by Joseph Farnes
In the conversations about the next prayer book for the Episcopal Church, much attention is being paid to diversifying our language of God and humanity and to retaining both unity and diversity in our common prayer. What is not being considered at this time is how the next prayer book will be arranged.
Spending time with the entirety of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer shows how challenging the text can be to use. While it does not have the overflowing multitude of options as the New Zealand Prayer Book or the Common Worship materials in the Church of England (try putting together a service using either of those materials without having to use massive quantities of paper to print a full bulletin!), we do have many options without a clear sequence and structure for using them. This has left us a significant problem; how many people in the pews, let alone seminarians, could pick up the book and put together a service based on exposure alone? How do we explain Rite I and Rite II (in both the Daily Offices and in the Eucharistic Prayers) to people in the pews and help them to navigate the services… or do we pretend one rite doesn’t exist at all? How do we as clergy and worship leaders make decisions around which prayers to use, and how would we communicate them to the congregation without overwhelming them?
The arrangement of the current prayer book has left us needing to use larger bulletins to make all the leaps through the text to help newcomers and longtime parishioners alike. Yes, there are rubrics on each page that would be helpful if they were actually read, but either out of our own anxiety for visitors or out of ignorance of our own prayer book, we create longer and larger bulletins. This defeats our ability to teach the prayer book and its theology by repetition.
There is the additional problem of priests and worship leaders crafting words for the congregation to say which they have not had a chance to consider beforehand. The fact that the General Convention, in consultation with parish experience, has established our prayer book by actually praying it together at least gives a voice to the people in the pews. As it is now, the priest disregarding the prayer book is getting to put their own theology in the words (and mouths) of the laity.
The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers provide a helpful example. The 1979 Prayer Book offers four different Eucharistic prayers in Rite II. In my exposure, Eucharistic Prayer A is the “standard” with Eucharistic Prayer B as the “Incarnation” prayer. Eucharistic Prayer C is the “Star Wars” prayer and is decidedly creation-focused (and, everyone should note, is far and away the most penitential of the four), and Eucharistic Prayer D is the lengthiest and is generally associated with the holiest of our holidays or with occasions of Christian unity. Plus, how many parishes go to Rite I during Lent because “thee” and “thou” language is surely more penitential with its old-timey language?
There is, however, nothing in the prayer book that specifies which Eucharistic Prayer is to go with which occasion or season. Previous prayer books put the emphasis of the season squarely in the preface; the rest of the Eucharistic prayer did not vary. Two of the 1979 Rite II Eucharistic Prayers have set prefaces, meaning they do not vary with the season at all. The other two vary enough in the text following the preface that the preface’s language gets lost. This leaves the decisions on the prayers to be made solely by clergy and worship leaders. How many of them have such disdain for Eucharistic Prayer C (let alone Enriching Our Worship) that it is never used? How many worry that Eucharistic Prayer D is too long and thus abandon it entirely? How many will avoid Rite I because it is too “penitential” instead of appreciating the beauty of its syntax as poetry?
However, returning to the single Eucharistic prayer with varying prefaces seems an unlikely and, honestly, unsatisfying decision for three reasons. First, because Biblical and theological literacy has been de-emphasized in our culture, the Eucharistic prayers have to do the heavy lifting of educating people (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, after all). Second, we can have different emphases at different points in the church year, allowing us to pray the seasons better. Third, the frequency of Eucharist means that a text that was formerly used monthly is now used weekly in most places, so wise variation in our prayers can be a serious benefit.
We can use this variation wisely to our spiritual advantage!
My simple suggestion is this: what if the prefaces for seasons led to a specific Eucharistic Prayer that went with the larger cycle of the church year? Advent and Christmas, for example, being part of the “Incarnational cycle” of the church year, would have a more incarnational emphasis in the Eucharistic prayer with the theological variation between the two seasons lying in the preface. The “Paschal cycle” of Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost would have its own Eucharistic Prayer, with the prefaces giving voice to the penitential, celebratory, and anticipatory elements of the various seasons. The “Ordinary cycle” of the seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost would have their own Eucharistic prayer emphasizing the power of God revealed and working throughout creation, with prefaces varying, perhaps keeping our current prayer book variation of which person of the Trinity is being particularly commemorated.
This would apply not just for the church year but also for saints’ days and for pastoral occasions. We could include a “Sanctoral” Eucharistic prayer to encourage the observance of saints’ days, which would have the added benefit of helping us to pray through a theology of sainthood that is more expansive than “inspirational figures and famous firsts” – we believe that the saints are part of a wider fellowship in whom the love, life, and light of Christ shine out even in death! An additional “pastoral occasions” Eucharistic prayer would put the whole range of human life into theological relief. Marriage, sickness, and death reveal how God’s love works in our lives and these occasions bring us back to reliance on God in the midst of our mortal lives.
Perhaps a chart is in order to help clarify an example of the arrangement:
|Season / Feast||Preface||Eucharistic Prayer Cycle|
|Season after Epiphany||Father / Son / Holy Spirit||Ordinary|
|Holy Week||Holy Week||Paschal|
|Season after Pentecost||Father / Son / Holy Spirit||Ordinary|
|Baptism||Baptism||Of the Season / Sanctoral|
|Feasts of Christ||Epiphany / Holy Week||Incarnation / Paschal|
|Saints’ Days||Preface of Mary, Martyr, Missionary, Apostle, Season, etc||Sanctoral|
|Pastoral Occasions||Preface of Marriage, Illness, Burial, etc||Pastoral|
This arrangement would create five separate Eucharistic prayers: Incarnation, Paschal, Ordinary, Sanctoral, and Pastoral. This would make the theological focus of the different Eucharistic prayers explicitly clear and it would tie them to the liturgical year or pastoral occasion, with the prefaces giving a particular emphasis due to the season. Clergy and laypeople would not be left guessing based on half-remembered and half-correct assumptions passed around in the sacristy or the seminary. We would retain variations but make them easier to navigate, and we would avoid the problem of clergy and leaders avoiding or favoring certain prayers at the expense of others. Furthermore, this ties together the seasons of the church year more closely. Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost are windows into the same Paschal mystery. Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany are facets of the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation. Marriage, healing, and death are linked to the power of Christ at work in our lives and deaths.
(Side note: Perhaps, too, it would be wise to keep parts of the institution narrative, anamnesis, oblation, epiclesis and doxology the same between the Eucharistic Prayers, so that the congregation can know the words and order by heart. By keeping certain elements the same, it highlights the differences in the preface and prayers, and it also clears up ritual confusion. As much as we theologically understand that the order of the elements of the entire Eucharistic Prayer have varied over the centuries, we would do well to keep them in a consistent place and stop pretending that people in the pews are able to follow all these particulars of liturgical theology. Help the people pray.)
Two objections to this approach would be that it would diminish the ability of the priest to make choices and that it would stifle variation and diversity.
To the first objection, I answer as a priest: I would rather make the book easier to use for people in the pews and have the Eucharistic prayer reflect the grand mystery of God instead of our liturgical prayers being overwhelmed by choices that end up being largely arbitrary. As it is now, with the exception of Eucharistic Prayer B being the more “incarnational” of the prayers, we change them up simply to avoid boredom. We could create endless Eucharistic prayers and we as human beings would grow bored of them all. Perhaps the wisdom of the Daily Office can help us to appreciate repetition: if we come to our daily round of worship looking only for excitement and novel inspiration, we will be disappointed; if we come to our daily prayers looking to pray and to encounter God, we will be delighted. If we worry that the Eucharist needs to be exciting, we will always be running after more exciting entertainment in our worship. If we rejoice that truly God is present with us, then we will not be disappointed in our hope.
To the second objection, I would say that we would do better to include diversity in our prayer from the get-go. We should also to recall that it is impossible to say everything that could possibly be said about God. Trying to fit every single possibility into our prayer results in stilted language. We want our prayers to be poetry, and poetry is, by nature, evocative. Poetry says a little, and that little says more than a multitude of words. If we find ourselves perceiving a need for a new Eucharistic prayer for a diocesan convention, pastoral need, or special celebration, then we can carefully build on the formula of the prayer book’s settings instead of creating everything from scratch to try to fit all our own personal theology into it. Let us have Scripture and theology crafted into poetry for us to pray together.
Our next Book of Common Prayer will be guiding the next generations in the worship of God. The prayers we create and use will be written on hearts and lives. People will be praying those words week after week, in the brightness of life and the twilight of death. As we prepare it, we would be wise to craft not just poetic prayers that evoke and invoke the holy, beautiful, powerful majesty of God and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we would be wise also to structure the prayers to make them easy to know and to pray from the depths of our hearts.
The Rev. Joseph Farnes currently serves as rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Boise, ID. He loves questions of liturgy, spirituality, politics, and how to be fabulous in all things. He earned his MDiv from Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX, and his BA in Religion from Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. He previously served as assistant rector at St Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Pittsfield, MA.