thomas Church in New York City, as the Psalms were sung from the 1662 Book, I would follow along in the 1928. There were many subtle differences, some having to do, I believe, with better understanding of the Hebrew, others with simple changes in the meaning of certain English words.
For other instance, consider the intercession in the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church in the Eucharist. In 1928, largely as a result of the scale of the deaths of soldiers in the Great War, a new petition was added for “those who have departed this life in thy faith and fear.” This is, I would argue, not a new thing—not a change from not praying for the dead to doing so—but rather an explication of a theological point that had been less pronounced in earlier Books.
Initially, contemporary language felt shocking. But the contemporary words of the 1979 Book have proven, in most cases, to be graceful and noble vehicles for our prayers. I have written before (and will doubtless do so again) of the elegance of the Psalms in the 1979 Book. We have the best modern language Psalter of any English church anywhere on the globe. And in some cases it is surpassingly better than our older Psalter. I would rest my case with the first line of Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul in silence waits.” That line is sheer perfection.
I say, let us have no more loose talk about a lack or an abandonment of traditional or orthodox Christian belief in the 1979 Book. I hope that readers who think there is heterodoxy in the Book will write me. We can look at particular cases that are found troubling, and see what is there.
In the meantime, I intend to argue next week that we need to hold close to the 1979 Prayer Book as an actual volume, a physical Book. I expect this to be highly controversial. Stay tuned!
Out & About. I am teaching the ethics class for the Stanton Center. It meets on five Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to noon, at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas. The first class is January 15. Drop me a line if you’re interested.
Sunday, January 16, at Incarnation at 5 p.m., the Good Books & Good Talk seminar meets to discuss Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. If you read the book you’re welcome to come and talk. If not, you’re welcome to come and listen! It’s a classic set in apartheid-era South Africa, with an Anglican priest at the center of personal, social, political, and ecclesiastical tensions and worse.