Episcopal Elucidations

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The 1979 Book of Common Prayer provides a generous amount of flexibility within its rubrics. There are permissive rubrics (the presider or officiant may do something liturgically) and prescriptive rubrics (the presider or officiant must do something). Additionally, there are some isolated places within the BCP that tend to cause more confusion than clarity. This is often the result of a slightly confusing or ambiguous rubric or the presence of “additional directions” of which some presiders or officiants may not be aware. It is helpful to be knowledgeable about such places so that proper liturgical decisions are made in conformity with the intentions of the prayer book designers. Some of these pockets of ambiguity involve ceremonial and ritual actions; others involve the actual layout of liturgies. Here are a few prime suspects.

The Collect for Purity (p. 323 and p. 355): The BCP rubrics note that this is required in Rite I, but it may be omitted in Rite II.

The Confession of Sin (p. 330 and p. 359): The wording of the BCP rubrics clearly implies that the norm at most Eucharists is to have a Confession. While it may be considered a slight stretch of the rubrics, it is a frequent (and logical) practice in the Episcopal Church to omit the Confession of Sin during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. (Note the rubric above the Confession, that it may be omitted “on occasion.”)

A Prayer of St. Chrysostom (p. 59, p. 72, p. 102, and p. 126): Unlike The General Thanksgiving, this prayer is prayed only by the Officiant. The clue lies in the italicized “Amen” at its conclusion. (Compare with the unitalicized “Amen” of The General Thanksgiving.)

Prayer over the Ashes in the Ash Wednesday Liturgy (p. 265): Note that the rubric names it as a prayer, not a blessing. Accordingly, the ceremonial gestures of the presider should reflect this. Touching the ashes or gestures towards the ashes are more appropriate than making the sign of the cross or extending hands over the ashes as at an epiclesis. There is no language in the prayer to suggest that it asks God to sanctify or bless the ashes.

Communication of the Assembly (p. 407): Hiding away in the Additional Directions following the Rite for Holy Eucharist is a rubric that says that “[w]hile the people are coming forward to receive Communion, the celebrant receives the Sacrament in both kinds.” Thus it is clear that the celebrant or presider, followed by assisting ministers, receive Communion before the assembly, and this is done while the people are approaching to receive. This is not a special ceremony done while the people watch. It is to be done as the people come forward to take the Sacrament without undue delay.

The Blessing (p. 339 and 366): The Blessing is required in Rite I and optional in Rite II. Additionally, in Rite II, no specific words are prescribed.

There are also places within the prayer book where rubrics are frequently violated, perhaps inadvertently. For instance, most Episcopal churches seem to split the Blessing at the end of the Eucharist and the Dismissal with a hymn. Technically, this is not permitted by the rubrics. Moreover, the reason why it is not permitted is theological, an intentional move on behalf of the prayer book framers. (See Patrick Malloy’s discussion of this.)

Another interesting issue regarding the prayer book involves the use of traditional or contemporary language. In some parishes that use Rite One exclusively, an issue arises when using either the Proper Liturgies for Special Days or when choosing Eucharistic Prayers. For instance, some parishes, for theological reasons, may not wish to limit their Eucharistic Prayers to those based on Cranmer’s rather specific atonement theology as expressed in Eucharistic Prayers I and II. The prayer book explicitly allows for Rite II liturgies to be “back-translated” into traditional languages (see p. 14). Thus one could carry out a Rite I liturgy and use the additional Eucharistic Prayers (A, B, C, and D) provided for in Rite II. This would open up a variety of atonement theologies to expand on Cranmer’s narrowly-defined substitutionary atonement theology, which is the basic foundation of Eucharistic Prayers I and II.

Undoubtedly, there are other areas within the prayer book liturgies that pose similar questions about how to read rubrics and how to observe them faithfully. Yet these examples show the importance of heeding the theology behind rubrics, as well as the need for intentionality when approaching the liturgies as presider or officiant.


The Rev. Kyle Babin, DMA, is administrative assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, a senior M.Div. student at the seminary, and a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

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