Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part Second. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

Chapter XV. Prayer Book Revision

"The Prayer Book as it is;" separation of offices; the science of liturgics; revision begun; the Book Annexed.

When all parties in the Church had reached the point of honestly desiring peace, and of frankly accepting comprehensiveness as one of the Church's notes, the way was open to undertake an enterprise which had long been in mind. If the Church were to be the permanent home of men of diverse and varied tastes the order and arrangement of the house must needs be adjusted with some view to their comfort. No change had been made in the Prayer Book since its adoption in 1789. Since that time the most wonderful century in human history had unrolled itself. A new world had come in. While the heavens remained the same a new earth had appeared. It is a condition of divine worship that the consciousness of human needs and the thought concerning God should fit with one another. During the century the Church had enormously expanded her terrestrial view. She had awakened to a sense of her relationship with human society, and a hundred new phases of that society confronted her. The sense of adoration itself had taken on new moods. The Prayer Book had been finally put in form with a view to serve as a vehicle for a decorous and decent expression adjusted to the worship of a Church whose self-consciousness was narrow and whose range of emotions was meagre. All that had changed. The Church was now concerning herself with the multiform life of the new age. The Prayer Book was inadequate. This inadequacy had been felt for a long while, but there had been no time when it was possible to correct it. The mere fact of the Prayer Book's changelessness had gained for it a sort of sentimental sanctity. Churchmen had come to think of it as they did of the Holy Scriptures. It was a finality. The mere suggestion of alteration was a profanity.

When a proposal was made in the General Convention of 1865 to correct certain typographical errors in the "Table for Proper Psalms," it was gravely decided that such discrepancies were "intentional, and as such made an integral part of our American Book of Common Prayer." Changes in the Prayer Book in the interest of Doctrine had been more than once sought, but had always been refused. Each party in turn was but halfhearted in pressing the changes which it desired, from fear lest the door being opened, the other party might bring in at it changes which would be dangerous. But now the time had come when a more fundamental need began to be felt. The Prayer Book order was being departed from on this side and on that under the stress of an imperative necessity which no rubrics could stand against. Shortened forms for use in the Sunday school had to be. When the Prayer Book was adopted there were no Sunday schools. Shorter and more flexible forms were needed for missions and occasional services. This need had not been thought of when the Prayer Book had been adopted. The new wine of life stirring in the Church was bursting the old bottles. How could the most conservative Churchman use full Morning Prayer in a congregation of Freedmen, not one in ten of whom could read, or comprehend it when read? How could a mission priest be rubrical at an evangelistic service? Changes in the customs of living made necessary shorter and more frequent services on Sunday. To be rubrical meant to be dangerously tedious. Morning Prayer, Litany, Sermon, and Holy Communion involved a devotional strain of two hours or more, and two hours was a far longer space of time for the people of 1876 than it had been for their more deliberate forbears of 1776. Some relief was found in the fortunate discovery which the House of Bishops made and announced, that "Morning Prayer, Litany and Holy Communion were separate and distinct offices," and that it had always been lawful to use one or more of them independently of the others, provided that neither of them were habitually disused. The dictum was accepted with some hesitation. Possibly it was sound, but custom was against it, the rubrics themselves were a trifle obstinate, and in any case the Church was not quite clear as to the Bishops' authority to express an opinion in the premises. Some found relief by supplementing the liturgy with extemporaneous prayers. They contended that when they had once delivered the required tale of rubrical bricks they were free to mould the clay left over according to their own design. But the expedient was not satisfactory. The extemporaneous prayers were an unseemly patch on a stately garment. But it became clear that something must be done. There was grave fear lest the fetich of "Uniformity" should be dishonored. The ideal of the average Churchman had long been not only that "all men everywhere should call upon God," but they should call upon Him in the same words at the same time. It had been their boast that, while change and confusion existed elsewhere, a Churchman could go of a Sunday into any Church in the broad land with the certainty that he would hear and join in a service every word of which was not only hallowed, but familiar. This ideal had been actually realized, and for a considerable time maintained. But now it was being threatened. Would it not be better, they asked, to allow the Prayer Book to be enriched with new offices and rendered more adaptable in its use of old ones than to run the risk of allowing lawlessness and variety to come in under the plea of necessity?

This course commended itself the more by the fact that now there were men capable of doing the needed work. Fifty years earlier there had been no Science of Liturgics. There had been Commentaries upon the Prayer Book, and treatises abundant upon the doctrinal enormities of the Missal. But these were either for the ends of edification or controversy, and threw little light upon the origin, the structure, or the philosophy of public and common worship. But within half a century all that had been changed. "Probably no period of corresponding length in the whole range of English Church history had shown itself so rich in the fruits of Liturgical study." [Huntington: History of the Book of Common Prayer, p. 82.] Palmer had, with infinite learning and pains, traced the Origirnes Liturgicae; Haskell had recovered the Rituals of the past and collated them; Bright had gathered together and translated the Ancient Collects; John Mason Neale, Cardwell, Stephens, Lathbury, Procter, Scudamore, and a fine company of scholars and historians had created a science of Liturgics, as new and as real as the New Chemistry, or Political Economy. This knowledge had passed over to this side of the water, been absorbed, assimilated, and added to.

In the General Convention of 1877 the following resolution was offered by the Rev. Dr. Wm. R. Huntington;

"Resolved: that a joint Committee to consist of seven Bishops, seven presbyters and seven laymen be chosen to consider and report to the next Convention what changes, if any, are needed in the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer in order to remove existing difficulties of interpretation, to amend the Lectionary, and to provide by abbreviation or otherwise for the better adaptation of the services of the Church to the wants of all sorts and conditions of men."

This was the formal beginning of a movement for the revision of the Liturgy which engrossed the attention and absorbed the energies of the Church for more than a dozen years. At first it seemed to be started in vain. Although the judgment and conscience of the Church were enlisted, its inertia and blind conservatism blocked the way. The Committee on the Prayer Book to which the resolution was referred recommended through its chairman, the Rev. Dr. Beardsley, that it be discharged from further consideration of the matter, and the recommendation was adopted. [Journal Gen. Con., 1877, p. 132.]

The time was ripe, and the Church was ready, but the General Convention did not know it.

Three years later, in 1880, the Rev. Dr. Huntington again moved for the same joint commission to "consider and report to the next General Convention, whether, in view of the fact that this Church is soon to enter upon the second century of its organized existence in this country, the changed conditions of national life do not demand certain alterations in the Book of Common Prayer, in the direction of Liturgical enrichment and increased flexibility of use."

The discussions during the three years preceding had already shown that the mind of the Church was fixed upon such movement. The resolution was passed and the Commission appointed. [The commission was composed of Bishops Williams, Lay, Stevens, Coxe, Young, Doane, and Huntington; the Rev. Drs. Huntington, Dalrymple, Goodwin, Dix, Harwood, and Harrison; Messrs. Hamilton Fish, Henry Copee, Hugh W. Shelley, E. T. Wilder, John W. Andrews, James M. Smith, Hill Burgwin.]

In 1883 the Commission reported the result of their work with a proposed "Prayer Book Annexed" thereto. The changes and additions recommended were named in a statement of forty-five printed pages. In general, the Book Annexed provided for the omission of a few obsolete prayers, and for a clarification of rubrical obscurities; for the restoration to the original form of certain mutilated or curtailed anthems and canticles; for the addition of many prayers and thanksgivings and of a few new offices; and chiefly to break up the interlaced and cumbrous plan of binding together separate services. The Commission specially disavowed any changes touching the statements or standards of doctrine, and they claimed to have been guided "by those principles of liturgical construction and ritual use which have made the Book of Common Prayer what it is."

The Commission's proposal met a not very hospitable welcome. Literary precisians criticised it for fault in taste. Some attacked it because the changes proposed were so few and so trivial that it was not worth while to upset established custom in order to adopt them; and some because they were so numerous and radical that their adoption would be revolutionary. Some saw in it a covert attack upon accepted doctrine, and some faulted because it failed to utilize the opportunity to teach catholic truth. In Virginia it was charged with Mariolatry; in Ohio with Latitudinarianism; in Wisconsin with Puritanism. [Huntington: History of Prayer Book Revision, p. 167.] High Churchmen saw in its adoption the final breaking down of ritual uniformity, and Broad Churchmen saw in it the attempt to bring in again the tyranny of mechanical rule. In any case the General Convention declined to adopt it. After weeks passed in a minute examination of the Book, line by line, in the "Committee of the Whole," the subject was referred to the next Convention. When six more years had passed, and the proposed changes had been winnowed by discussion in newspapers, pamphlets, current discussion, and diocesan conventions, a Revised Prayer Book was finally adopted, and the agitation was ended for a long time to come. Some gain had been made. The enrichment was but meagre. A Collect, Epistle, and Gospel were added for the Feast of Transfiguration. A Penitential Office was inserted. Certain Canticles were restored to their integrity, and the and Magnificat replaced. Sundry Versicles and Collects were added. In the way of rubrical ease and flexibility much was gained. It was made possible to bring a public service within a reasonable compass of time without straining rubrics. But the greatest gain was attained unconsciously and unintentionally. The fetich of "Uniformity" was quietly pushed from its shrine. During the years of agitation and uncertainty, of dubiety concerning rubrics, of experimental and tentative regulation, men learned that it is of more consequence that a Service should edify the particular congregation engaged in it than that it should coincide at every period with the service in which other congregations are engaged at the same hour. They learned that the Prayer Book was for the Church, and not the Church for the Prayer Book. They came to realize that the Book of Common Prayer is not rightly a manual of instruction as to how Divine Service shall be performed, but an ideal to which such service ought to conform.

Since this truth came to be perceived and gained currency the Liturgy has taken on a new life. It has come to be an angel bidding the devout soul to prayer, and ceased to be a tyrannous master of rites commanding a ceremonial.

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