Book Review: The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents by E. Clowes Chorley.

Book Review: The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents by E. Clowes Chorley.

Chorley, E. Clowes, The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents. London: The MacMillan Company, 1929, 139 pp (1).

Biographical Sketch

Edward Clowes Chorley was born in Manchester, England on May 6, 1865, and is best known as the historiographer of the Episcopal Church from 1919 to 1949. He earned his undergraduate degree from Richmond College in England in 1888. Upon immigrating to the United States, he was ordained as an Episcopal deacon and later priest in 1902. He served most of his ministry in various parishes in New York. In 1915, he became the historiographer of the Diocese of New York, a position he served along with his later duties as historiographer of the Episcopal Church until his death. Among his best-known works are The New American Prayer Book (1929), and Men and Movements in the American Episcopal Church (1946). Chorley is also known for his work in establishing the The Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which is still published under the name Anglican and Episcopal History. On November 2, 1949, he died in Cold Spring, New York (2).

Summary of Contents

The New American Prayer Book was written to introduce the American 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the clergy and faithful of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America prior to the new prayer book’s introduction for general use as the official liturgical text. As the official historiographer for the Church, Chorley was the logical choice to author such a work. Over the course of eight chapters, Chorley briefly outlines the history of the Book of Common Prayer from its ancient and medieval antecedents, through the various English prayer books, to the American prayer books, ending with a discussion of the formation and features of the 1928 edition.

The first chapter begins with a discussion of the numerous services and liturgical resources of the pre-Reformation Church as used in England, and proceeds to describe the conditions that led to the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. These conditions included a desire to simplify the liturgy, render it into a language that the people could understand, teach the Scriptures to the people in the course of the liturgy, and provide a single liturgy for use in the Reformed English Church. The 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, also known as the First Prayer Book of Edward VI, was “frankly a compromise between the old and the new learning; an endeavor to preserve all that was of proven value in the old [pre-Reformation Church] and to embrace and embody the new ideas and aspirations [of the Reformation].” Chorley presents the 1552 and 1559 prayer books as being influenced by “radical” bishops who were intent on removing anything from the liturgy that seemed too indicative of “popery” and noted that Parliament passed these books without consulting Convocation. The 1604 Prayer Book was further influenced by Reformed sentiment and included numerous concessions to the growing Puritan movement, which eventually temporarily abolished the use of the Book of Common Prayer as well as the monarchy in England.  Upon Restoration of the monarchy (and thus also the Prayer Book), the 1662 Prayer Book began to be developed. While the Puritans and Presbyterians made many demands to bring the new prayer book into yet further conformity to the continental Reformed churches, most of these demands were rejected as being “of dangerous consequence . . . or else of no consequence at all, but utterly frivolous and vain.”  When the Church of England spread to the New World, the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer was its official text, and remains the official liturgical text of the Church of England to this day.

In the second chapter, Chorley describes the various unofficial changes to the liturgy that different parishes and dioceses made to the Prayer Book after the American Revolution. Generally, these had to do with omitting or changing the prayers for the English monarchy and royalty to better suit the reality of civil life in the newly independent nation. The third chapter describes the “Proposed Book” of 1789, which was a radical departure from historic Anglican liturgical practice, including the revision or omission of the Creeds, extensive editing of the Psalms, and omission of large swaths of the various services. Fortunately, the “Proposed Book” was soundly rejected by majority of the clergy and lay faithful in the new Church.

Ultimately, very conservative revisions were made to the 1662 prayer book, resulting in the establishment of the first American Book of Common Prayer in 1789 (discussed in the fourth chapter). The most significant changes involved the adaptation of state prayers that were appropriate to a democracy and the adoption of the Scottish Prayer Book’s prayer of consecration. The Scottish Episcopal Church had not undergone the various revisions toward a more Reformed theology that the Church of England had, and thus was more reminiscent of the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Additionally, the first American bishop was consecrated by the Scottish Church rather than the English Church, providing the ecclesiastical connection that is still evident in the liturgical connection to this day. The fifth chapter discusses various additions and amendments to the 1789 American prayer book, the most significant of which was the adoption of the 1801 edition of the 39 Articles of Religion as an appendix. This version of the Articles adopted several minor changes to the original 39 Articles of Religion that mostly dealt with the realities of political and civil life in a democracy rather than under a king.

The 1789 prayer book remained in use for over 100 years, but was ultimately revised in 1892. While there were attempts at extensive revisions, both by low churchmen and high churchmen, the final revisions were minimal and are described in the sixth chapter. Many low churchmen eventually left the Church to found the Reformed Episcopal Church. Most of the rejected proposals by high churchmen eventually found their way into the 1928 Prayer Book. The majority of actual revisions took the form of additions to the occasional prayers and options for shortening the services, as thought to be better fit for 19th Century life.

Due to the relative conservatism of the 1892 prayer book, it had a very short shelf life of less than thirty years. In the final two chapters, Chorley describes the process of revision that led to the 1928 Prayer Book and to the potential the 1928 Prayer Book had for enriching the liturgical and devotional life of the Church. Theologically, the 1928 Prayer Book returned many of the abandoned aspects of the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer that had made it such a good compromise between the ancient and medieval church and the Reformation. The most important of these features included a more robust theology of the Real Presence in the Eucharist and a more robust theology of the Communion of Saints. Both of these doctrines are in better conformity with the ancient church than had been typical of the post-Reformation prayer books. On the other hand, the 1928 Prayer Book allowed for greater variety in the services and greater latitude for ministers to lengthen or shorten the services as they deemed appropriate for their respective congregational needs. To Chorley, this represented the best of possible worlds for Anglican liturgy.

Evaluation and Application

While Chorley states in the introduction that his goal is to be an impartial observer with regards to the liturgical development of the Church, his High Church bias is evident throughout the work. As Chorley is attempting to show the development and continuity of the (then) new American liturgy with the ancient and medieval Church, this bias is not only natural, but somewhat expected. Indeed, I rather welcomed the tone created by Chorley's bias.  Among Continuing Anglicans, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer is on its 76th year of use at the time of the writing of this review, and has no signs of being replaced. It is very likely that it will continue to be used and published long past its 103rd birthday, surpassing the original American Prayer Book. This is not because such traditionalists are frozen in time, but because we do indeed see the 1928 Prayer Book as presenting the best of Reformed Catholicism in liturgical form (ironically, the Reformed Episcopal Church, which had been formed  in part to oppose many of the changes that eventually made their way into the 1928 Prayer Book,  has now adapted as its official liturgy either the 1928 Prayer Book or a nigh-identical adaptation thereof). Since the we believe the old liturgical aphorism lex orandi, lex credendi, (the law of prayer is the law of belief) to be true, why fix what they don’t see to be broken?

That said, I personally remain critical of a few aspects of the revision. Chiefly, this concerns the revision of the Daily Office Lectionary, especially in its current form as set in 1945. While any bible reading plan is better than none, the 1945 version of the 1928 daily office lectionary is more of an overview of the bible in the context of the Church Year than it is a systematic method for teaching and learning the Scriptures. This is a major departure from the principles of liturgical reform that went into the English Reformation, where the Ministry of the Word was as important as the Ministry of the Sacrament. That is, as important as proper Sacramental practice and theology are, one of the main stated purposes of the Book of Common Prayer has always been to provide a vehicle for the whole of Scripture (or the greater part thereof) to be read in the context of common prayer. Unfortunately, the 1945 Daily Office Lectionary continues the trend in revisions of the Prayer Book, in which each successive revision includes less Scripture in the Daily Office Lectionary.

On the other hand, by framing the Daily Office Lectionary in the context of the Church Year rather than in the more consistent civil calendar year, the lessons and psalms are in greater continuity between Sundays and weekdays. This can be very edifying to the faithful and help enhance the potential for discipleship and spiritual formation of the Church Year, giving the Daily Office Lectionary more of a devotional function than a bible study function. One way to make up for the dearth of Scripture in this model is to use it in conjunction with the cross-references provided in many bibles, or to supplement it with a more systematic reading plan.

As far as the history of the prayer book is concerned, I was rather shocked to see how radical some of the earlier editions of the prayer book actually were, especially the “Proposed Book” here in America. I had assumed that radical prayer book revisionism was a 20th Century problem; how wrong I was! Among our bishops in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), the problems of revisionism seem to be generally well-recognized, and they generally realize that the radical shifts in doctrine and practice that we have seen among Western Anglicans in the last fifty years have their roots in radical revisionism in our liturgy. Indeed, the lex orandi, lex credendi principle cuts both ways. Fortunately, the proposed ACNA liturgies have returned in most respects to the theology and forms we see in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, the ACNA bishops have stated that they expect that parishes who wish to use “traditional English” in their liturgies will continue to use the 1928 Prayer Book, with the eventual ACNA  Prayer Book being a modern-English alternative.

One of the scandals of the Continuing Anglican movement is the tendency to abandon one of its founding liturgical principles: the continued use of the American 1928 (and Canadian 1962) Prayer Book in the face of liturgical revisionism. There has been a tendency to use unauthorized texts (including Roman Catholic liturgies and other  texts from outside the Anglican Communion) instead of the Book of Common Prayer, in an attempt to be extra-traditional or extra-Anglo-Catholic. While there is certainly latitude within the rubrics to supplement the prayer book with hymns, minor propers, occasional services and whatnot from other authorized texts, there is no justification for replacing the Book of Common Prayer, even with such popular texts as the “Anglican Missal.” To do so is just as revisionist as the liturgical revisionists from whom the Continuing Anglicans were separating. Whether acquiescing to theological liberalism or to traditional Roman Catholicism through an English filter, revisionism is revisionism.

As a parish that uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer exclusively (indeed, our parish bylaws require us to do so), the potential edification that can come from knowing the history of our prayer book cannot be over estimated. By better knowing our history, we can better understand our present. This is especially true when we are confronted by advocates of liturgical revision that wonder why we would continue to use an old liturgy with old language.

In the final analysis, The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents is a good resource for those who are interested in our liturgical pedigree. This is especially true for postulants and clergy. If this Prayer Book is truly as valuable as we believe it to be, it behooves us to know its history and formation, as well as its antecedents.



(1). The reference cited above is for a used copy of the physical book for sale on a secondary-market website. For the purposes of this review, I accessed an online version of the book from Project Canterbury. This version has an introductory page with a table of contents that links to each chapter as its own webpage. All quotations and citations in this review, with the exception of the Biographical Sketch section (see below), are from their respective chapters of the online version of the book, cited as follows:

“The New American Prayer Book: Its History and Contents.” Chorley, E. Clowes. 1929. Accessed March 14, 2015.

(2). “Chorley, Edward Clowes.” The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. 2015. Accessed March 14, 2015.

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