From the Sept. 20 Edition of The Living Church.
My copy of Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book is battered and stained. A constant companion since my earliest days as an Episcopalian, it has pointed me to God through difficult times of discernment, the death of loved ones, and many of my life’s greatest joys. I greeted the news of its pending revision with the suspicion associated with a change to grandma’s pie crust recipe or a new route to the family vacation spot at the beach.
But the new edition, edited by David Cobb of Ascension Church, Chicago and Derek Olsen has exceeded my expectations. In his preface, Cobb notes his “genuine affection” for the book, which shines through this very careful and gentle revision of one of the greatest spiritual classics produced within the American Church. The new volume is more than 100 pages longer, beautifully designed, and a convenient size.
Above all, the new edition is a tribute to the devotional usefulness of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The work’s opening section defines its purpose, in part, as helping Christians “prepare for and participate in public liturgy thoughtfully.” Past editions of Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book claimed to be a “devotional companion to the Book of Common Prayer,” but relegated the prayer book to the shadows.
The new edition is consistent about the prayer book’s terminology (“Holy Eucharist,” not “Mass”); its calendar and Psalter; and its distinctive revision of the Daily Office and baptismal theology. Some of the work’s strongest new additions are a detailed commentary on the devotional use of the prayer book’s calendar and its eucharistic rite
This new edition also reflects how mainstream traditional Catholic devotion has become within the Episcopal Church. Published by Forward Movement, it uses language easily accessible to all Episcopalians. A work of greater confidence, it avoids the sectarian contrast between “proper parishes” and the wider church that ran beneath the surface of predecessor versions. The revisers may be overly optimistic in assuming that regular participation in the worship of any Episcopal parish will equip a person to use the book intelligently, but they have lowered barriers to success.
There is a great deal of excellent new material. A fine series of “arrow prayers,” single -sentence prayers for repetition, have been compiled from Scripture. The examinations of conscience, both the brief form for daily use and the extended form for preparing for a confession, are penetrating and comprehensive, and avoid both the mechanistic and vacuous tendencies one finds so often in these resources.
There are many new devotional prayers, especially from medieval Western and Anglican sources. Christina Rossetti’s “Litany of the Incarnate Life” was an especially beautiful discovery, as was a devotional poem of Traherne’s, which acclaims the cross as “the abyss of wonders, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theater of joys, and the place of sorrows.” The seasonal devotions are especially expanded, and help to give the work a more pronounced scriptural and liturgical character.
There are some significant revisions and deletions. Older versions maintained an exotic collection of tidbits from pre-conciliar Roman Catholic devotion, and these have been excised. Holy Hour materials, devotions to the Sacred Heart, and novenas have been curtailed. The very word “sweet” has vanished. In a devotional context, it may have inevitably conjured languishing Victorian spinsters, but I will miss ending the Holy Hour with “Sweet Sacrament, good night!”
Rather more troubling is a tendency to soften the hard edges of traditional devotion. The work’s cherished opening exhortation, “Remember Christian Soul,” converts “a body to mortify” to “a body to use rightly” and “the world to despise” to “the world to enjoy.” The new version also lacks, alas, “devils to combat” and “passions to subdue.”
Even sadder was the deletion of the poignant Prayer of Universal Petition, which I wrote out and affixed to my desk years ago: “Show to me, O my God, the nothingness of this world, the greatness of heaven, the shortness of time, and the length of eternity.” While some pastoral concession was inevitable, one must also search hard in the new edition to learn that the libidos of Christians might be subject to any fixed laws.
The piety of sacrifice and spiritual combat, has, of course, fallen on hard times throughout the Christian world, at least in the West. The Imitatio Christi and “Onward Christian Soldiers” are scarce among Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants. This edition’s new language avoids offense, but it’s less likely to provoke transforming sanctity. The gentle piety of middle- class people with impeccable good taste: — is that all that’s left to us?
This new edition of Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, with its firmly liturgical piety, polished cadences, and world-affirming spiritual vision, is most certainly a useful book for Episcopalians. Many Anglo-Catholics who have remained in the Episcopal Church have fought hard to earn a place at our little table, and this book reflects a triumph in that struggle. Its revisions, though, have also blunted the book’s sharp edges and tamed its distinctive challenge. The book is solidly Episcopalian, but rather less Catholic. This may be a victory of sorts for the Anglo-Catholic movement, but not without its costs.