Following on the heels of the Sursum Corda, the celebrant comes to the Proper Preface. Together, this whole sequence forms the “Great Thanksgiving” or prefatory prayers of the Eucharistic Canon. Make sure you read about the Sursum Corda before reading this, so you have the context settled.
The “Preface” is essentially a single-sentence addition to the Great Thanksgiving. It specifies a particular reason why it is “right, our duty and our joy always and everywhere to give thanks” to God. It is called a “Proper” Preface because it is proper to a particular occasion or season.
The 1662 Prayer Book offers five Proper Prefaces:
- upon Christmas Day, and seven days after
- upon Easter Day, and seven days after
- upon Ascension Day, and seven days after
- upon Whitsunday, and six days after [that’s Pentecost Week]
- upon the Feast of Trinity only
Because there were just five, these were provided directly in the liturgy itself, rather than in an appendix after the main text. This state of affairs continued until the 1979 Prayer Book brought in a larger number of Proper Prefaces to cover every season of the church year. I’m assuming these are, for the most part, imported from general Western Catholic practice, and not entirely made up by 1970’s Episcopalian revisionists, though I haven’t personally investigated their history. Feel free to comment if you know!
Remarkably, the 2019 Prayer Book did not roll back this expansion, but actually added to them. A few from the 1979 book’s list have been removed, but several more have been added, such that we have 34 Proper Prefaces to choose from! Before the traditionalists chime in with renewed accusations of choose-your-own-adventure liturgies, however, it should be noted that these are not all “choices”, but Proper to particular occasions. You can read them in full at this link; here I will just list them:
- The Lord’s Day (that is, any Sunday between Trinity and Advent)
- At Any Time (these two are for your weekday services not celebrating a saint)
- At Any Time
- Advent (throughout the season)
- Christmas (throughout the season, unless it’s one of the major saints’ days)
- Presentation, Annunciation, and Transfiguration (some books nickname this Preface “Theophany”)
- Holy Week
- Maundy Thursday
- Ascension (all ten days!)
- Trinity Sunday
- All Saints’
- Christ the King
- Apostles and Ordinations (including Ember Days)
- Dedication of a Church
- Holy Matrimony
- Burial or Commemoration of the Faithful Departed
- Penitential Occasions (because of the reference to the temptation of Jesus, this is a good one to use on the First Sunday of Lent!)
- Rogation Days or Thanksgiving Day
- Canada Day or Independence Day
- Remembrance Day or Memorial Day
- Common of a Martyr
- Common of a Missionary or Evangelist
- Common of a Pastor
- Common of a Teacher of the Faith
- Common of a Monastic or Religious
- Common of an Ecumenist
- Common of a Renewer of Society
- Common of a Reformer of the Church
- Common of Any Commemoration
Those last ones, #26-34, line up with the “Commons of Saints” Collects and lessons.
Now for a big question: How do I know which one to use?
The answer is usually simple: look at the Collect for the Day on pages 598-640. Underneath each one, it will tell you which Preface to use. Propers 1 through 28 do not note any Preface, which indicates three things:
- You can go with the classical prayer book pattern and not use a Preface at all.
- You can use the Lord’s Day Preface if it’s a Sunday.
- You can use the “At Any Time” Preface if it’s a weekday.
There, simple, all decided.
Perhaps, on very rare occasions, you may find it appropriate to use a Preface that is not normally appointed. If the congregation (or greater social context) is experiencing a major crisis or a major celebration, perhaps a more penitential or thankful Preface, respectively, will be appropriate. But on the whole, the Prefaces are not things to play mix-and-match with; they are Propers, just like the Collects and the Lessons, and are to be used as appointed. They reinforce the liturgy as it stands; to meddle with them on your own is to seize control of the liturgy beyond your pay-grade, O priest!
And, a word of advice to those who publish service programs or bulletins… don’t make it a habit of including the full text of the Preface. It’s just one sentence, let the people listen to their priest for ten seconds. Besides, at certain times of year it changes fairly rapidly, and unless you’re really on top of the liturgy yourself you might make an error with it. Best leave it in the hands of the celebrant and let him take the blame if something goes wrong! 😉
If you peruse other liturgical books, like the ASB, you will find some more beautiful Prefaces that are not included in the 2019 Prayer Book. The jury is still out if The Saint Aelfric Customary will recommend any such extra Prefaces.