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The 1979 Prayer Book (my attitude to it) - by Peter Toon

The 1979 Prayer Book – my attitude to it

By Peter Toon

People who have the time and inclination to read my little tracts and books will have noticed that consistently over the years I have referred to the official Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, USA, as “the 1979 Prayer Book.” This is a reasonable title to use and it is used by me for one basic reason -- in order to avoid using the official title as given to it by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minneapolis 1979 which was “The Book of Common Prayer….”

Why do I seek to avoid calling this Book by its official title? The answer is simple. I cannot in conscience or historical judgment see it as “The Book of Common Prayer.” It is most certainly a Prayer Book, but to my eyes it is not “The BCP.” If we actually take note only of its internal contents which are characterized by variety and choice, we see very clearly and quickly that they belong to the new class of Prayer Books which were produced from the early 1970s onwards in the western/northern parts of the Anglican Communion, after the Lambeth Conference gave its moral backing to this enterprise. These new Books were intended to provide experimental, alternative forms of public services alongside the received, historical, Book of Common Prayer. Thus they usually contained the word “alternative” in their titles – e.g., An Alternative Service Book (England 1980).

Therefore, as a historian of doctrine and of forms of Anglican worship, I see that the 1979 book was given the wrong title. It should have been something like, An American Prayer Book (1979) or A Book of Alternative Services (1979). When I enquire why it has the wrong title, I find a long and involved story about the ecclesiastical politics operative in the Episcopal Church from the 1960s into the 1970s and it is not necessary to tell that story here.

However, looking back over the history of the Episcopal Church from the new millennium back to the 1960s, I can see clearly how so often the General Convention is driven not by a commitment to biblical truth and historical orthodoxy, but by the desire to innovate to be relevant to a fast changing society and culture. So, it seems to me, the title of the new Prayer Book was a major innovation, a novel way of using an hallowed and distinctive title in order to make easy the speedy entrance of innovation and change of doctrine. And as such it worked as bishops took up the cause and pressed its use upon all dioceses of the Church.

Because its title is the wrong one does not mean that there are not useful, even good, things in the 1979 Book. I gladly accept that by it, in the hands of faithful priests over the years, many have been blessed by God.

Thus, in summary, my position in terms of my relation to the Prayer Books of the ECUSA is to regard the last edition of the classic Book of Common Prayer, the edition of 1928 as the true Formulary of the Anglican Way in America and then to see the 1979 Book as the equivalent of the ASB (1980) of the Church of England and the BAS (1985) of the Anglican Church of Canada (and of others similar ones from Australia, South Africa. Wales, Ireland etc). So for me to say “the 1979 Prayer Book” is to see it as an official alternative to the classic BCP and also under the general doctrinal standard of the historic editions in the USA of the classic BCP – that is those of 1662, 1789, 1892 & 1928.

When the new Prayer Book (or perhaps books and web sites of liturgical resources) of the ECUSA appears later in this decade, then I shall have to re-evaluate my position; but I expect that I shall regard the 1979 Book as conservative in comparison with the innovatory content of what will replace it by 2010! In and of itself the 1979 Book was innovatory in 1979 but such have been the changes within the ECUSA that it is now a conservative bedrock for some. (The liberals of the 1970s became the conservatives of the 1990s!)

[See further my booklets, The 1928 Service of Holy Communion Annotated & An Act of Piracy, An evaluation of the 1979 Prayer Book, both available online from www.anglicanmarketplace.com & by calling 1 800 727 1928]

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.), is vicar of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor & St Anne's, Brown Edge;

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