1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer

Changes from 1928 BCP

The 1979 BCP marked a significant and controversial revision compared to the 1928 edition. It aimed to reflect changing societal norms, embrace greater inclusivity, and respond to theological developments within the Church. As a consequence, one rector described the 1979 BCP as “…really two prayer books combined, plus a new appendix of various items meant to assist us in our common life of faith. The 1928 book is 611 pages; the 1979 prayer book is 1,001 pages.

The 1979 book contains: (1) much, but not all, of the contents of the 1928 prayer book and (2) an updated contemporary language prayer book with additional “offices” that were not in the earlier prayer book and (3) an appendix containing psalms, extra prayers, historical documents foundational to the Church; an instructional “Outline of the Faith” in a Q&A format; and calendars showing what biblical lessons to read on Sundays, ordinary weekdays, and saint days.”

Here are some key areas of change:

  • Extensive use of gender-neutral language: References to “man” and “he” were largely replaced with inclusive terms like “people,” “humanity,” and “all persons.” In reference to clergy, the 1928 phrase “…no man may minister in holy things…” to 1979’s “…no one may minister to holy things…” Other examples include “…and mankind was created in the image of God…” to “…and we were created in the image of God…” Finally, “…He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved…” was changed to “…Those who believe and are baptized will be saved…”
  • Inclusion of more diverse voices: Prayers and readings were incorporated from a wider range of ethnicities, cultures, and theological perspectives, reflecting the increasing multicultural makeup of the Church.  Language and instructions were adapted to be more accessible for individuals with physical or cognitive limitations.
  • Greater flexibility in service structures: Options for shortening or combining elements of various services were provided, accommodating diverse worship styles and preferences.
  • Increased emphasis on lay participation: Roles traditionally reserved for clergy were opened to laypeople, fostering shared leadership and responsibility within the Church.
  • Revision of the Holy Communion service: The language and order of the service were adjusted to emphasize themes of invitation, inclusion, and shared meal, aligning with a more communal understanding of the sacrament.
  • Expansion of alternative rites and prayers: More options were offered for various occasions and ministries, catering to diverse theological interpretations and liturgical preferences. Instead of replacing the previous 1928 BCP entirely, the 1979 BCP presented two main options for the Holy Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer:
    • Rite I: This rite retained the language and structure of the traditional 1662 and 1928 BCPs, with some minor updates.
    • Rite II: This rite used contemporary language and offered more flexibility in liturgical structure and options.
  • Affirmation of diverse theological perspectives: The 1979 BCP acknowledged and accommodated a wider range of theological views within the Episcopal Church, reflecting ongoing debates and evolving interpretations of scripture and tradition.
  • Increased emphasis on social justice and reconciliation: Prayers and affirmations addressed issues of poverty, racism, and war, reflecting a growing commitment to social action and prophetic witness.
  • Revision of the Lectionary: A three-year cycle of scripture readings was introduced, offering greater exposure to different parts of the Bible.
  • Expansion of music options: New hymnals and authorized settings for contemporary music were adopted, reflecting changing musical styles and preferences.
  • Inclusion of new rites and services: Blessings for same-sex relationships and other innovative rituals were incorporated, sparking ongoing debate and controversy.

The 1979 BCP was met with mixed reactions. Some celebrated its inclusivity, flexibility, and responsiveness to social change. Others criticized its departures from traditional language and practices, perceiving it as a dilution of Anglican heritage. Despite the controversy, the 1979 BCP remains the official Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, shaping its worship, theology, and identity to this day.

Reactions to the "New" 1979 ersion of the BCP

The Washington Post newspaper reported that delegates to the 1979 Convention were “saturated with flyers, posters, stickers and films opposing the prayer book revision, debate on the question was desultory. Both sides apparently had exhausted their energy on the emotionally charged issue. “

The new book has been particularly criticized for changes in the marriage ceremony — probably the most widely known ritual from the Book of Common Prayer. Only a contemporary form of the marriage ceremony is offered; the 1928 version is not included. in the 1979 prayer book the bride is asked to “love. . .comfort. . . honor and keep” her husband but no longer to “obey,” a word which increasing numbers of couples have on their own edited out of the rite in recent years. The archaic, if poetic, pledge of fidelity, “till death us do part,” is replaced by “until we are parted by death.”

The overall  reception among clergy and laity to the new revision wasn’t uniform, and some issues continue unresolved.  While many appreciated the more accessible language, greater lay participation, and recognition of diverse perspectives, others found the changes unsettling, fearing a loss of tradition and continuity. Controversy remains for:

  • Liturgical variations: Concerns persist about permissible deviations from the BCP, creating inconsistencies in worship experiences across parishes.
  • Gendered language: Debates continue on the use of specific terms (e.g., “he” for God) and the ordination of women to all roles.
  • Theology: Disagreements on issues like sexuality and biblical interpretation remain, creating tensions within the church.

Balancing tradition with adapting to contemporary society remains a challenge. Some feel the BCP doesn’t fully address current social issues or resonate with younger generations.

Is the Episcopal Church Still Anglican?

The Very Rev. Kevin Martin, the retired dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas recently wrote an article on the Covenant website about  the direction of the Episcopal Church.  Rev. Martin notes that those urging a rewrite of the 1979 version are “are very avant-garde in wanting to make language, gender, and theological changes…Many of our current leaders, including many in the House of Bishops, seem more concerned that we become the voice of progressivism, both in politics as well as theology.”

He further writes “After the polarizing votes at a General Convention in the early 2000s, especially regarding human sexuality, TEC’s big tent fractured. Progressives not only “won” but invited those who disagreed with the decisions to leave…Sadly, many who were rooted in different parts of this big tent did leave. Today there is little doubt that those who lead our community show a lack of tolerance for even those of us who disagreed but stayed. After these decisions, little to no attempt was made to create a safe place for those of us who in good conscience could not accept these innovations. Then followed the election of our first female presiding bishop. She made it clear that dissenting voices had no important place in our decision-making. “

As we go forward, the gaps between the parties are likely to grow with increasing pressure to replace tradition with progressiveness. Is there a bridge too far to cross? An accommodation that we are unwilling to accept?