The Shape Fallacy: The Book of Common Prayer as Text
Front cover and spine of The Book of Common Prayer (bound with goatskin)
Printed by Thomas Buck and Roger Daniel, 1638

The Reformers were concerned not only with theology but also with its expression in worship. Many liturgies were produced in the churches of the magisterial Reformation in Germany, England, Switzerland, and elsewhere.[2] As the Reformers revised the mass and daily offices, they invariably pulled away from notions of eucharistic sacrifice and purgatorial respite, pruned luxuriant ceremonies, and placed new emphasis on the reading and preaching of the Scriptures. In the English-speaking world, the most widely used of these Reformation liturgies is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).

There have been many revisions of and variations in the BCP. But from the final edition of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1552 to the culminating edition in 1662, the revisions were modest. No structural changes, subtle but not radical shifts in theology, generally a little taking in here and a little letting out there.[3] Apart from state occasions, such as the commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot, only two services were added to the BCP in those 110 years: a form of baptism for adults and forms of prayer to be used by the royal navy. Even these services were not creative exercises by liturgical commissions but were instead responses to the threatened depredations, respectively, of Anabaptist preachers and Spanish pirates.

After 1662, the revisions actually enacted were more modest still. For over two hundred years there would be changes in the names of the monarch and royal family, but little else.

Outside of England, the various national Anglican churches began producing their own BCPs, beginning with Scotland in 1637 and the United States in 1789, but picking up steam in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet there was still remarkable continuity. These books were recognizable as developments from the classic BCP. But today that is no longer true of the prayer books in use around the Anglican world.

One aspect of this transformation is the subject of this essay: the shift from thinking of the BCP as a text to thinking of it as a “shape,” especially with respect to the Communion service. Central to this shift was Dom Gregory Dix, whose hugely influential work The Shape of the Liturgy was published in 1945.[1] Dix claimed to have identified a fourfold action that he called the “standard structure”—it was, he said, the invariable pattern in the primitive eucharistic liturgies. He thought that it was a very early compression of an original sevenfold action, and that it consisted of: (1) taking, (2) giving thanks, (3) breaking, and (4) distributing. Critically, what Dix found to be common in these ancient liturgies was their structure, not their words. The locus of unity was shape, not text. And that unity of primitive shape was then taken, at least by others, to be the aim for liturgical revision, including revision of the Book of Common Prayer.

Dix’s work has not stood up to scholarly scrutiny. His idea of an invariable shape to the primitive eucharist and his treatment of the Apostolic Tradition—a document that he said expressed “the mind and practice not of St. Hippolytus only but of the whole Catholic Church of the second century”[5]—have been demolished by a number of liturgical scholars who are far more careful and less tendentious.[6] Not only was Dix wrong about his central claims, but he seems to have had a penchant for shading or even making up evidence.[7]

But a misstatement about liturgical history, like any other misstatement, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Before the debunking of Dix’s work was accomplished, it had already helped to reshape how millions of Christians worship all over the world. Its effect on Anglican worship was especially decisive. As one Anglican commentator has said, “Despite the now dubious historical basis of Dix’s most famous claim about the four-fold shape, most 20th-century revisions of eucharistic liturgies followed Dix’s claim about this basic shape, including the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.”[8]

Not only did the liturgists follow Dix’s claims about history, they also followed his fundamental shift in orientation, thinking of a liturgy primarily in terms of its shape.

“What Dix found to be common in these ancient liturgies was their structure, not their words. The locus of unity was shape, not text.”

As an illustration of this shift, consider the respected and influential International Anglican Liturgical Consultation (IALC). In 1989, it expressed doubt about “attempts to identify Anglicanism, whether locally or world-wide, through any common liturgical texts, ethos or style.”[9] Six years later, meeting in Dublin, the Consultation said: “In the future, Anglican unity will find its liturgical expression not so much in uniform texts as in a common approach to eucharistic celebration and a structure which will ensure a balance of word, prayer, and sacrament, and which bears witness to the catholic calling of the Anglican communion.”[2] That is the Dixian position with a vengeance—the unity of Anglican worship is not in texts, as much as in approach and structure.[11]

This was not inevitable. Even though Dix’s scholarship was simply wrong at critical points, one could have accepted his claims and then discovered that the BCP 1662 actually did, after a fashion, have all of these: a taking, a recollecting of our Lord’s thanksgiving, a breaking, and a distributing. The prayer book could have been weighed in the Dixian balances and found not wanting.

And even if the liturgists had naively accepted Dix’s claims about the fourfold action, they might still have kept the prayer book service of Holy Communion essentially intact.[12] And they could certainly have left the rest of the prayer book intact. But that didn’t happen. Dix’s fundamental claim, after all, was not really a historical one—the now thoroughly debunked claim about a universal shape of the primitive eucharist—but a claim about the kind of thing the liturgy is: that it is centrally about a certain set of actions, not a text.[13]

Dix’s idea that liturgy is about a sequence of actions is fundamentally foreign to the prayer book tradition. The BCP 1662 does prescribe some actions—kneeling for Communion, for example, or making the sign of the cross in baptism. But despite the current fad of praising “embodied” worship and the mania for finding meaning in every gesture or ritual act, that is not the general tendency of the prayer book. Compared to what we might expect if we’re thinking in line with The Shape of the Liturgy, the BCP 1662 has relatively few stage directions. What it mostly gives is text.

By contrast, we could think of an ideal Dixian liturgy (not what the man Gregory Dix actually wanted, but rather a logical development of the liturgy-as-shape idea).[14] That ideal might be all stage directions, with the words themselves being left to the players’ improvisation.

To be sure, there are merits, or at least attractions, to thinking of the liturgy in terms of shape. The main one is that it allows liturgical contextualization. That aim has the strongest possible support in the Anglican tradition. The Thirty-Nine Articles assert that traditions and ceremonies can be determined by “every particular or national church” (Article XXIV). And a preface to the BCP (“Of Ceremonies”), written by Archbishop Cranmer, says: “For we think it convenient that every country should use such ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God’s honour and glory and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living, without error or superstition…”

Thinking of the BCP not as a text but as a shape allows that contextualization to occur. The shape of the Communion service could remain the same, even as the words within that structure are amended and contextualized. The words could be constantly remade to be, in the cliche of the moment, “missional.”

Yet it is worth noting who Gregory Dix really persuaded. It was not primarily the person in the pew or the parish priest. But he persuaded the professional liturgists (also clergy), who were members of liturgical commissions all over the world. This is the decisive attraction of the Dixian turn to shape—its appeal to the professional liturgist.

In one of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels, the Rev. Harold “Stinker” Pinker is described by his fiancée, who is trying to secure for him a paternal blessing: “Up till now, Harold has been working under wraps. As a curate, he has had no scope. But slip him a vicarage, and watch him let himself out. There is literally no eminence to which that boy will not rise, once he spits on his hands and starts in.”[15]For professional liturgists, sticking to the classic BCP does not afford much room for creativity. They have no scope.

This is not to say that liturgists think this way strictly out of self-interest. There is a sense of professional raison d’etre. Arborists think you should plant new trees, not because they will benefit, but because they believe in trees. Liturgists think you should make new liturgies, not because they will benefit, but because they believe in them.

But if you believe in new liturgies, and you want to persuade people to adopt them, how do you do that? You need to say the new liturgy is new, and you need to say the new liturgy is old. How do you do both? Here is where the turn to shape is so incredibly useful for the rhetoric of prayer book adoption. It pairs a claim of innovation with a claim of continuity. Here we have this undeniably new book, but fear not, for it’s the same shape as the old one.

For an example of the rhetorical impulse at work, one need only look at the preface to the Anglican Church of North America’s 2019 prayer book. Its preface uses shape or a cognate five times, once per page. In one especially ungainly sentence we are told: “At the beginning of the 21st century, global reassessment of the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 as ‘the standard for doctrine, discipline, and worship’ shapes the present volume, now presented on the bedrock of its predecessors.” The idea that is struggling to break through this opaque sentence is quite simple: “the classic prayer book shapes the new prayer book.” It is meant as a reassurance.

These, then, are some of the attractions of the Dixian turn. It allows contextualization. It keeps the liturgists in business. And it is rhetorically invaluable if you are trying to encourage a church to accept a new prayer book that is a major departure from the classic BCP.

“In Archbishop Cranmer’s design, we lift up our hearts to heaven (Sursum corda); we enter, as it were, the divine throne room (Sanctus); in awe of God’s presence we respond as the prophet Isaiah did (Prayer of Humble Access); we partake of the bread and wine; and we descend with a song of the angels on our lips (Gloria).”

But what have we lost by thinking of Anglican worship in terms of shape and structure? Another way to put this is to ask, what are the virtues of the BCP as text?

The first loss is paradoxical: the move to a focus on liturgical shape winds up forfeiting even the shape of the prayer book services. Many examples could be given. Consider two from the Communion service.

Near the start of the service in the BCP 1662, there is a progression from the Decalogue, with its specificity of social concerns, to the immediately following state collect. That connection emphasizes the first use of the law, complementing the people’s responses to each commandment (which in turn emphasizes the second and third uses of the law). This is a sophisticated and theologically-informed shape, yet it is lost when the state prayer and Decalogue are excised or replaced.

Another aspect of the shape of the Communion service is an ascent to and descent from the divine presence in heaven. In Archbishop Cranmer’s design, we lift up our hearts to heaven (Sursum corda); we enter, as it were, the divine throne room (Sanctus); in awe of God’s presence we respond as the prophet Isaiah did (Prayer of Humble Access); we partake of the bread and wine; and we descend with a song of the angels on our lips (Gloria). Yet this structure is invariably lost in the versions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The heavenly focus of the Sanctus is confused by interpolating the cry of Palm Sunday (“Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”), and the Prayer of Humble Access and the Gloria are omitted or moved to other places in the service where they no longer serve these functions.[16]

It is, of course, true that they are not the only ways to order a Communion service. There are other rationales, some theologically rich and pastorally sensitive, at work in more recent liturgies. But the point is simply that once the turn is made to thinking of liturgy in terms of shape, one of the first things lost is the shape in the BCP. The macro- and micro-structures of the BCP Communion service, like the ones just noted, tend to be razed in liturgical revision, sometimes without any appreciation for why they were there in the first place.

A second loss with a turn from text to shape is the linguistic excellence of the BCP, and not just in the Communion service. The rhythms and images of Coverdale’s Psalter, the measured pace and homely vigor of Cranmer’s collects—these are virtues of the text as text.

In principle, these could be reproduced. We could follow the shape of the BCP, change the text, and write texts with the same strength of language as the BCP. This has been tried. Many times. Some great poets have been involved in revising the prayer book Psalter. T.S. Eliot was on the committee in the 1950s that developed the Church of England’s Revised Psalter. W.H. Auden assisted with the Psalter in the current prayer book of The Episcopal Church (BCP 1979). Yet perhaps surprisingly, these great poets have invariably seen their role in the revision process not as creative but as conservative, resisting nearly all change. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae, they tried to bar the pass.

Now the language of the classic prayer book is certainly hard to equal. And this language is no mere ornament. It is critical to how the prayer book works. In what remains the leading work on the language of the prayer book, Stella Brook suggested that its secret is being formed at a time when oral and written English were closer together.[17] But whatever the theory about why its language is unsurpassed, the point is simply that the widely praised language of the prayer book is in the text, not in the shape.

One reason language matters is that it can demarcate an activity. Baseball might be unfamiliar to you, but when you go to a baseball game, you’ll quickly notice that everyone else knows what to say and what to do. They stand at the seventh-inning stretch and sing “Take me out to the ballgame.” They say things that would be wrong everywhere else, like “he flied out to center field.” Not flew out, but flied out. There is nothing intrinsic to baseball about this verb form. We could play the same game and say “flew out.” It seems quite arbitrary. And it is arbitrary that this particular verb form is a marker of differentiation.

What is not arbitrary is that there are markers of differentiation. This demarcation of activities is something we as human beings do in countless ways, for any activity we consider important; it is certainly pervasive in worship (and not merely Christian worship).[18]

Of course, different kinds of churches have different ways of doing this, different ways of showing that “the worshipper [is] crossing a liturgical threshold where the world of human experience meets the Kingdom.”[19] Anglican worship does it in various ways (e.g., vestments). But the main way, the defining way, that Anglican worship has traditionally indicated the liturgical threshold—whether in a Gothic cathedral or a small rural parish—is with the words of the BCP. And this can be lost when we move from text to shape. We are at risk of losing the distinctive Anglican method of demarcating the world of worship.

A third loss is the stability of the text. A prayer or canticle repeated for decades can work deep grooves into the soul and remain in one’s memory when all else is forgotten. This stability is also critical for the intergenerational community formed by the Book of Common Prayer tradition. The Scriptures are replete with commands to teach one’s children the faith, so they teach their children, who teach their children, and so on (e.g., Psalm 78, Deuteronomy 6, Proverbs passim). That religio-cultural and catechetical transmission can happen in various ways, including with memorized Psalms and set prayers—but only if there is a substantial continuity in these Psalms and prayers from one generation to the next. All of these benefits are derived from the text. If the text is constantly changing, stability and continuity will prove elusive.

Fourth, the laity lose protection. A fixed liturgy is not at the whim of the minister, and it is therefore an immense protection against clerical experimentation. “Feed my sheep,” not “experiment on my guinea pigs,” as the saying goes.[20]

Fifth, there was once a large body of prayer book manuals, commentaries, and sermons built up over the centuries. These include commentaries on the prayer book by John Boys, Anthony Sparrow, Hamon L’Estrange, Charles Wheatly, and Richard Blakeney, as well as many sermons, not least those of Charles Simeon on “the excellence of the liturgy.” These are deeply worthwhile, and were once widely read by ministers and also by some lay people. But they seem to have faded away. Perhaps The Episcopal Church’s BCP 1979 will be the last text to receive the commentary treatment.[21] More recent liturgies are either massive multi-volume compilations (e.g., the Church of England’s Common Worship), or lack the craftsmanship and coherence that would ensure long use (e.g., the Anglican Church in North America’s BCP 2019). Who will go to the trouble of writing a detailed manual when the target won’t stay put? No one is going to write a commentary that explores the biblical and patristic roots of this week’s projector slides. Again, the benefits of this tradition of commentary are tied to the text.

Sixth, a text, but not a shape, can give Anglicanism a settled center. The text of the BCP offers a basis for unity for different kinds of churchmanship, a center for reformed catholicism. But a shape cannot do this. Knowing that a service includes taking, giving thanks, breaking, and distributing doesn’t tell one anything, really, about what is happening. Unity of worship is made possible by the very rigidity of a text. Not, to be clear, an infallible text or a text that cannot change, but a relatively stable text, a text that stays put.

The prayer book cannot, of course, serve this centering function by itself. For Anglicans, it must work alongside the 39 Articles and the Ordinal, with the homilies and the canons. But the shift to shape has made it harder for worship to tie together the fracturing and fissiparous churches of the Anglican Communion.[22]

“The text of the BCP offers a basis for unity for different kinds of churchmanship, a center for reformed catholicism. But a shape cannot do this.”

Thus, there are gains from the move to shape: contextualization and the full employment of professional liturgists. One could add that it allows freedom for creativity in prayer and opens new possibilities in metaphor, diction, and aural effects, much like the freedom a poet has in a devotional text, or a homilist has in a sermon.

And there are costs: the loss of the structures of the prayer book, the loss of the language of the prayer book, the erosion of stability, the loss of protection for the laity, the extinction of the tradition of prayer book commentary, and the greater vulnerability to ecclesial fragmentation.

The attentive reader will notice in these costs and benefits an asymmetry. Economists like to refer to costs that other people bear as “externalities.” For a liturgist, the benefits from moving to shape are huge—“But slip him a vicarage, and watch him let himself out.” But the costs are borne largely by the sheep. They are the people incapable of saying any form of the Apostles’ Creed by heart because they have been subjected to so many different versions of it. They are the people given flat, unrhythmic prose that does not work its way into their affections. As the Irish bishop Harold Miller put it: “The creative juices of liturgists, with their endless pursuit of new liturgies—many of which only they themselves are seeking—need to be restrained when developing what is the common private and public prayer of the people of God.”[3]

That is the first asymmetry in the costs and benefits—the same people do not bear both, and in particular the people who make the decisions are often not those who bear the costs.

The second asymmetry is about time. The benefits of the move to shape, such as they are, are front-loaded. The gains can be immediate: the aptness for the immediate and ever-changing context, the attention-grabbing novelty. But what is lost—the communal and individual benefits of stability, the deep theological structures in the prayer book services, its resistance of centrifugal forces, its commentary tradition—takes time to notice. Different people will place different values on these costs and benefits. But it is hard to deny that there is a temporal asymmetry, with front-loaded benefits and back-loaded costs.

Many have noted that we are living in a fraught time for the Anglican world, a time when bonds of ecclesial unity are disintegrating, and for many Anglicans it is a time of catastrophic failure in formation and catechesis. This is not a surprise. This is exactly what one would expect from the asymmetric structure of the costs and benefits of a century of liturgical innovation.

So what do we make of all this? Brian Cummings was not wrong when he called Dix “the most interesting modern enemy of the Book of Common Prayer.”[24] Nor was the English bishop wrong who said that Dix was “a beacon which has led a whole fleet astray.”[25] Our task, he said, is “both to adjust the beacon and also to recover the fleet.”[26]

Which brings us to the question of cure. What should those worshipping in the Anglican tradition do now? How do we adjust the beacon and recover the fleet? The answer proposed is a turn, or a return, to the BCP as a text.

What would that return look like? Already the BCP 1662 is widely used in the Evensong services of English and American cathedrals; already it is widely used throughout Africa;[27] already it is praised by the Global South;[28] already it is the focus of renewed interest among young Anglicans and Episcopalians in North America.[29] But to serve the purposes of formation and unity, it needs to be taken off the shelf by more individuals and parishes. It needs to be read and inwardly digested.

Any suggestion that there is still life in the Book of Common Prayer is likely to be met with certain objections, though. Consider two.

One objection is that we should go forward, not backward.[30]But renewal in the life of the church is almost invariably connected with retrieval. Monasticism revives when monks turn back to the Benedictine Rule. The Reformers did not see their brief as moving ever upward and onward—they wanted to go back to what they saw as the purer water upstream. If you think you’ve made a wrong turn, there is nothing reactionary, nothing antiquarian, about wanting to go back to the spot where you made it.

Another objection has more merit. It is the objection that the language of the BCP 1662 is obsolete: whatever its beauties, whatever its rhythms and pacing and sturdy vigor, it is simply out of reach for a congregation today. To understand this objection, though, it needs to be broken down into two quite different objections. One is that the language is too hard to understand; the other is that the language can be understood, but it is not how we speak at Starbucks.

To a word like propitiation, which appears in the Comfortable Words in the Communion service, the objection is that most people do not understand its meaning. But that is not the objection to “O Lord, make haste to help us.” No one can struggle to understand “make haste”—the objection has to be that it is a phrase that is not contemporary. Let’s distinguish, then, these two forms of the language objection: one is about comprehension, the other about currency.

“For a liturgist, the benefits from moving to shape are huge…But the costs are borne largely by the sheep.”

The comprehension form of the objection has to be taken seriously. St. Paul says that we are to “pray with the understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15). But there is a characteristic Christian way of dealing with this concern: it is with teaching. Otherwise, this objection would knock out huge swathes not only of Christian liturgy but also of all Christian theology. We use words like propitiation, atonement, justification, sanctification, and Trinity because we need them. Baseball needs the term home run, and there’s no reason to require it to be replaced with a Basic English equivalent like “where a person hits a ball and it goes over the fence, and he or she runs around the field, putting his or her feet on each of the four white flat things in the field.”

There is surprisingly little in the Book of Common Prayer that is vulnerable to the comprehension objection, at least in comparison to in any decent translation of the Bible. True, there are a few obsolete words such as prevent (in the sense of “precede”). But there are only a few—it is nothing like Shakespeare.

The real objection is the currency objection, namely, that the language of the BCP is not how we talk. This objection runs much deeper, but it is less sound. It raises questions that cannot be fully answered here, but it is worth noting how novel this concern is in the great sweep of Christian history. In the first several centuries of the Church, Christians used Greek translations of the Old Testament that predated the life of Christ and were decidedly not in some kind of current marketplace speech.[31] For early Christians who spoke and read Hebrew, their Torah was in a classical Hebrew that was not what they spoke at home. There are different styles in the New Testament, but the beginning of Luke is not how anyone talked; the never-ending sentence in Ephesians 1 is not casual; the Book of Hebrews is full of rhetorical artifice and formality.

My argument is not that it must be so in religious speech, but that it may be so. Indeed, for most of Christian history, liturgical and biblical texts have tended to be read in a decidedly older version of the language—whether the Greek of the Septuagint, the Old Latin, the Vulgate in the centuries after Jerome, the King James Version, or the Liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom in the churches of the East. Some liturgical and biblical texts were old-fashioned on the day they were born, such as the King James Version. Others became so through the passage of time.

The text is not static. Language changes; adjustments are made. Unperfect becomes imperfect, and no one bats an eye.[32] But the idea that the Scriptures and the liturgy need to be kept in contemporary diction and syntax seems to be an idea that was not widespread before the last century. The comprehension objection does have a long history in Christian thought (not least in William Tyndale and Martin Luther). But the currency objection is more newfangled, and it rests on highly contestable premises about language, effort, and worship.“We are living in a fraught time for the Anglican world, a time when bonds of ecclesial unity are disintegrating, and for many Anglicans it is a time of catastrophic failure in formation and catechesis. This is not a surprise.”

Not everyone will resolve in the same way the tradeoffs involved in liturgical language. But it is easier to see these tradeoffs, and to think clearly about the currency objection, once we recover the idea of the BCP as a text. The Dixian turn to thinking of liturgy in terms of shape was a mistake. It was also momentous, for it has strongly influenced every subsequent prayer book revision, including the BCP 1979 of The Episcopal Church and more recently the BCP 2019 of the Anglican Church in North America.[33]

The turn to shape was not inevitable. It need not be permanent.

Samuel L. Bray is a Professor of Law at Notre Dame Law School, as well as a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.


1 Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: A. & C. Black, 1945).
2 IALC, Renewing the Anglican Eucharist (Dublin, 1995) (emphases added).
3 Harold Miller, “The Making of the Church of Ireland Book of Common Prayer 2004,” Yale Institute of Sacred Music Colloquium vol. 3 (2006): 75-84, 79.


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