I have a back-and-forth relationship with liturgical revisionism. Some changes are good, some changes are bad, and some changes are indifferently suitable to particular times and cultures.

The worship of the Church doesn’t need to be a total and complete time capsule (and indeed in many cases where antiquity of form is most loudly proclaimed, great anachronisms betray the claim). But neither does the Church benefit her members with total and complete innovation into the untested waters of a given rector’s flight of fancy. Good liturgical revision, in my estimation anyway, acknowledges the validity, power, and truthfulness of previous rites and forms, merely presenting “a new spin on an old classic.” If what we celebrate today rejects the forms of antiquity, then we have not reformed the Church’s faith & practice, but replaced it.

I don’t say this to disparage any particular Prayer Book, but to remind myself and others to be honest about the trends of revision and amendment for the past full century. It is all too fashionable to oversimplify our assessments of one or another product along the course of history. For example, we orthodox Anglicans in North America often vilify the Episcopalian Prayer Book of 1979. And it is a deeply flawed book that is extremely revolutionary, rather than reforming of previous liturgical forms. That said, however, several strands of “revolutionizing” ideology can be seen in the promulgation of the 1928 Prayer Book (often beloved among traditional Anglicans).

Many American Anglicans look fondly upon the 1928 Prayer Book as the last edition (and bastion) of historic Anglican liturgy. However, not all of its editors would agree with that assessment. Rather, there was a fair amount of language regarding it as a positively radical correction and improvement upon the old ways. Consider this excerpt from a 1929 booklet:

The revision of the 1892 Book is far-reaching, and in some instances radical. It extends not only to language, but also to theological statement. All passages of Holy Scripture are now taken from the Revised Version and in some cases the marginal rendering has been adopted. There is an entirely new translation of the Psalter correcting many obvious errors. In Psalm XIV these verses are deleted:

5 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues have they deceived: the poison of asps is under their lips.
6 Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood.
7 Destruction and unhappiness is in their ways, and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes.

In the judgment of the best Hebrew scholars these verses are a late interpolation and are foreign to the thought of the Psalm. The relaxation of the requirement to read the Psalter for the day obviates the necessity of reciting in the public services those Psalms or parts of Psalms which call down the curses of heaven upon enemies–the “imprecatory” Psalms. No longer will a congregation of Christian people be compelled to say of a fellow man:–

Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be vagabonds, and beg their bread….
Let there be no man to pity him, nor to have compassion upon his fatherless children.
Let his posterity be destroyed; and in the next generation let his name be clean put out.

Note the desire for a “liturgical adventure,” a “living liturgy” free of archaisms and medieval theology… this is the exact same trend that yielded the far-more-controversial 1979 Prayer Book!

The Prayer Book of 1892 lasted thirty-six years. It was never satisfactory. The Convention which adopted it was not only conservative, but timid. It hesitated to embark on a liturgical adventure. Revision was reduced to a minimum. Archaic expressions were retained and much of its theology savored of the middle ages. For the most part the painstaking labor of twelve long years was embalmed in the “Book Annexed” which remains a melancholy movement of what might have been done to make a living Liturgy. The consequence was the Church outgrew her own Prayer Book.

Many modern worshipers are accustomed to the Ten Commandments being read in an abbreviated form at the beginning of the Communion service (if they’re read at all anymore). This shortening begins with the 1928 Prayer Book. Was it save time? No, it was because revisionists didn’t want it in there at all!

The growing conviction that the Ten Commandments have no proper place in the service of Holy Communion finds expressions in a significant permission to modify their recital by the omission of the reasons for their observance; reasons which have lost their point and force in modern times.

As for the doctrine of original sin, many of the 1928 revisers wanted no part in it:

The opening sentence of the exhortation in the Office of Baptism, reading, “forasmuch as all men are conceived and born in sin,” has long been deeply resented, so much so that many of the clergy refused to read it. It has happily been deleted in the new Book as having no warrant in Holy Scripture; the old prayer quoting the saving of Noah and the passage of Israel through the Red Sea as figuring Baptism is now omitted, as also the phrase that the infant may “be delivered from thy wrath.” The unhappy prayer, “grant that the old Adam in this child may be so buried, that the new man may be raised up in him,” is changed to read, “grant that like as Christ died and rose again, so this child may die to sin and rise to newness of life.”

Old liturgy is gloomy, they said, and a liturgical revolution was necessary.

The Office for the Visitation of the Sick has been so changed as to be hardly recognizable in its new form. As it appeared in the old Prayer Book it was so gloomy, so medieval in its theology and so utterly lacking in any understanding of the psychological approach to sick persons, that it had almost ceased to be used in the church. Its basic assumption was that not only is all sickness sent by God, but it is sent as a just punishment for some wrong done. …In the new Book the whole tone of the service has been revolutionized.

What about all the gender issues in the post-modern church? Even those revisionist tendencies can be seen in 1928:

The most significant change [to the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony] is that the vows and promises of the man and the woman are made exactly alike by the omission of the word “obey.” They both undertake precisely the same obligation. In the giving of the ring the bridegroom is no longer called upon to say, “with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

Again, I’m not trying to cast shade on the American Book of 1928 – in fact there is a great deal of its material that I appreciate (even including some of its innovations). We’ve got to admit, though, that it is different from the books of 1789 & 1892, and of 1662. Distinct trends of revision and amendment can be seen each step of the way, and an honest assessment must admit that not every change, and reason for change, is wise. It is often popular and easy to fall into a “golden age” mentality, favoring one or another Prayer Book, or epoch of our history, as the Best of Days that we need to return to. Even if we have favorites, though, we need to be able to identify and reckon with the dangerous forces that were present in those days, lest we narrow the scope of our vision, oversimplify the matter, and entrap ourselves in curious quarrels over liturgical matters that will easily miss the point of both past and present needs.

(And again, the source of these quotes about the then-new 1928 Prayer Book is here: http://anglicanhistory.org/bcp/chorley1929/07.html)

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