The Anglican Church in North America formally released a new book of common prayer in June, 2019, after making its full text available online in Easter a couple months earlier. Even before the release date, controversy was flying, some of which even quiet little me shared at the time. And, of course, once the book was out, book reviews (again with accompanying debates) were flying across the Anglican Interwebs, left, right, and center. Why a review on this book now, half a year later?
I followed the progress of Texts for Common Prayer pretty closely from 2013 through 2018, keeping my recitation of the Office and my church’s celebration of Holy Communion largely in line with the then-current liturgical texts. By the time the 2019 book was released, I was largely familiar with its features, changes, and distinctions when compared with the 1979 book and the classical prayer book tradition. There was little left to surprise me, or shock me; most of the good news to celebrate and the frustrating news to mourn was already known. So I could have jumped on the bandwagon for a book review in June, too. But I chose not to, precisely because I’d been familiar with the workings texts leading up to it. Any attentive reader can make a quick book review. I fear too many of this book’s critics will not have given it enough use to get to know it well enough to provide well-formed opinions. Prayer Books, like Bibles, are books that take effect over the long haul. It’s not a novel with a flash-in-the-pan story experience, or textbook with read-it-and-memorize-it content; it’s a book to be used over the course of hours and days and weeks and seasons. It was my intention to provide a review of the 2019 Prayer Book that is not simply “aware” or “informed” of its contents, but also experienced with its liturgy.
(That being said, I have put together a functional introductory outline to the new prayer book, which I used in teaching my congregation about what’s in it, why, and a bit of its history and function. You can download a full copy of that here: full teaching outlines – 2019 bcp.)
Like every group project I’ve heard of, The Book of Common Prayer 2019 came out with a handful of errors in its first printing (June); most of those errors, plus a couple official revisions were corrected in the second printing (September-ish), and a hopefully the last of them have been caught in the third printing (in December I think). Most of the changes are listed on this page, though I did see a second sheet of further corrections (mostly just grammar and formatting) floating around the internet that I forgot to download and save to share here. So if you’re looking at a hard copy in front of you, check which printing it is. I have first printing pew editions, but a second-printing “delux edition” for my own regular use, so I’ve been able to look at both over the past several months. Plus of course there’s always the official website copy you can read and download for free, and I assume that’s always going to have the latest corrections already implemented.
This prayer book was born in controversy. The ACNA is a difficult province to serve, let alone please. Several dioceses use the 1928 Prayer Book or the Reformed Episcopal Church’s version of it; several used the 1979 Prayer Book and not quite all of them are jumping over the 2019 to replace it; some use other more localized or customized books, including (inexplicably) the Church of England’s contemporary liturgy book, Common Worship. There was no way that this entire province was going to be united under one prayer book. Even the Anglican Continuum isn’t truly united under the 1928 as they sometimes bill themselves, because some supplement and edit that book with resources like the Anglican Missal. So the goal for the 2019 book was to make it as user-friendly as possible, taking what’s perceived as the best of modern practice and the best of our tradition, and putting together a liturgy more faithful than we had in the 1979. A tall order and an impossible task, if ever I heard one!
Reading through the Preface to the 2019 prayer book, you’ll find the editors were highly aware of the difficult circumstances under which this book was compiled. Their care to outline Anglican liturgical history and highlight the ecclesial milieu in which the ACNA and the 2019 book were born shows just how self-conscious the tradition of this book is.
lectionary woes and weals
From my perspective, the end result has only one flaw that I particularly dislike: the modern three-year lectionary and calendar for Sundays and Holy Days. Just over two years ago I argued in favor of the traditional Prayer Book calendar and lectionary, and today I still wish it had been preserved, or at least authorized, in the new book. If you go to the bottom of that page you’ll find a link to a document I’d sent to the task force, pleading specifically to save the old Collects and Lessons, as one of the great gems of the Prayer Book tradition. Sadly I was in a clear minority, though I still hold out hope that some day the 21st Church may yet rediscover the wisdom of her forebears on this.
That being said, the version of the three-year lectionary we’ve got in the 2019 book is an improved version of the Common Lectionary and Revised Common Lectionary – very similar to those in most respects, but some of their shortcomings have been improved. The restoration of a culturally “problematic” text in Romans 1 is a positive move, as is the restoration of January 1st to being the feast of “The Circumcision and Holy Name of Jesus”, rather than just the Holy Name as it was “cleaned up” in 1979. It is nice, also, to have most of the original Sunday Collects back, even without most of the Lessons they were meant to be paired with.
The Daily Office Lectionary is a curiosity. It represents a radical move backward toward the original 1549-1662 daily lectionary, using the secular calendar instead of the liturgical calendar, and having a simpler order of reading the Bible. In general, daily lectionaries have gotten increasingly complicated over the past two centuries, giving us shorter readings and decreasing coverage of the Bible. So in many ways the 2019 daily lectionary is “more traditional” than any other lectionary in North America, much to everyone’s awkward surprise. There are still some questions that can be raised about what was included and excluded, why, and how certain books should or should not have been woven together, but on the whole this is one of the strongest daily lectionaries I’ve ever seen.
two and half Communion Rites
Throughout the latter half of 2019 I wrote about each piece of the Communion liturgy in this new book, and you can find them indexed here. There are officially two orders (or Rites) for Holy Communion. The first is the Anglican Standard Text, which is basically the “novus ordo” of the 1979 Prayer Book (and the Roman Rite) combined with the 1928 Prayer Book’s communion prayers. The second rite is the Renewed Ancient Text, drawing primarily upon the short-and-sweet (and shallow, many would say) prayers of the 1979 Prayer Book, earning itself the name “Renewed Ancient” only because the communion prayers of consecration are a version of some prayers attributed to Hippolytus in the 3rd century.
The “half” Communion Rite comes from the fact that this book authorizes the reconstruction of the 1662 order for Holy Communion (and, by extension, the 1928 and similar orders also).
Some argue that having more than one communion rite destroys the principle of common prayer. Again, though, the reality of this book’s situation is that because it will definitely NOT please everyone, it needs to be sufficiently pleasing to enough people that it will catch on as much as it can. I think having two (and a half) rites is a strategic decision: it provides one rite akin to what people are already used to, in the hopes that the massive diversity of uncommon prayer will eventually funnel down into the two parallel rites in this book.
Plus, I believe, the intended theology of these two rites can (and should) be read as being identical. Even though the precise content is different, they are intended to communicate the same Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I explored this argument in more detail a couple months ago.
daily and occasional prayers
At first glance the Daily Offices look very similar to the contemporary language offices in the 1979 Prayer Book, but as you dig into the text, and especially the rubrics, you’ll find that the 2019 Prayer Book’s Daily Offices actually rival the 1928 book when it comes to conformity with the 1662 standard. Although additional prayers are printed and authorized, the standard originals are marked and suggested. Although supplemental canticles are provided, the standard originals are given place of preference. Where the 1928 and 1979 cut certain suffrages short, the 2019 puts them back together (and even expands them a little). Even the Great Litany is a bit less invisible than it was in previous prayer books.
The flexibility afforded in the rubrics allows for shortened forms of the Daily Office, which can be pastorally helpful in certain situations, as well as reassuring for individuals reciting the office in private concerned about “keeping up.” Very little of the modernist phenomenon of “dumbing down” the liturgy has taken hold here; the 2019 Prayer Book has a robust office of daily prayer.
initiation and other sacramental rites
Because of the occasional nature of the offices of baptism, confirmation, ordination, matrimony, ministry to the sick and dying, and burial, I have less to say about them in the 2019 Prayer Book from personal experience.
One of the concerns about the baptismal liturgy in the draft texts was that there was a big step away from using the language of “regeneration” and more toward the language of “born again.” Technically those are synonymous phrases, the former simply being more technical than the latter. But culturally the implications can run quite deeply: the more “evangelical protestant” extreme of Anglicanism sometimes doesn’t like to use the language of baptismal regeneration, and chafe against the language of Article 27 and the traditional prayer book baptismal liturgy. It was a relief, therefore, to see the term “regenerate” brought back into the main text of the final product rather than just hiding as an option in the rubrics.
Another nice feature of the 2019 book is the use of holy oils in Baptism, Confirmation, Ordination, and the Anointing of the Sick. In terms of the “seven sacraments” of medieval accounting, unction (or anointing) is the one that got lost in Prayer Book practice, only making an official comeback in the 20th century. Having that ministry of healing returned in a liturgical context provides a traditional framework for (and corrective to) the pentecostal extremes in which healing ministry is often most loudly promoted. Plus by appointing the other two types of holy oil (exorcism and chrism) for their respective traditional roles, the oil for the anointing of the sick is brought into its proper larger historical-liturgical context. But, of course, all this use of holy oils remains optional. They were not required in the classical prayer books, so they are not required here, only suggested and provided for.
Perhaps the most noteworthy “innovation” of the 2019 Prayer Book is the Declaration of Intention prefaced to the marriage rite. The prayer book expectation (in line also with the canons of the ACNA, by the way) is that the couple who wish to be married must sign the Declaration of Intention, which explicitly spells out the biblical purposes of marriage. Provision is even made for a public signing of that Declaration, allowing what one could call a formal (liturgical) betrothal ceremony, initiating a period of discernment, prayer, and preparation for a couple considering (or preparing for) getting married. This is very much a response to the state of the world around us, where many people, including many believers, don’t understand the biblical teachings on marriage, and have no idea of its gospel-centered nature. Christians couples interested in marriage need to be recognized, prayed for, protected, nurtured, and instructed, and all this very carefully in the knowledge that the world is attacking every aspect of their relationship. The Declaration of Intention is a source of instruction and guidance, and also a safe “out” for the local priest who may need to say a difficult “wait” or “no” to a couple unprepared or unwilling to accept the gospel of marriage.
One of the last publicity pieces released before the book was released was on the typeset, font, and formatting of the 2019 Prayer Book. Some people scoffed – rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic and all that! – but although these are nonessential features of a prayer book, they can be very high-impact. The 1979 Prayer Book is hopelessly large and complicated. The page-flipping required to get through one worship service is intense. This book, while still not as simple to use as the classical prayer books, is designed more with a “new user” in mind, so page number references are provided, section labels are clear, and the need for page-flipping is reduced from the 1979’s glut.
During the season of Advent I took the risky move of doing away with my church’s service bulletin, in which the entire liturgy was printed weekly, with hymn numbers and the Scripture lessons included, and had my congregation of mostly elderly persons use the new prayer books through the worship service. This was a risk – people don’t always like new things being foisted on them in church, and when you’re not used to any prayer book, it can be a bit daunting to use them for the first few times. But, to my relief, the book grew on them! Just where the 1979 Prayer Book got the most complicated (the prayers of the people through the communion prayers) is exactly the point in the liturgy where the 2019 book became the easiest, with no more page-flipping. I call that a successful test run of this book!
Another feature of the text that has been inconsistent throughout our 450 years of prayer book history is the handling of marking the priest’s words, congregational responses, and text read by all in unison. The labelling has always been decent, but not always the same. Congregational responses in the Great Litany have traditionally been italicised, like rubrics. Most unison prayers have been in bold, but congregational responses were often in regular text, and simply labeled, People. The 2019 Prayer Book, finally, standardizes the whole thing: the minister or reader’s text in regular print, everything said by the congregation in bold, and all (and only) rubrics in italics. Section headings, therefore, are rendered in ALL CAPS in order to keep them distinct from rubrics and congregational responses. And, by golly gee, this book is so much neater as a result. To my eyes at least, the 1979 book looks rather clinical, and the 1928 looks really crowded. From an angle of visual presentation, the 2019 Prayer Book is truly quite excellent.
It has a dignity that strives to elevate it well beyond the controversy and argumentation and pain in which it was conceived and born.
the ratings in short…
This book, as I already noted, is miles easier to use than its predecessor in 1979. It’s not as streamlined as the classical prayer books, but it handles the variety of options better than any other modern text I’ve seen. I almost rated this a 4, but have to acknowledge that its learning curve is still a little steep.
Devotional Usefulness: 4/5
Compared to previous prayer books, this is usually drawing upon the best of the best. Especially for the lay person praying according to this book, the spiritual life engendered here is as rich as any edition of the prayer book before it. And while certain features (most especially the communion lectionary) prevent it from an ideal 5/5, this is one of the most devotionally useful prayer books ever made.
Reference Value: 4/5
This is hard to rate… being a brand new prayer book this is of practically zero reference value from an historical perspective. However, its more faithful use of historic material in contemporary idiom make it a far superior rendition of Anglican spirituality than the 1979 Prayer Book, so that’s a big plus. Furthermore, it contains a good number of Scriptural references (though not drowned in them like Common Prayer 2011) which also help the reader take note of the biblical grounding of our form of worship. And, of course, the Preface to this edition, and the fact that this is the “official” book of the ACNA also make it an important go-to reference for Anglicanism in America today.
So, whether your local church adopts this book for its liturgy or not, this is a book I highly recommend for your shelf at the very least. If you’re using the 1979 Prayer Book I cannot urge you enough to put it away and take this one up in its place; there is nothing in that book that cannot be found matched or improved in this one, I promise you. And, if you’re a traditional-language-prayer-book kind of person, I would encourage you to look more charitably upon the 2019 Prayer Book. It is not without its flaws, as are all editions of the BCP, but it is probably a great deal more faithful to our great tradition you give it credit for.
There are bits and pieces here and there that I might someday like to see improved. But on the whole, I am comfortable with settling into the majority of my priestly ministry with this book in hand.