Redeeming the Time: Part I
(The first of three essays written in 2015 by the Revd. Gordon Maitland, PBSC National Chairman, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Book of Alternative Services in 1985.)
In September of 1985 I was in the last year of my undergraduate degree in philosophy and was already looking forward to entering seminary and training for the priesthood. I was a server and a chorister and had served on my church’s parish council. The Archbishop of Niagara, John Bothwell, was travelling around to various churches in the Diocese to promote the new service book which was published in that year: The Book of Alternative Services. Although many folk were suspicious of the new book (including myself), the Archbishop assured us that with the introduction of the new book we could look forward to young people streaming back into church as they would no longer be alienated by the archaic Book of Common Prayer. Since change was in the air and the book’s imposition appeared to be inevitable, I dutifully went to the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto and purchased my first copy of the BAS. It was the first edition of the book, a softcover version which was never to be reprinted. It also had a number of typos which were corrected in the second and subsequent printings. At least in the Diocese of Niagara, the BAS rapidly replaced the BCP as the chief book of worship in almost every parish. In my wife’s church in Hamilton the rector boxed up all the BCPs in the church and consigned them to the church basement. The congregation was simply told that it was the Bishop’s wish that the BAS be used and that it would be henceforth the only book they would use. Remarkably enough, young people were not seen to be streaming into church.
It is now thirty years since the publication of the Book of Alternative Services, and it would be useful to look at the present state of this book in the life of the Anglican Church of Canada. The BAS is now the de facto prayer book of the Canadian church and it would be foolish to deny this reality. However, it would also be foolish to continue to assert (as some do) that the BAS has been an unmitigated blessing to the Anglican Church of Canada as well. When the Prayer Book Society of Canada (PBSC) was formed in 1986 it was claimed that the Society was a divisive force that would prevent the realization of a new uniformity to be found in the BAS. What is now clear thirty years on is that the BAS opened the door to a chaotic liturgical pluriformity which continues to fracture the life of the Canadian church. One can no longer travel from church to church and assume that a contemporary language liturgy used in one church will bear any resemblance to the contemporary language liturgy used in another church. Will a Creed be said, and if so, which one? Will there be a confession and absolution or some other form of penitential rite? Will the Eucharistic Prayer be one of the eight found in the Book of Alternative Services, one of the three found in the Supplementary Liturgical Material, one of the eleven found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, or one drawn from another source altogether? While there are many who celebrate this great diversity, it does not make it easy for a person to become familiar with the prayers, salutations and canticles in the liturgical rites, and thus to internalize them and make them one’s own. One could also argue that the great diversity of liturgical options to be found in contemporary Anglicanism encourages a congregationalism which is straining the unity of the church.
The Book of Alternative Services was, at first, only authorized for a ten-year period, after which a revised book was supposed to replace it. However, by 1995 the decline in Anglican parishioners and a failed National Church fundraising campaign meant that money to develop a new book was gone. It was also clear that the (apparently) unforeseen resistance to the BAS meant that clergy and people no longer had the will (or the money) to replace all their service books again in the space of a decade. Other than the replacement of an older form of the common Sunday Eucharistic lectionary by the Revised Common Lectionary, the BAS has remained unchanged for thirty years. This is in contrast to the Church of England which replaced its 1980 Alternative Service Book (ASB) by a much superior Common Worship book in the year 2000. A hymn book to go with the BAS (Common Praise) did not appear until 1998, thirteen years after the BAS, its publication long delayed by issues of copyright in regards to contemporary music.
In the second and third of this series of essays we will look more closely at some issues surrounding the Book of Alternative Services thirty years after its publication. We will look at the outdated liturgical scholarship which informed the BAS and consider the fact that the “contemporary” liturgical prose used in that book has now been abandoned by the Roman Catholic Church which gave us those liturgical texts in the first place. We will also consider how the desacralized and secularized way in which the BAS is used fails to speak to a younger generation now attuned to a postmodern world. Make no mistake about it; unlike the perennial character of the Book of Common Prayer, the Book of Alternative Services now resembles those would-be modernistic A-frame churches which were built in the 1960s and are now objects of amusement because they were dated almost the moment they were built. Those who love the Book of Common Prayer may yet have the last laugh.