History of Saint James’: The Book of Common Prayer

title_pageThe Book of Common Prayer – Its Constancy and Adaptations

Early in our 2016 Bicentennial observance, the liturgy at the main services will be from the 1789 1st American Book of Common Prayer, which was in use in 1816 when Saint James’ Church was established in Warrenton.  Since then, there have been three revisions of the American Book of Common Prayer, the latest in 1979.

Early History

The first Book of Common Prayer was published in London on March 7, 1549.  Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, put the English Bible in parish churches, drew up the Book of Common Prayer and composed a litany that remains in use today.  Cranmer, and like-minded Reformers, insisted that in presenting Christ, obscure languages and rites (e.g.,  Latin) should not stand in the way of allowing people to “hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” sacred truths.  His commitment to English translations of the Bible made it accessible to people in a way it had never been before.  Denounced for promoting Protestantism by the Catholic Queen Mary I, he was convicted of heresy and burned at the stake.  Cranmer left a profound legacy that has come down through the ages.

Modern Times, and development of experimental liturgy in contemporary language 

The American Book of Common Prayer has seen several revisions since its adoption from the Church of England’s prayer book – in 1892, 1928 and 1979 – and not without controversy; however, each revision has provided continuity with the past.  Leading up to the 1979 edition now in use, parishes were introduced to proposed changes as early as 1971.  At Saint James, a liturgy committee was formed by the Rector, the Rev. David Greer, to study the proposals.  For the next 8 years, trial services were held, usually once a month, alternating Rite 1 with Rite 11.  Meetings were held with representatives from Virginia Seminary and the church’s Liturgical Commission; questionnaires were sent to parishioners.

During Lent in 1976, the Piedmont region held a series of Eucharists utilizing ancient forms and more recent practice.  After each service a priest gave a talk pertinent to the form of worship.  The first service was held at Saint James’ in a “catacomb” church at the lowest level of the Education Wing – armed Roman soldiers patrolled Beckham and Culpeper Streets, a password had to be given at the lowest entrance to gain admission.  Curtains were drawn; the only light was a candle on the Communion table.  The service was brief: the words of institution given by our Lord; the communicants received morsels of homemade bread and wine.

The second service was held at Emmanuel Parish House, Middleburg, where stage sets depicted a 4th century basilica.  As Emperor Constantine had made Christianity legitimate (A.D. 330), this service was much longer, with singing.  The third service was at St. Peter’s Purcellville, using an early, mystical, liturgy.   A sheer curtain separated priests and servers from clear view.

At Trinity, Washington, Va., the fourth service was in the form of an Anglo-Saxon Gallic liturgy as might have been held in a 10th century monastery – the choir dressed as monks and singing plain chant.  The fifth service was at Trinity, Upperville (the “Cathedral” of the Region) for a High Mass of the late Middle Ages, according to the Sarum Rite.  There were numerous clergy and servers, a sanctus bell, incense and pax board.

The sixth service was at Leeds, Markham, celebrating Communion such as might have been at colonial Jamestown, using the 1552 Prayer Book.  A seventh service, held at St. Stephen’s Catlett employed the 1928 Prayer Book, with instruction.  For the eighth and final service, a Folk Mass was held at St. James’, Leesburg, using the Great Thanksgiving from Rite II of the new Prayer Book (1979).

At the 1979 General Convention, the revised Prayer Book was adopted.  In May 1980, the Vestry of Saint James’ Church voted to begin using the new Prayer Book at all services and to retire the 1928 Book.

– compiled by Richard Gookin, History Committee, January 2016