The Liturgical Revolution: Prayer Book Revision and Associated Parishes: A Generation of Change in the Episcopal Church
By Michael Moriarty
Church Hymnal Corporation 272 pp. $21.95

Step into an Episcopal Church, pick up The Book of Common Prayer, and you’re likely to find pages gilded with stains after more than twenty years of regular use. Flip to the title page, and you may find the word “Proposed” at the top. Many parishes never replaced these copies of the proposed texts, which were published in 1976 after a series of trial-use paperbacks that earned such playful nicknames as “The Zebra Book” and “The Blue Whale.”

These battered books are memorials of the decades-long movement to adapt what Episcopalians once called “our incomparable liturgy” to modernity. Revising the Prayer Book involved ten years of trial use (from 1967 to 1976) and required the approval of two successive General Conventions (1976 and 1979). In The Liturgical Revolution , Michael Moriarty offers a thorough and celebratory history of Associated Parishes, second only to the Standing Liturgical Commission as a key player in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical reform.

Associated Parishes had a humble beginning. Four priests first met in 1946 for a “four-day unstructured meeting” to discuss their hopes for liturgical revision. By November of that year, the group grew to a dozen priests who met in Washington, D.C., and incorporated as Associated Parishes. In 1950, AP began publishing popular and influential brochures explaining the liturgy of the 1928 Prayer Book. Nearly one thousand clergy were using AP materials by 1960.

“AP’s public stance from its founding through the early 1960s was one of uncritical loyalty to the Prayer Book,” Moriarty writes. “AP tried to make the most of the Prayer Book as it stood and treaded carefully among the rubrics when it encouraged liturgical experimentation. AP’s publications did not even hint that a revision of the Prayer Book might be desirable. AP saw its task as educating the church for liturgical renewal.”

That changed in 1968, the year after General Convention approved trial use of new texts, and AP threw its energy into Prayer Book reform. The years AP members spent in discussion with the Benedictine author Dom Gregory Dix while making the best of the 1928 liturgy came to fruition. Three AP members, and later six, served on the Standing Liturgical Commission, which coordinated the revisions. Nine AP members served on eight drafting committees.

The revolution included a good deal of silliness. The Joy Box, for instance, provided comic relief at the Special General Convention of 1969, which was devoted mostly to shouting matches about black liberation and the Vietnam War. Moriarty describes the box, quoting from AP’s own journal, titled Open:

The box was a big contraption that people were invited to step into. Standing outside the box were a couple of bermuda-shorted, knobby-kneed clerics who were in place as the front men for the Associated Parishes exhibit and Vienna Anderson, a sylph-like . . . perfectly stunning creature to look at . . . .

Passing through a beaded curtain, people found themselves in utter darkness. As they groped around they encountered one another, and sooner or later realized they were meant to explore. Touching the buttons set off strobe lights. Pleasant gurgley noises. Sirens, bells, horns . . . .

Emerging from the Joy Box, each person was offered a button saying “BE” and bread and wine.

Moriarty also quotes from an AP description of Eucharist-as-picnic, which he kindly describes as “the last word in liturgical romanticism”:

Then each of us, wearing vestments and stoles, went alone to meditate on a piece of bread and cup of wine, drinking and eating and feeling, bringing back enough to feed each other. The Eucharistic Prayer was put in constellation fashion with a contribution from each one of us and a gathering by Bill Wendt, the central celebrant. At the great moment of communion, Bill simply said, “Feed each other.”

Nothing so touchy-feely as “Feed each other” found its way into the 1979 Prayer Book, thanks to the slow-turning gears of the Standing Liturgical Commission and General Convention, but the spirit of the picnic Eucharist lives on. Today, some Episcopal bishops say the Lord’s Supper should be open to anyone who shows up, and not just to baptized Christians. (The Apostle Paul, already dismissed as a sexist, self-loathing homosexual, must have been wrong on this as well.)

Moriarty, an adjunct assistant professor at Notre Dame, served on AP’s council from 1980 to 1985, and his book is decidedly pro-revision. He offers no hint that various bishops prohibited use of the 1928 book by traditionalist parishes. Occasionally he mentions an enticing detail, such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead serving on a drafting committee, but doesn’t pursue it far. Moriarty notes that Otis Charles, AP’s first executive secretary, became the Bishop of Utah, but he neglects Charles’ more exotic choices later in his career, such as suspending marriage rites in the chapel at Episcopal Divinity School as a protest against the prohibition of same-sex blessings, and becoming the first Episcopal bishop to go public as a homosexual. Such details are not central to a history of Associated Parishes, but they are important previews of the battles surrounding the next revision of the Prayer Book.

Moriarty correctly identifies the 1928 Prayer Book as “the last Cranmerian liturgy,” and he calls the 1979 version a “Prayer Book for a post-Christendom Church.” As Moriarty indicates, the 1979 book de-emphasizes atonement theology. Massey Shepherd, a key architect of the 1979 book, wrote that “The mood of the newer theology today is distinctly existentialist, relativistic, and anti-dogmatic. It leans much upon the insights of physics and psychology.”

Most Episcopalians have made their peace with the 1979 book, just in time to undergo another round of Prayer Book revision. In 1994, the Episcopal Church’s Committee for the Status of Women called for a new version to be ready by 2006, but General Convention and the Standing Liturgical Commission have both taken a “not quite yet” stance. Moriarty mentions that Associated Parishes hopes to “eliminate” Rite I (a concession to those who loved the 1928 book’s Tudor English) and The 39 Articles of Religion (already relegated to “Historical Documents”) from future versions of the Prayer Book.

Meanwhile, several dioceses unsuccessfully petitioned the 1997 General Convention to authorize Book of Occasional Services rites for blessing homosexual unions. (They failed by only one vote.) The Committee for the Status of Women has targeted “oppressive” father language for God, and others surely will consider the remaining atonement theology inappropriate for twenty-first-century Episcopalians.

Although trial use could not begin until General Convention amended the church Constitution, the Episcopal Church is now in a state of semi-permanent trial use. Many parishes use Supplemental Liturgical Materials (1991), which takes the church closer to modalist language for God, or A New Zealand Prayer Book , with its torturous prayer to God as “Earth-maker, pain-bearer, life-giver.” The Rev. Clayton Morris, liturgical officer at denomination headquarters, believes the 1979 book may be the last revision distributed the old-fashioned way, as paper between covers.

Perhaps within the next decade, as parishes download the liturgical flavors of the month from the Internet, traditionalists will look back in gratitude that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer preserved as much as it did of trinitarian orthodoxy.

Douglas L. LeBlanc edits United Voice , the national newspaper of Episcopalians United for Revelation, Renewal, and Reformation.