Elizabethan English and Common Prayer in the Twenty-First Century
By Fr. Mark Perkins
Parishes that retain the old prayer books — those that predate the liturgical renewal movement of the past century — are sometimes accused of a kind of fuddy-duddy antiquarianism. They love the old prayer books, so the critique runs, precisely because the prayer books are old. And they love the old because its quaint, charming foreignness stands at a remove from the drudgery of day-to-day life. Such parishes are engaged, in other words, in the kind of quasi-historical play-acting you might see at your local Renaissance Fair.
Along these lines, Fr. Ben Jefferies claims in “The Shape-Fallacy Fallacy” that “the Elizabethan grammar and pronouns in which the 1662 [Book of Common Prayer] is written, with its long sentences and ‘thees’ and ‘thous,’ presents the liturgy to any contemporary listener as a museum piece.” His piece responds to Samuel Bray’s “The Shape Fallacy: The Book of Common Prayer as Text,” a sweeping rejection of over half a century of liturgical revision in England and in the United States. Bray’s call for a return to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — for 21st-century churches to adopt a 17th-century liturgy — seems like antiquarianism at its finest. Fr. Jefferies’ essay, though far from a critique of the classic prayer book tradition, portrays such a proposal as a non-starter in contemporary America. Fr. Jefferies argues instead that the 2019 BCP of the Anglican Church in North America achieves the right balance of old and new, avoiding the many excesses and failures of 20th-century liturgical renewal, while updating the Elizabethan language for contemporary use.
Bray’s piece also doubles as a hit piece against the late liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix. Fr. Jefferies therefore accuses Bray of attacking two straw men: Fr. Dix and the ACNA’s 2019 BCP. (In a brief rejoinder here, Bray denies that his original piece was primarily about the ACNA BCP. While Bray does reference that prayer book disparagingly as an example of the tendencies he criticizes, Fr. Jefferies reflects a bit of paternal oversensitivity in assuming that the piece is all about it.) Scoring the debate, Fr. Jefferies clearly wins round one on Dix. He also lands some solid blows in the second and more consequential round, but ultimately the fight turns against him when it comes to the ACNA’s 2019 BCP.
This all may seem like pretty irrelevant material for polemics. Fr. Dix passed nearly seven decades ago, and, as a priest in the Anglican Province of America, I have no skin in the game when it comes to post-1928 prayer books. Still, while the late Fr. Dix’s personal reputation may be a rather inconsequential question for us, liturgical revision as such is not. Together the two pieces illuminate what a good liturgy ought to be and to do. In particular, reflecting on the strengths and shortcomings of the ACNA’s BCP helps us better understand and attend to our own liturgy — and consider how best to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness in anno Domini 2020.
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Both writers see prayer books ultimately as vehicles for worship, but they approach the task differently. Bray’s animating question considers how a prayer book cultivates worship over time and across generations. How, for instance, can a liturgy inspire devotion in someone who has heard the Eucharistic service a few thousand times? Clearly this question also concerns Fr. Jefferies. As he says in his essay and in an interview last year with Fr. Gerry McDermott, the liturgical task force primarily responsible for the ACNA’s BCP — of which Fr. Jefferies was a member — consciously embraced theologically “weighty words” rather than settling for the colloquial. And, as a marked turn away from The Episcopal Church’s 1979 BCP and back towards the 1662, the ACNA BCP represents at least a partial return to the classic prayer book tradition.
At the same time, the ACNA task force asked a second question, one which Bray largely ignores. The 2019 BCP manifestly takes as its “audience,” if you will, those who did not grow up in the Anglican prayer book tradition — or, if they did, did so in the language of 1979’s Rite II. Thus, alongside their devotion to the historic prayer books, they also sought to inspire worship in the uninitiated. While, broadly speaking, such a “missional” mindset is laudable, it is not the right approach to liturgical revision, as we shall see.
In making his plea for a return to the 1662, in all its textual richness — or, perhaps, its stilted archaisms — Bray identifies a few potential objections: that it would be a reactionary regression; that the language is obsolete and difficult to understand; or that, even if one can understand it, it is too far removed from everyday life to be useful.
Fr. Jefferies correctly contends that the first two objections did not particularly concern the committee that crafted the 2019 BCP. As noted above, their revisions worked back from the 1979 towards the 1662, and so one cannot accuse them of liturgical progressivism. But, contra Bray’s implicit preference, they did not simply excise the 1979 from consideration. (Bray: “If you think you’ve made a wrong turn, there is nothing reactionary, nothing antiquarian, about wanting to go back to the spot where you made it.”) To do so would, Fr. Jefferies argues, repeat the very error that Bray identified in 20th-century revisions: it would sever the generations in worship. Maintaining textual stability in the context of the ACNA, four decades on from the advent of the 1979, requires some attention to that prayer book.
Nor, Fr. Jefferies maintains, was the 2019 BCP written in “street language.” He consequently refers to Bray’s “currency objection” as a straw man. Fr. Jefferies is wrong about that — Bray has more than simply the 2019 BCP in his sights, and there is no doubt that such an attitude animated large swaths of the 1979. More to the point, it is hard to see how the 2019 itself is entirely innocent of the charge. It is true that the task force did not shy away from rich theological language, but there was nevertheless a palpable concern about sounding too high and elevated. As Fr. Jefferies himself notes, the revisions of the 1662 were not primarily concerned with comprehensibility but rather with “atmosphere.” They sought an “atmosphere” conducive to worship in a “decadent, Netflix-binging age” — where “Elizabethan English doesn’t create an atmosphere of reverence and piety, but elitism.… Most middle-class people don’t think they can read Shakespeare (even if they actually could) because they think it is for the elites.”
Bray’s rejoinder insists that the 1662 prayer book is far more comprehensible than Shakespeare, somewhat missing Fr. Jefferies’s not-entirely-clear point — which is not that the 1662 actually is Shakespearean, nor that it is particularly difficult to comprehend, but rather that — merited or not — middle-class Americans will perceive classic prayer book language as “ye olde Shakespeare” and recoil from it. But Bray is quite right to dismiss the argument from elitism. As he notes, the King James retains its appeal most strongly not in socially elite white parishes but rather in black churches of all kinds and varieties — not to mention a plethora of white and rural independent Baptist churches. I recently found myself chatting with a younger Gen-X parishioner who took a circuitous route to Anglicanism. One of the things that most immediately attracted him was the resonance it had to his King-James-only upbringing in East Tennessee. Likewise, the Holy Communion service for the African Methodist Episcopal Church is remarkably close to the language of the 1928 — in the Confession and Absolution, the Eucharistic Canon, and elsewhere, “you” and “your” replace “thee” and “thy,” but that’s about it. It is manifestly not the case that “long sentences and ‘thees’ and ‘thous’” present “the liturgy to any contemporary listener as a museum piece.”
Ironically, Fr. Jefferies’ concern about elitism is itself profoundly elitist: “It might be possible,” he grants, for “1662 language” to evoke worship in a middle-class American — but only with “lots of time and patience and familiarity” (emphasis original). This is paternalism at its finest: the assumption that plebes and commoners couldn’t possibly be expected to hear a “thee” or “thou” without a knuckle-headed chuckle. I have indeed heard visitors occasionally make a snide remark about the old, “stuffy” language — but every single one of them, without exception, was a white, middle-class, college-educated baby boomer. It is boomer culture that most fears being perceived as elitist and that idolizes (a superficial understanding of) “authenticity.” To the extent that younger generations share in this aversion to the old and elevated, it reflects the enduring effects of the 1960’s overthrow of culture. It is a cancer that needs cutting out — not catering.
In reality, it only takes a few weeks at most to begin to get inside the rhythms and cadences and vocabulary of “1662 language” and to recognize its appeal. That’s the beauty of beauty: it attracts. Nevertheless, it is true that old language has a higher price of entry and a steeper learning curve (though I suspect the startlingly non-colloquial language attracts as many as it repels). It may only take three weeks to begin to surmount this barrier, but that doesn’t matter if someone never comes back after the first week. And, after all, baby boomers need Jesus too. Fr. Jefferies’s question, then, is worth asking: “Is there not a better, more moderate way? Could not the great language of the 1662 be polished in such a way that it could retain its heightened language, while losing some of the dusty elite/museum feel?... This was what the BCP 2019 attempted, and I believe successfully accomplished.”
To defend his claim, Fr. Jefferies’ compares a few passages from the 2019 with the 1662 — the Prayers for the Church, the Confession, and the Anamnesis. But these comparisons, I am afraid, do not quite accomplish what Fr. Jefferies’ seems to think they do. Yes, the percentage of words retained is quite high! Indeed, if Fr. Jefferies had only presented the 2019, I might have been more willing to grant his point. If he had placed the 2019 side-by-side with comparable sections of the 1979’s Rite II, I would even now be singing the (relative) praises of the 2019. But placing the new book beside the 1662 illuminates the high cost of apparently minor changes.
It is remarkable to note how, in almost every instance, “the tiny fraction of different wordings” utterly disrupts the poetic rhythm of the original. With the exception of the state prayers, every single change made to the Prayers for the Church devastates the cadences of the 1662. The 2019 Confession is a marked improvement over the 1979’s Rite II — but in its treatment of the 1662, the misdoings are manifold, grievous, and intolerable. The Anamnesis is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Even here, though, we are supplied with an excellent example of how exceedingly minor changes can disrupt poetic rhythm. Just before the Words of Consecration in the 1662, the celebrant declares that Jesus made “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death, until his coming again.” In the 2019, the celebrant similarly says that Christ made “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and he instituted, and in his Holy Gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” This is not the kind of thing you even notice on paper, yet the shift from “did institute” to “he instituted” transforms one of the most beautifully rhythmic sections of the entire prayer book into a line designed to make stutterers of us all.
On the whole, the 2019 gives you middling prose occasionally punctuated by theologically dense terminology — but entirely lacking in the Elizabethan artistry of classic prayer book language.
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Bray’s essay highlights the asymmetrical costs and benefits of liturgical revision. Not only do the costs outweigh the benefits overall, but the benefits accrue to liturgists while the costs are paid by parishioners. Likewise, the benefits — “relevance” or that stalest of words, “freshness” — are front-loaded and fleeting, while the costs unfold over time. As Bray points out, the new liturgies manifestly have a shorter shelf-life than the old. That’s because transcendent beauty, such as is found in the classic prayer books, continually inspires anew, whereas the pedestrian swiftly grows stale.
One answer to the potential problem of staleness is variety. A commenter calculates 1.6 trillion possible variations in the Eucharistic service in the 2019. Granted, that number demands context. I would be interested to know, for instance, how many variations of Morning Prayer are possible in the 1928 BCP, given that one can use any combination of the opening sentences, omit the confession, shift the Lord’s Prayer to the rear, choose from a (small) variety of canticles after each reading, and then include or exclude as many prayers as desired at the end! I suspect it is an enormous number. But, as that commenter points out, the real question is what is permitted to be optional. There are undoubtedly more variations of Morning Prayer available than I have mornings left to live, and yet there is not a single rubrical variation of the 1928 which would make the Office anything less than intimately familiar. The options for the 2019, on the other hand, push us to the outermost edge of Common Prayer — and ultimately off the cliff.
Partly this variation reflects a desire to be missional and adaptive — “fresh expressions” and the like — but there is also a more troubling tendency at play too. In that interview with Fr. Gerry McDermott, Fr. Jefferies described the committee’s revelatory realization of
“how Catholically minded the 1662 prayer book is…. So, if someone says [of the 2019 BCP], ‘This is too Catholic,’ I would say, ‘Well, study the 1662 prayer book closer. If this is too Catholic, maybe Anglicanism is too Catholic for you.’ That’s a hard way of putting it, but... we are unapologetically connected to the Catholic tradition.”
Even so, the committee nevertheless fell prey to a broadchurch indifferentism. The 1662 BCP unambiguously affirms baptismal regeneration, as Fr. Jefferies emphasized:
“If you look at the 1662 baptismal rite, it uses the word ‘regeneration’ in predicate sentences at least nine times in the baptismal rite. Then another dozen or so times in the confirmation rite, saying ‘when you were baptized you were made regenerate.’ The word ‘regenerate’ is just littered throughout baptism and confirmation in the 1662 prayer book.”
And yet, rather astonishingly, they chose to minimize and even make entirely optional the language of regeneration:
“The word ‘regenerate’ is a stumbling block for many, so rather than have it nine times in the baptismal liturgy it occurs only once and in additional direction it says, ‘This word may be replaced with the phrase “forgiveness of sins”’ so that it doesn’t cause a stumbling block in parishes where it might possibly do so.”
Nor is this an exceptional instance. As Fr. Jefferies explained,
“Almost anything which has sort of been a lightning rod for a past disagreement has been made rubricly optional. The rubrics say ‘there may be said,’ things like that. So, there are many, many places where, if something is objectionable, look at the rubrics. It’s often going to be an optional text so that the people don’t feel strong-armed into saying a prayer that would cause cognitive spiritual dissonance for them. So, there’s a lot of options built in... The word ‘may’ was used more times in this prayer book than I think any of its predecessors.”
Unapologetically Catholic this is not. Nor is it Common Prayer.
[Editor's Note: In a letter published subsequent to that interview, Fr. Jefferies stated that he was in error about the 2019 having more options than any other essay.]
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If we could retain the beauty of the Elizabethan prayer book while making it more immediately appealing to a denizen of our “Netflix-binging age,” perhaps that would be a worthy endeavor. But the ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer shows how difficult — even impossible — such a task is. Nor is it entirely clear that we ought to pursue this goal in the first place. Our liturgy is not primarily a vehicle for the expression of our worshipful feelings, nor is it something we are free to form however we wish. Rather, it is a living gift of the Church which forms us. By it, “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:18). As stewards of the liturgy, we strive to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. That is the question of first, second, and final importance, and any considerations which detract or distract from this end must be discarded.
Our evangelical duty is to proclaim God’s grandeur to a world in desperate need of goodness, truth, and beauty. Missionally, we invite others to join us in worshipping the One who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). We should expect the glory of God to dazzle or even blind those living in this present darkness. God forbid we dim the lights somewhat so as not to disturb the cave dwellers.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Assistant Editor of Earth & Altar.