Pat’s covert love affair with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer

January 30, 2012

Before we go any further, I had best get this out in the open. You will sometimes find that I make reference to the 1928 American edition of the Book of Common Prayer. The uninitiated should be careful because there is also a 1928 British edition of the BCP, but it was never approved by Parlement. For the Church of England, the official Prayer Book is the 1662, although almost nobody actually uses it for public worship.

If you’re not confused yet, it may be that I am not doing my job. This kind of thing matters for Anglicans (of which I am one), Catholics, Lutherans, and other religious expressions that use liturgical worship. The Episcopal Church of the United States of America (now known simply as TEC)  has produced new editions of the BCP in 1789, 1892, 1928 and 1979. Therefore, we distinguish one from another by referencing the year of publication.

Traditionalists, of which I include myself, have an instinctive fondness for the 1928. The Elizabethan language is elevating and speaks to the transcendent beauty of the divine realm. As is often the case for human beings and institutions, the 28’s greatest strength is also a principle weakness. The language of the 1500s is far removed from the language of today, and age is not always an assurance of superiority. The inadequacy of the language is especially apparent in the King James Version of the Bible, which is embeded in the text.

The difficulty is more than vocabulary. The sentence construction in the KJV of the Bible is unfamiliar to modern eyes. The highest tradition of Anglican beliefs, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion speak strongly in favor of worship in the language of the people. At the time, they had the Latin usage of the Roman Catholic Church in mind, but the same principle is at work today. I am arguing that the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer is not generally appropriate for public worship. There might be exceptions and one could use a more modern translation for the scripture readings. I said “generally.”

Many sincere people treat the 1928 BCP as if it were handed to the Apostle John by the Lord himself while he was hanging on the cross. In reality, the ’28 is the first edition of the BCP to allow prayers for the dead, it moved the Prayer of Humble Access to after the Great Thanksgiving of the Communion Service (sometimes attributed to those sneaky Anglo-Catholics to get us all kneeling before the elements of bread and wine), removed Luther’s Flood Prayer from the Baptism service, and (in the 1945 revision) removed many of the references to divine judgment and some of the Psalms from the daily bible readings.

So why is Pat Lynch so fond of a useless museum piece? The answer is that, while the ’28 may have some shortcoming in the area of general public worship, it is an excellent guide to prayer and private devotion. This volume has 611 pages. It is much smaller than the ’79 and easier to navigate. The daily scripture readings for Morning and Evening Prayer are in a simple one-year lectionary. The Eucharistic lectionary (for the weekly Communion service) generally follows the old Sarum Rite order of readings, which comes from ancient roots. The old Coverdale translation of the Psalms should be occasionally read by everybody and they beg to be sung. You may not know this, but once upon a time the Psalms were the church’s only praise music. There are many prayers and thanksgivings for the sick, prisoners, people in trouble, schools and public officials. It is a well-organized guide to how one should approach the Almighty.

Since my preference is personal and devotional, this is not exactly about liturgy, which is the work of the people. It is not about public worship. The ’28 is not perfect, but it is practical. The bible texts for the communion services (the KJV is in the “public domain”) are printed in full, an expense that 21st century church bodies might find prohibitive. It’s a matter of printing and paying the original bible translator for the costs of the copyright.

I like the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, but you don’t have to agree on this one. It is not really worth a thimble full of blood, not even a speck. It is a man-made tool which helps one become a better Christian, not the object of our worship.

The 1979 BCP


3 Responses to “Pat’s covert love affair with the 1928 Book of Common Prayer”

  1. DaveP Says:

    I’ve grown to love it and use it as well!

  2. One thing I’ve noticed is that in the 1928 lectionary the two readings seem to be somewhat related thematically. In the later ones, its just associates a sequential reading of an OT book with a random NT reading, or so it seems to me.

    • patlynch Says:

      There is also a random aspect to much of the ’28 BCP lectionary. Without adding further complications, there happen to be two such schedules of scripture readings. One is part of the original ’28 and it was completely replaced in 1945.

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