Lesson Five: Official Revisions of the American BCP

“… we are not to con­found revision with ruin, or to suppose that because a book is marvellously good it cannot conceivably be bettered. Each accomplished revision of the Book of Common Prayer has been a distinct step in advance. If God in his wise providence suffered an excellent growth of devotion to spring up out of the soil of England in the days of Edward the Sixth, and, after many years, determined that like a vine out of Egypt it should be brought across the sea and given root on these shores, we need not fear that we are about to lose utterly our pleasant plant if we notice that the twigs and leaves are adapting themselves to the climate and the atmosphere of the new dwelling-place. The life within the vine remains what it always was. The growth means health. The power of adaptation is the guarantee of a perpetual youth.” 

Reverend William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York, A Short History of the Book of Common Prayer, 1893


Negative Reactions to Changes in the BCP

Resistance to change, especially in religious doctrine and practice, has always been common. Religious doctrines and practices are a core part of individual and community identity. Change is a threat to that identity, causing feelings of disorientation and insecurity.  Religious traditions are generally passed down through generations, creating a sense of stability and familiarity, especially in uncertain times.

Changes in religious doctrines often contradict established beliefs and interpretations. Changes may favor one group’s interpretations over others, creating feelings of alienation and exclusion. Doctrinal disagreements are typically deeply personal and emotionally charged, making compromise and understanding more challenging.

The connection between the Church of England and the Monarchy had been forged through generations of conflict. The Reformation was sometimes perceived as a power struggle, engendering resistance from those who feel marginalized or unheard. Division is especially likely when a lack of transparency or participation in the decision-making is absent.

American Expectations for a BCP

Worship according to the Book of Common Prayer was very objectionable to most of the first settlers of New England. Many of the early New England ministers had been driven out of England because they were unwilling to accept the use of the Prayer-Book when Archbishop Laud sought to compel universal conformity in matters of public worship. In New York, Maryland, Virginia, and other colonies to the south, a different feeling prevailed, and as persons were punished by law in New England for worshipping according to the Book of Common Prayer, so they were punished in Virginia for worshipping in any other way. The use of that form of worship, however, had gained ground even in the northern colonies, and at the time of the Revolution there were churches worshipping according to the Book of Common Prayer in all the colonies.

When the independence of the colonies was acknowledged by England it became necessary to have the Book of Common Prayer modified to suit the new order of things. On July 28, 1789, a new convention of the Episcopal Church met at Philadelphia to endeavor to prepare a new Prayer-Book. The result of their work was “The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, according to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David.” There was also printed and bound up with the “Tate and Brady” metrical version of the Psalms and thirty-seven hymns, which were required to be used before and after Morning and Evening Prayer, and before and after sermons at the discretion of the minister. In 1871, the General Convention authorized the new Hymnal; and the “selections from the Psalms of David” ceased to be printed with the Prayer-Book.

The Difficulty in Reaching Agreement

Reverend Samuel Parker, rector of Trinity Church in Boston and subsequently Bishop, wrote Bishop William White of the difficulties settling on the first American Book of Common Prayer:

“ Among the fundamental principles adopted  [by the Convention in New York 1784] with a view to the future unification of the Church, and proposed to the Church in all the States, the following is the fourth article: “That the said Church shall maintain the doctrines of the Gospel as now held by the Church of England, and shall adhere to the liturgy of the said Church, as far as shall be consistent with the American revolution and the Constitution of the respective States. The declaration of this principle, is ‘disgusting to many of our Communion who neither like the doctrines held by the Church of England nor the liturgy as it now stands.'”

A History of the BCP from its Origins

It is the first book that includes all the offices of the Church and forms of private devotion that was established as a complete liturgy by the order of the state. Previous forms of worship had been promulgated by ecclesiastical authority alone and had no binding force in the law of the state. The English BCP was enacted as the only legal form of public worship by a Parliament of the Commons and Lords Spiritual and Temporal and the Crown.

Although it was prepared by the clergy, it was necessarily framed  to stand the test of legislative debate and meet the approval of the people by their representatives in Parliament. Its legal validity of its use rests solely upon the authority of the act of Parliament. It was also the first complete book of devotions for clergy and worshippers in the language of the people, so that it might “be understanded by the people.” It was a compromise between conflicting opinions about religious doctrine and forms of worship.

This was its strength; for this made it a liturgy established by the consent and authority of the people, for the use of the people, in the common language of the people. It has been twice proscribed by law, all copies of it ordered to be destroyed, and its use in public or private devotions made a crime. But it has, with few substantial alterations, remained unchanged in its original form [in England] for three hundred and fifty years.

Reverend Huntington's 1893 Thoughts about Revisions of the Protest Episcopel's Book of Common Prayer

“Where three or two assemble for the purposes of supplication, some form must necessarily be accepted if they are to pray in unison. When the disciples came to Jesus begging him that he would teach them how to pray, he gave them, not twelve several forms, though doubtless James’s special needs differed from John’s and Simon’s from Jude’s—he gave them, not twelve, but one. “When ye pray,” was his answer, “say Our Father.” That was the beginning of Christian Common Prayer. Because we are men we worship, because we are fellow-men our worship must have form.”

Another thing taught us by the Prayer Book’s history is the duty of being forever on our guard in the religious life against “the falsehood of extremes. The emancipated thinkers who account all standards of belief to be no better than dungeon walls, scoff at this feature of the Anglican character with much bitterness. “Your Church is a Church of compromises,” they say, “and your boasted Via media only a coward’s path, the poor refuge of the man who dares not walk in the open.” But when we see this Prayer Book condemned for being what it is by Bloody Mary, and then again condemned for being what it is by the Long Parliament, the thought occurs to us that possibly there is enshrined in this much-persecuted volume a truth larger than the Romanist is willing to tolerate, or the Puritan generous enough to apprehend..”