Since the sixteenth century when Protestantism began to develop in England, the Prayer Book or the Book of Common Prayer has been the central agent to control the liturgy, the usages, and the worship in the Episcopal or Anglican Church. G.K. Chesterton said concerning the Book of Common Prayer that it is ‘‘the masterpiece of Protestantism, the one magnet and talisman for people even outside the Anglican Church, as are the great Gothic cathedrals for people outside the Catholic Church.”
Although the evaluation of Chesterton is obviously biased and is colored by hyperbole, it remains a fact that the Book of Common Prayer was a unique contribution to the movement which originally lead the English Church away from the usages and some of the grossest errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Book of Common Prayer was originally prepared and composed during the reign of King Edward VI in 1549; it was revised in 1552 near the end of Edward’s reign, was revised again in 1559 under the influence of Queen Elizabeth, and has remained much the same until the present century having been only slightly changed in 1662.
This prayer book of the Anglican Church was first assembled under the direction of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who in 1549 stated the following in the preface to the Book of Common Prayer.
“. . . by this order, the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible; by the means whereof the people shall not be at so great charge for books, as in time past they have been.”
The Book of Common Prayer was revised first in 1552 and these revisions indicated an even more decisive step toward Protestantism away from the usages and ideology of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the revisions of the 1552 edition was the so-called “black rubric.” This revision, made under the influence of John Knox, explains that the practice of kneeling at communion at the time of the reception of the elements in no way implies the Roman Catholic adoration of the elements themselves.
The third set of revisions made in the Book of Common Prayer came after an interlude of renewed Catholicism under Bloody Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. A Third Act of Uniformity was passed in England in a space of ten years, and this act intended to make the Anglican Church an “umbrella church” or a “plurality church.” Queen Elizabeth, an astute politician, wished to preserve the peace in the kingdom and some semblance of tranquility in the church. She hoped that by the revisions she would satisfy pacifistic Royalists, radical Puritans, and outraged Roman Catholics. She and her Archbishop, Matthew Parker, supervised revisions in the prayer book which, 1) omitted prayers against the Pope; 2) omitted references concerning the attitude one takes while kneeling for communion; 3) left the question of the physical presence of Christ in the elements undetermined. (These revisions pleased neither thorough-going Protestants (Puritans) nor Roman Catholics, although they had no other recourse but to accept them.)
During the early seventeenth century attempts made by the Puritans to obtain revisions in the prayer book were unsuccessful. In 1662, however, a few minor changes were made to conciliate the Puritans, but the prayer book continued to contain most of the features disliked by the Puritans.
As a result the Book of Common Prayer has remained substantially unchanged for 300 years, except for a few revisions in 1928 in the U.S. version of the book.
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The February 9, 1976, issue of Time magazine reports the release of the first 50,000 copies of the proposed draft for a new Prayer Book for the U.S. Episcopalians (Protestant Episcopal Church in the U.S.) by the Standing Liturgical Commission. This 1,001-page volume will be presented in September to the Church’s 1976 General Convention. If this Convention authorizes the revision, it will replace a modest 1928 revision of the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer.
Time reports that “the biggest change is the draft’s provision for alternative versions of central rites of the church: the Holy Eucharist, Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Burial of the Dead. The first version, called Rite One, remains fairly close to the 1928 Prayer Book, though in many instances the language has been simplified. Rite Two differs sharply in phrase and form from the old services. God is no longer addressed as ‘Thou’ or ’Thee’ but familiarly as ‘You.’ In the Lord’s Prayer. ‘And lead us not into temptation’ is rendered flatly as ‘Save us from the time of trial.’ ”
Time also reports that “opponents of the draft – notably the conservative, Nashville-based Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer, which claims 100,000 members – warn that adoption of the new rites will severely strain the tenuous bonds that united conservative and liberal, High and Low Church factions.”
Reactions of the laymen in the church are reported by Time to be “evenly divided.” The angry and outraged Episcopalians are reported to be echoing an Italian proverb, which loosely translated says, “translators are traitors.” One woman is reported to have said, “The order is more logical; there’s less verbiage. It may not be so beautiful, but it’s easier to understand.”
In this age of translations, paraphrases, and new interpretations it is understandable that the Episcopal Church in this country should sponsor and propose a revision at this time. Although the activities of the English Church do not immediately affect us, we ought to be aware of the activities in other churches of nominal Christendom.
That the general attitude expressed by the new prayer book is less conservative does not surprise us. This is in harmony with the spirit of the age. It is also not surprising because the traditional approach of the Episcopal Church has been to be a plurality or umbrella church. All classes and shades of theology could be harbored in this church. One was not required to subscribe to the basic confession of this church (i.e. The Thirty-Nine Articles) in order to be an ordained pastor in this church.
This, too, ought to remind us that Christ is coming when we see the basic institutions being revised because men have itching ears and do not want sound doctrine.