Redeeming the Time, Part 2

Redeeming the Time: Part II

(The second 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 the first article in this series, we began to reflect on the Book of Alternative Services thirty years after its publication. This article looks at the scholarship which was behind the construction and shaping of the services in the BAS. One of the features of the Book of Alternative Services which people really appreciated was the essays and explanatory material which prefaced many of the rites. For example, one can find on pages 36-43 of the BAS an historical introduction and practical rationale for the services to be used for Daily Prayer. This explanatory material was meant to justify the changes which had been made to the structure of the traditional rites, and to give meaning to the options which were available. It should be noted that adding this kind of educational matter to a service book was not an innovation with the BAS. Roman Missals printed for the use of the laity before the Second Vatican Council often had explanatory essays prefacing the rites proper, and traditional pious devotional manuals for Anglican laity also had mini-essays of topical instruction interspersed with the liturgical material.

The major problem with the instructional essays in the Book of Alternative Services today is that they reflect the liturgical scholarship of the 1970s. This is readily verifiable by looking at the endnotes which follow the essays (see p.182 of the BAS for an example). Now a person who is working in the hard sciences such as physics or biology would not be looking at scientific papers published in the 1970s for guidance in their research proposals, he or she would look at the most recent scholarship available. Biblical scholars only refer to papers written in the 1970s to contrast what was thought then with what is being proposed now. In the same way, what the essays in the BAS reflect is the liturgical scholarship as it appeared forty years ago. Much water has passed under the bridge since that time.

In order to underscore the above point, I want to give some concrete examples. In 1945 an Anglican Benedictine Monk named Gregory Dix published an extremely influential book entitled, The Shape of the Liturgy. Because there were almost no other scholarly liturgical works available in English to rival it, and because it was well written in an erudite but accessible style, The Shape of the Liturgy dominated liturgical thinking in Anglican circles long after its publication. All Anglican liturgical revisions and service books produced in the 1960s and 1970s bear witness to the influence of Gregory Dix. Unfortunately, Dix often passed off his own personal theories and conjectures as historical fact and subsequent historical research has shown how often Dix was mistaken in his hypotheses. Robert Taft, a contemporary Jesuit liturgical scholar, when writing about the history of the Divine Office, could only exclaim in exasperation: “I trust that the historical sources already adduced suffice to show how totally wrong Dix is in almost every aspect of [his] interpretation.”

It was Gregory Dix who popularized the theory that an ancient work containing liturgical rites called The Apostolic Tradition was the work of an early third century Roman bishop named Hippolytus. This work contains rites for ordination, baptism, and the eucharist. Assuming the authorship is correct, it would mean that this work contains the earliest known written eucharistic prayer which has come down to us. This is the conjecture behind the following note in the introductory essay to the eucharist in the BAS: “Eucharistic Prayer 2–The model for this prayer is that which is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c.215). This is one of the most ancient eucharistic prayers that has come down to us. It has served as the basis for a number of Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist revisions as well as for the second of the new Roman Catholic eucharistic prayers.”

While it is true that the prayer in question has served as a model for many modern eucharistic prayers, no serious liturgical scholar today could assert the first part of this note without much qualification. No existing manuscript of the work bears a title. That this document has been identified with an otherwise unknown treatise, the Apostolic Tradition, rests on the hypothesis that it can be identified with a work included in a list of the writings of Hippolytus found on the base of statue unearthed in Rome in 1551. Recent research has revealed that the statue is not a representation of Hippolytus at all, but a female figure which was altered in the 16th century to look like a male bishop to match the list of works inscribed on its base. Furthermore, there was more than one cleric in third century Rome named Hippolytus, and thus it is not clear to whom the corpus of Hippolytean works should be attributed. In 1992, less than ten years after the publication of the Book of Alternative Services, the Anglican liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw cautioned: “This church order [the Apostolic Tradition] therefore deserves to be treated with greater circumspection than has generally been the case, and one ought not automatically to assume that it provides reliable information about the life and liturgical activity of the church in Rome in the early third century.”

The problem with all of this is that more than one contemporary Canadian Anglican priest has celebrated Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the BAS while claiming that in doing so people were celebrating the eucharist in exactly the same way it was celebrated by the early Church. Those kinds of assertions have been shown to be based on historical fallacies and not on fact.

In summary, the Book of Alternative Services was constructed on the basis of liturgical scholarship as it existed in the 1970s. More recent scholarship has shown that some of what was thought to be ancient was not, and much of what was thought to be of medieval origin was actually more ancient than first supposed. The BAS is no longer a progressive work of contemporary praise, but rather a compilation of outdated theories of Christian worship. This does not imply that it cannot be used for worship, but it does suggest that it no longer represents the best of what is available today for the worthy celebration of God’s praise.

References cited:

  1. Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy. (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1945).
  2. Robert Taft, The Liturgy of the Hours in East and West, 2nd Revised Edn. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993) 332.
  3. Paul Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) 92.


View Part 3 of this Series

Redeeming the Time, Part 2