Many people have noticed that we have begun to use a different form of the liturgy during our choral Eucharist on Sunday mornings. For some of our members who grew up using the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, this liturgy is familiar, even though it uses modern language. For others, this liturgy feels brand new, and it is easy to get tongue-tied as we feel our way through it.
The liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer was designed largely by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, drawing on many ancient sources. It is the first liturgy ever to be rendered in English and it is a model of poetic expression and beauty. More than that, though, it is an expression of our theology as Anglican Christians. As Anglicans, we hold dearly the notion of lex orandi, lex credendi, that the way we pray shapes what we believe. What we say when we worship God and how we say it is of the utmost importance, because it is through worship that God forms us in our faith.
The Book of Common Prayer has gone through many revisions in the five centuries since it was first put together. This is to be expected. One of the goals of the Reformation was to put the worship of the people into a language that the people can understand, even if what we say is formal and poetic. Words change meaning over time. We do not address one another with "thee" and "thou" as we once did, for instance. Nevertheless, since the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer was first promulgated in 1559, the shape of the liturgy in the prayer book and the core theology it expresses have remained constant. Revision has always been only for the purpose of clarification and the removal of anachronism, nothing more.
That changed when the Episcopal Church in this country adopted its current prayer book in 1979. While our prayer book today has much in common and in continuity with the prayer books that came before, there are also significant departures, particularly in the way that the modern language version of the Eucharist was put together. Rite II bears only a passing resemblance to the classical Anglican Eucharistic liturgy, and while there are many good things about Rite II, there is something that has been lost there. The new rite de-emphasizes the problem of sin and the path or repentance that leads to salvation in Christ while over emphasizing the "four fold shape of the liturgy," an idea made popular by the early twentieth century liturgist Dom Gregory Dix which has in recent times been shown to be historically inaccurate. Of course, much of what is lost in Rite II is maintained in Rite I (though not all), but that means that there is no version of the classical Anglican rite in our prayer book that is in modern language. Thus, many Episcopalians grow up today without ever having experienced the classic liturgy that is a gift of their Anglican heritage.
The liturgy we used last Advent and that we are using now in Lent is a step towards solving this problem. It is based largely on modern language versions of the classic liturgy that are being used in other Anglican churches. The revision is gentle, replacing words that have become anachronistic or that have had their meaning change while leaving the basic shape. The classic theology of Anglicanism shines through. I have asked for feedback from the parish as we experiment with this liturgy. So far, all comments have been positive. Several people have even said to me that this is what they thought the 1979 prayer book was going to do.
We have not abandoned the 1979 prayer book, of course. It is still the official prayer book of the Episcopal Church, and there are many things to celebrate about it, from its re-introduction of a number of marvelous holy week services to its explicit focus on the Eucharist as the central act of worship in the Christian Church. At Holy Comforter, our 8:00 am service continues to utilize Rite I from the 1979 book and our Wednesday healing service continues to utilize Rite II. Furthermore, it is a rubric within the 1979 prayer book, sometimes referred to casually as "Rite III", that allows us to engage in this experiment of using our current liturgy in the first place. The liturgies in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer are special to me personally as it was in the celebration of those liturgies that I first came to know the Anglican tradition and therein came to know Christ.
Yet, I have to say that there is something moving to me about the "new old liturgy" that we have been using. When I celebrate the Eucharist using those words, I feel as if I am being lifted up into the light of the last five hundred years of Anglican priests who have said these same words around the world. There is a groundedness to it and even a hopefulness that I have never felt in quite the same way when celebrating Rite II. For the first time, I am starting to understand what it truly means to "worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (Psalm 29:2).