The following article will serve as a ‘refresher’ for those who lived through the liturgical revision of the 1970s in the Episcopal Church. For our many happy Continuing Church members who did not go through that experience, the comments below will serve as a more general justification for liturgical tradition….

My late predecessor, Archbishop Lewis, when asked why he disliked the prayer book finally adopted by the Episcopal Church in 1979, but given its first reading in 1976, would illustrate his position with the prayer ‘For a Birthday’. Everyone can acknowledge that the example is intrinsically minor. I think, however, everyone can also understand that it indicates a much deeper attitude.  Here is the prayer in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

WATCH over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be, keeping him unspotted from the world. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In the 1979 book, the prayer is kept intact with the exception of a single omitted phrase. That phrase is, ‘keeping him unspotted from the world’, which is printed in bold above.

This change is remarkable, I think. First, while a prayer for birthdays is, as I have said, intrinsically minor, it also is highly noticeable. I know half a dozen parishes in which those having birthdays or anniversaries are asked to come forward on Sundays for this prayer to be said over them. This prayer is used.

Secondly, the phrase that the 1979 book omits is taken directly from the New Testament: ‘Pure religion and undefiled…is this. To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ (James 1:27) Of all things to omit, it is profoundly disturbing that the choice fell on a biblical, apostolic description of pure and undefiled religion. In matters canonical and liturgical the ‘principle of proscription’ holds that the omission of something from an older text implies its ‘proscription’ – its positive rejection. It appears, then, that the authors and adopters of the 1979 book think that separation from the world, or at least from its macula, its ‘spots’ or ‘taints’, is no longer to be prayed for or desired.

With this example in mind, much else about the 1979 book falls into place. In general, the 1979 book radically softens the Prayer Book tradition’s tone of penitence, the frankness of its declarations about sin, and the importance it gives to confession. The 1979 book is, one might even say, worldly. It does, of course, contain confessions and recognition of sin. But these countervailing examples are heavily outweighed by the tendencies to the contrary.

In addition to this alteration in general tone, one of the major and most damaging changes adopted in 1979 was the abandonment of the ancient cycle of Eucharistic readings and its replacement by a late 20th century confection involving a three-year cycle of readings. If one were to go about devising a lectionary from scratch, it would be reasonable to weigh the value of a greater range of readings over a very long period as compared to the values of repetition and of a cycle that mirrors the changes of the natural year. But this abstract debate ignores the concrete value embedded in a tradition going back in most cases more than 1200, and in some cases more than 1500, years. The Western Church has read the same lessons on the same Sundays for many, many centuries, and this ancient fact has produced a huge body of sermons, commentaries, and cultural artefacts that is vastly diminished in its importance by the novel three-year lectionary. The revised lectionary carefully snips many of the homiletic and catechetical roots that nourish the contemporary Church with the richness of countless generations.

Another very general, overarching problem with the 1979 book is that it simply is not memorable. I was in parishes that used the 1979 book, or its trial use predecessors, for about a decade. The only phrase that I recall from that period that was not itself in the older Prayer Book tradition is ‘this fragile earth, our island home’. This example I recall because it was widely ridiculed by my college classmates as ‘the Star Trek prayer’. The old Prayer Books were filled with lapidary phrases that embed themselves in the memory. The newer liturgies are fast food. The classic Prayer Book is a home-cooked meal.

The 1979 texts are not only not memorable, but also often have phrases that are frankly flatfooted or stupid. Where the traditional Coverdale Psalter reads ‘one day in thy courts is better than a thousand’ (Ps. 84:10), the 1979 translation reads, ‘For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room’. Which is damning God with faint praise: as Professor Margaret Doody pointed out, anything is better than a thousand days in my own room. Critics, poets, and scholars such as Professor Doody, Cleanth Brooks, Andrew Lytle, and C.H. Sisson have eviscerated the new liturgies and translations on this literary level, and no real answer has ever been made to their powerful criticisms.

In a sense the weakness of the defense of the 1979 book in the face of its critics itself points to a final general problem with it: it is and was intended to be temporary. It is disposable. It does not need strong defense, because it will be replaced after a generation. Liturgy was once something which we received from the Church and into which we fitted ourselves. Liturgy was an environment, a world, and atmosphere in which we found ourselves and came to live. Liturgical changes occurred, but very slowly, at the margins, and so as to leave the bulk of things the same. Now liturgy is something with which a Church constantly tinkers, not with small changes in ceremonial or discretionary choices or an altered few words every century or so, but with regular radical renovation and replacement. For the revisionists, liturgy does not teach and shape us: instead we change the liturgy to fit our fads. The revisionist Christians see themselves as the measure of all things.

This constant tinkering is contrary to the spirit of public prayer. C.S. Lewis observed (Letters to Malcolm), that familiar prayers permit us to pray in ways which we cannot when the prayers are changing. I cannot know if an unfamiliar prayer is true and something to which I can say ‘Amen’ until I know its content. But the critical spirit, which analyzes what is being said and judges it when complete as true or not, distracts us from prayer and worship. A stable liturgy contains prayers that we know are true and agree with. When such prayers are being said we can think about them, but we also can pray with them and through them at levels that are freed up once the critical faculties no longer need to be engaged. If I already know that what you say is true, factually correct, and well-expressed, then I can attend to you in other ways and on affective and intuitive levels.

The central fact of liturgical revisionism is pride: the assumption that we know better. The central fact of liturgical traditionalism is humility: we are prepared to be shaped and formed by what Richard Hooker called ‘so many and so godly ages’.

3 thoughts on “Problems with the 1979 Prayer Book

  1. I was an Episcopal when they changed the prayer book. We had alternate Sundays of 1928 and 1979. It didn’t take too many months before the bulk of the congregation – without even planning it among themselves – the bulk of the congregation showed up on 1928 Sundays.

    I finally walked away once and for all when the video of Schori telling a congregation that Jesus is not the only way to the Father popped up on YouTube; it was taken down shortly after it was posted. Anyone professing to know more than Jesus about the Father has some serious issues and I wasn’t willing to wait for someone to straighten her out. Good thing – to my knowledge, no one ever did.

    I love my Continuing Anglo-Catholic Church and the dedicated men who keep her pure.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they do a new BCP in 1984, too?

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    1. I think TEC has authorized additional rites and services since 1979, but that 1979 remains their official prayer book. I am not sufficiently interested to follow the details now. I left the TEC, in which I was baptized as an infant, on January 1, 1977, when the errors adopted in 1976 came into effect.

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      1. I was baptized into the Episcopal Church in 1952 and confirmed in it in 1965. I thought I would be Episcopalian womb to tomb. Hardest thing I ever did was leave the church – my husband saw it as a kind of ‘betrayal’ of my friends. He’s got a military background; his words hurt but I’m responsible for me, I’m the only one who’s going to be standing and defending myself come the Judgement Day. Have never looked back.

        I chuckled when I read your ‘not sufficiently interested’ – I feel the same way!

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