The 1979 Revision of the Book of Common Prayer and the Superchurch: How the Church Deals with Change


Tyler Fuller

The current version of the Book of Common Prayer saw its final revisions and establishment as the authoritative book of the Anglican Church in 1662. To this day, this 1662 version remains the primary document of the church in all its represented sects around the world as well as select Christian groups that closely align themselves with the Anglican Church. Over the course of time, however, the authority of the historical text has been tested. Beginning not long after the initial authorization of the 1662 version, changes, revisions, and new editions were proposed, but it was not until 1979 that the version currently used in the United States was finalized. This 1979 version, however, was rejected by Parliament, and the Anglican Church in England still holds the 1662 Thomas Cranmer-approved edition as its central document. Much controversy surrounded the implantation of the 1979 version, so much so that it caused rifts not only in the central church in England but also in the States.

Followers of the Anglican faith (the Episcopalians) in America were split about the infusion of a new Book of Common Prayer for use in their churches. Dr. Charity Waymouth, an Episcopalian minister out of Maine, advocated the administering of a new version of the Book of Common Prayer, telling the Washington Post in a 1979 interview that:

The important thing about any worship is what we do outside the church afterwards.I do not go to my laboratory or my office or my store speaking Elizabethan English. I like to relate what I do in worship to what I do in life (Hyer 1979).

Alternatively, an unnamed Texan woman is quoted as telling the Post in 1979 that the usage of “you” when speaking to God is inappropriate, stating that “There can be little doubt, I believe, that God cares how we address him” (Hyer 1979).

In America, both the criticisms and praise for the implication of the revised 1979 version stem from the same issue: its ‘modernized’ phrasing, wording, and overall contemporized style. It followed the Roman model by “offering multiple versions of the same rites” (Jacobs 179). As evidenced by the statements from the 1979 Washington Post report, supporters of the new version lauded its usage of more modern style and praised its less formal, but still traditional practices and prayers. More strict, traditionalist churchgoers felt the changes lost the historical regality of the original document, but were forced, in essence, to adopt the new book as it was established by the Episcopal Church in September of 1979.

In England, the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer caused less of a rift amongst the Anglican community, and rather more of an inconvenience, instead. The higher authorities of the church approved the Alternative Service Book in 1974 for use in churches to ensure the 1662 Cranmer version of the Book of Common Prayer was not altered and to avoid any entanglements with Parliament with regards to the 1662 text and the law surrounding it. Unfortunately, this resulted in the Cranmer book falling to the wayside for many over the course of the next few decades. Regardless, despite the controversy surrounding the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, the timeless 1662 edition remains the primary text of the Anglican church in England to this day.

The controversy that emerged as a result of the proposal of the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, along with the controversy that has surrounded nearly every attempted revision or new edition to the text since its creation, beg the question: is the church resistant to change? Now more than ever one can look around any given town of reasonable population and see what many refer to as ‘superchurches.’ These massive, totally contemporized churches often feature rock or pop-style music before, during, and after services, massive congregations, and, more often than not, an exceedingly laid-back atmosphere. These churches also typically welcome a variety of denominations, from Episcopalian to Southern Baptist and everything in between. Much like the traditionalist complaints surrounding the revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, I have heard firsthand complaints from individuals who can only be described as seasoned churchgoers with very old-fashioned opinions that these superchurches are vile and an inappropriate locale for the very serious practice of worship. This ‘old-fashioned’ point of view is in no way a bad thing, though it does expose a flaw in the mentality of the church in that it is quite resistant to change. These superchurches, for better or worse, are bringing in unprecedented numbers to their congregations which can roughly be translated into saying that more people are going to church now than before these churches started popping up. Granted, some flock to these establishments because of the ‘hip’ style and association of popularity that tends to come along with going to the big church in town. This is far from the reason one should attend church, but, even for those only attended because it is the ‘cool’ thing to do, religion has become a large part of a growing number of people which can only mean good things for the church.

From the 1979 revisions of the Book of Common Prayer to the growth of superchurches, one can only surmise that change has a resounding effect on the church and those who attend. Both the 1979 controversy over the modernized and inclusive additions and revisions to the Book of Common Prayer as well as the stigma amongst traditional church goers that superchurches are evil prove that some members of the church-going community have issues with changing the traditional ways of doing things. However, if one were to sit back and take a look, the changes implicated in both instances opened the door for a new generation of religion and church practice. Perhaps the issues from the older generations is less about change and more about inclusivity. Had the Book of Common Prayer remained its original, Elizabethan English version from 1662 in the United States, who knows how today’s hip and modern church audience would have welcomed it into their lives? An overwhelming and successful resistance to change could have resulted in either the Book of Common Prayer or the Episcopalian denomination as a whole becoming obsolete. In addition, if the superchurch were to one day disappear, the number of younger, modern-minded church goers could fall to near zero, as the traditional style of church just does not hold the same intrigue with today’s youth as it may have at some point in the past.

Perhaps change is good for the church, perhaps not, only time will tell. Up to this point, though, change has left the church in a better place so long as it is welcomed.