Why Every Parish Needs Liturgical Customaries

Officiant putting on incense at Evensong

It would be a good idea for all parishes to have working customaries for liturgies. It’s tempting to think that only parishes with many elaborate liturgies need customaries, but the truth is that a customary is invaluable and helpful for even the simplest of liturgies and for even the smallest of parishes with few services. There are several reasons for this.

First, the Book of Common Prayer (1979), as the guiding framework of Episcopal liturgies, offers minimal guidance on ceremonial. The Book of Common Prayer respects the vast amount of variety and flexibility in practice that is inherent within the Anglican liturgical tradition. To this end, the rubrics rarely touch on ceremonial specifics. Of course, this doesn’t mean that certain ceremonial actions are not allowed; quite the contrary. It just means that it’s up to each local context to determine what ceremonial works best given the liturgical space and local customs, working within the barebones guidelines provided by the prayer book. While there are various published ceremonial manuals that can provide assistance in this regard, each parish needs to document the particular practices that have been decided upon for that context. For this, a customary is essential.

Second, a customary can alleviate, to a certain extent, liturgical anxiety. Nerves normally run high for those who serve in liturgies, even in their simplest form. Having a written customary that can be distributed to all who serve allows for everyone to be working off the same page, literally. A well-devised customary is a supplement to in-person training. Both are essential. The mimetic ritual of going through the motions in training is important, but a written document of those rituals is extraordinarily helpful for those who need to brush up on details or drill them into their memories prior to serving in the liturgy. Prayerful liturgy is liturgy that is non-anxious, or certainly, it should appear non-anxious. Having a clear “game-plan” enables those serving in the liturgy to worry about one fewer thing. In short, it frees them to pray. Again, a customary is an aid in this regard.

Third, a customary ensures that ritual is, in fact, a series of repeatable actions—that there is some degree of consistency from liturgy to liturgy so that people are shaped and formed by embodied ritual actions. Just as in a game of “telephone” words are distorted little by little until, at the end of the line, the original word is perhaps wholly changed, in liturgy, small ritual actions can change week after week until the initial form is non-existent or unrecognizable. Change and flexibility in liturgy are, of course, natural and desirable, but liturgy also resists rapid change to a large extent, simply due to its conservative nature. A customary is helpful in maintaining a sturdy skeleton for liturgical actions so that when change is really necessary, it can be developed in consultation with that ceremonial framework.

Devising a customary is relatively simple. It should, first and foremost, be viewed as a working, living document. It will need to be adapted over the course of time. But as a starting place, it involves writing down the regular ceremonial actions within the liturgy. Here are a few tips:

  • Instructions should be simple and clear enough so that anyone reading the customary can summon a mental picture of the liturgical actions described. In many cases—especially in more elaborate liturgical scenarios—basic diagrams or drawings can also be helpful. This is relatively easy to implement with modern technology and word processing programs.
  • The customary is probably best composed as a series of pithy steps in a sequence of events, rather than long paragraphs of discursive writing.
  • Notes on preparation of the liturgical space prior to a liturgy are essential at the beginning. A checklist is ideal.
  • It is helpful to include notes on vesture so that there is uniformity.
  • Specify the order of persons in processions.
  • Define any liturgical terms that might not be familiar to some reading the document.
  • Not every detail needs to be micromanaged (the ceremonial should not feel rigid or “stuffy”), but sufficient detail is important. It’s a balancing act.
  • Once you’ve devised your working customary, have someone who is not an acolyte or liturgical server read through what you’ve come up with. Like any good editor, they can bring a pair of objective eyes to your project.

Liturgy is the central act of any worshipping Christian community. It’s the source of all we do in the Christian life. And so it’s important that due attention be given to the liturgical details. Creating working customaries for your parish can be a step toward facilitating prayerful, beautiful, and seamless liturgies.


The Rev. Dr. Kyle Babin is Administrative Assistant for the Center for Liturgy and Music, a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and an M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary.