Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re looking at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
One of the standard introductory texts to Episcopalian liturgy is Liturgy for Living by Charles P. Price & Louis Weil. It was written in 1979 and revised in 2000. In it you will find a great deal of insight into the mindset that produced the 1979 Prayer Book and defends its integrity to this day. Its prologue along is informative reading, and the way it ends says a lot about where this book is going to go:
In the chapters that follow we shall explore worship in the Episcopal Church in the United States as it is taking shape through these years of growth and change. We must recognize both the psychological and historical complexity of the subject. It bears the marks of a long and varied development. It is in the process of alteration from one form adequate to the needs of a past age to a somewhat richer and more extensive form, more adequate to the religious hungers and thirsts of the age at hand. We trust it will be as adequate as the old to express the gracious act of God for us through his Son, Jesus Christ.
A very bold, perhaps even arrogant, claim is being made here: that the 1979 Prayer Book is a “somewhat richer and more extensive form” of worship compared to the classical prayer book tradition, and that it is equally adequate for “the religious hungers and thirsts of the age at hand” as the old was for the past. This rests on two seriously questionable assumptions:
- that the “needs” of the past four centuries were met by essentially the same liturgy unchanged, but the present half-century is so different as to need a very different prayer book,
- that the 1979 Prayer Book represents a “growth” and “enrichment” of worship compared to its classical forebears.
By contrast, we in the Anglican Church in North America affirm:
For nearly five centuries, Cranmer’s Prayer Book idea had endured to shape what emerged as a global Anglican Church that is missional and adaptive as in its earliest centuries…
The Book of Common Prayer (1979) in the United States and various Prayer Books that appeared in Anglican Provinces from South America to Kenya to South East Asia to New Zealand where often more revolutionary than evolutionary in character.
In short, we expressly reject that the 1979 Prayer Book represented an entirely wise step forward for the prayer book tradition as a whole, and that much of what it represents has had to be rolled back. Although the ACNA and the 2019 Prayer Book still makes positive use of elements of the 1979 tradition, we have a new-found confidence in the classical prayer book tradition, and use the 1662 book as our “guiding star” for how the late 20th century developments were to be reassessed and, when necessary, undone.
All that to say, for a faithful orthodox Anglican, Liturgy for Living is a book that is built on a premise that we ought not to accept, and therefore should be read more critically than directly educationally.
Let’s get back to the book, please!
Still, let’s be fair and look at what’s actually in this book. In five Parts with nearly twenty chapters in total, this book walks through “The Meaning of Worship”, the history of the Prayer Book tradition, the rites of initiation, the Offices and Eucharist, and the Pastoral and Episcopal Services.
It has a good exploration of the words worship and liturgy, and help the reader discern the larger meanings of these terms, as opposed to the overly-narrow senses in which they’re often used today. Similar with symbol and mystery, though arguably the authors may get a little too expansive and non-specific in the final analysis. Their critique of the overly-clericalized liturgy (not just of medieval Roman but also Protestant worship!) may also be somewhat overstated. And the ecumenical appeal of the 1979 Prayer Book’s newer contents are presented in an extremely optimistic manner – no real fruit of Christian unity has resulted from said content, and the Episcopal Church’s membership and attendance has only shrunk since this book was revised, almost alone demonstrating that these intended enrichments have not breathed new life into that church.
The section on baptism and confirmation should also be read cautiously, with an eye to our own Prayer Book’s response (in the Preface to the 2019 BCP, on page 4).
The authors’ doctrine of biblical inspiration described on pages 95-97 is quite weak, likening inspiration to a more divine version of an inspired artist or preacher. They apparently reject that the Bible is “absolutely the Word of God” (page 96), which is yet another sign of what makes this book, and the ecclesial setting from which it came, troubling and unhelpful to the orthodox Anglican Christian.
These examples should suffice to give you a taste of this book. If you want to get inside the head of the progressivism that produced and continues to defend the 1979 Prayer Book, this is the book for you. With all the brilliant-yet-flawed ideas of the liturgical renewal of mid-20th century, and the modernist mentality that has taken its toll in many Christian traditions, this book shows you why the 1979 Prayer Book is the way it is and how it was/is hoped to function in fueling the spiritual life of the believer.
The ratings in short:
This is a very readable book. It doesn’t assume you know the history and background of liturgy and the Prayer Book, and it has an extensive bibliography (albeit now 19 years old) to further your research and learning.
Devotional Usefulness: 1/5 or N/A
In one sense, this is a book about liturgy, not of liturgy, so it’s not something you would use or read devotionally. But what it does do is teach about liturgy and spirituality, and (in my view) it does so very dangerously. Modern Episcopalian spirituality is Anglican-inspired, not Anglican, and very easily points its adherents in non-Christian directions.
Reference Value: 4/5
As I’ve said above, this book gets you into the DNA of the 1979 Prayer Book. If you want to know how it ticks, this book will help. Just don’t confuse that with the classical prayer book tradition or historic Anglican spirituality.