Holy Week with the Book of Common Prayer

If you aren’t a liturgical Episco-geek, move right along.

Great Vigil fireLooking at Facebook lately, I’ve seen that plenty of folks have been wondering what to do about Holy Week services. One sees lots of versions of “How can we be more ‘creative’?” I’m late to be writing this, because many Episcopal congregations will have already printed their service leaflets for Holy Week. Despite the fact that I’m too late to the party to affect what folks might have decided to do (as if anyone pays attention to 7WD in the first place), I’d like to share a few thoughts.

We are well served by our prayer book. We are generally not well served when clergy decide that their proclivities are something that should be imposed on congregations, which is the height of clerical hubris. See “Of common prayer and its neglect” from the 7WD wayback machine.

Certainly our prayer book is not perfect, and in due course it will require revision. But it’s a fine liturgical resource which has (with the possible exception of Eucharistic Prayer C) worn very well in the last few decades. So I am not suggesting that we cannot every improve or change the liturgy, but we must do so with care. Unfortunately, most liturgical “improvement” is the epitome of careless.

To put it another way, our prayer book presents a carefully crafted and beautiful theological and liturgical ecosystem. When we start to muck with it, our changes almost always have unintended consequences, and before long our previously lush ecosystem is a wasteland (with heretical tumbleweeds throughout).

All of the preceding is especially true of the Holy Week liturgies. The rhythm of Palm Sunday – Maundy Thursday – Good Friday – Great Vigil – Easter Day is lovely. (Of course, one can toss in additional masses, tenebrae, and the Liturgy of Holy Saturday too.) When we start messing with things, we risk upsetting a cycle that is theologically balanced and deliberately rooted in the Paschal Mystery. One cannot celebrate the fullness of Easter without first gazing at the cross. Without the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, the horror of Good Friday makes little sense.

Somehow, there are people in our church (clergy, I’m looking at you) who convince themselves that the tradition of the church will not work at St. Swithin’s. Let’s wash hands instead of feet, because awkward! Let’s skip the veneration of the cross, because depressing! Let’s do the Great Vigil of Easter in the afternoon, because convenience!

Jesus weeps, and so do the children. Let me explain. A friend tells me she was chatting with a mom who had taken her young child to a “children’s Maundy Thursday service.” To make the service “child friendly” they had re-written the entire liturgy, dumbed it down. The child was (rightly!) upset. “Mommy, why aren’t we saying the prayers I know?!” The child wept because she had been in church enough on Sunday to know what the liturgy of the church looks like. This was not it.

We need to wash feet precisely because it is awkward, whether you are washing or being washed. We need to venerate the cross because it horrifies us. We need to begin the Great Vigil in total darkness, because the New Fire is only a potent symbol of the resurrection if the Paschal light pierces the night with startling brilliance.

I’ve made a promise every year I was a parish priest. “Come to the entire Triduum Sacrum. I promise you, these liturgies — the very heart of our faith — will change your life.” I often added a joke that I wished we charged admission so I could offer a money-back guarantee. No one has ever said they regretted coming to the Three Holy Days.

The people who complain about our prayer book and Holy Week have, in my experience, never given it a fair chance. The people who believe that Holy Week liturgies don’t work for children or young adults or older people or whatever have either never tried them or never tried them in a place that poured heart and soul into the liturgies, celebrated according to the tradition of the church.

There simply is no better church than the Great Vigil, and Maundy Thursday or Good Friday offer a close second. If the liturgies are done well, children and grown-ups alike will be transfixed. I’ve seen toddlers gaze in awe as the Procession of the Holy Sacrament passed by on Thursday or Friday.

This Holy Week, let us “enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby [God has] given us life and immortality.” To do that, we’ll need to actually contemplate the mighty acts, and not a sanitized, dumbed-down version of them. We’ll need to devote the time to be in church four or five times this week.

If you are a liturgical leader, I beseech you to give the prayer book forms a try, even if you’re not sure they’ll work. If you are a person who attends church, make sure you are in a church that attends to the fullness of Holy Week. You might need to find another congregation to visit this week!

There’s another thing I used to remind people when I was a parish priest. It is this: For Christians, there is nothing in this earthly life more important than gathering with fellow disciples in Holy Week to journey through the Three Holy Days together. In these liturgies, we explore everything it means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. So let us put these liturgies at the top of our priority list. Homework can wait. TV can wait. Errands can wait. Everything else can wait.

At the beginning of the Great Vigil, we hear these words: “…the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to gather in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord, in which, by hearing his Word and celebrating his Sacraments, we share in his victory over death.”

Amen. Come, for the feast is ready!

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21 Responses

  1. lindanola says:

    why don’t you like Eucharistic Prayer C? it’s not my favorite, but I see nothing that awful about it….

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I don’t dislike Prayer C, in fact I’m rather fond of it. My point was that its language sounds a bit dated now. Most of what’s in the book is relatively timeless, which is a desirable attribute in liturgical language, in my opinion.

  2. Ren says:

    I’m not a liturgical “Episco-geek” but a liturgical Presbyterian who finds great comfort in the liturgy and litany of the Episcopal church. My first experience of Holy Week was at a local Episcopal church because my home church only offered services during the day when I was at work. The liturgy and communal sharing of the events of the week that I experienced then still impact my life.

  3. Leanne says:

    The Triduum is great and my church has worked on ways to get folks in without dumbing down. We venerate the cross (with the Catholics), we wash each other’s feet, the Exsultet is sung in darkness. And yes, we’ve changed Eucharistic prayers and have set the stage to draw people in …

    But my beef is — what is it about Palm Sunday that we go from Hosanna to Jesus on the cross? It’s intent seems to make the Triduum irrelevant because we’ve just had the highlights version the Sunday before. Would love your thoughts on this.

  4. Roger Kappel says:

    This lays it out exactly right Scott, one Good Friday we invited several chruches of the community to worship with us. Some thought we should possibly tone down the veneration of the cross but I decided to do service as we always had from the prayerbook. Later, a member of the Baptist congregation said it was one of the most meaningful Good Friday’s he had experienced. He then said he was looking forward to attending the next year. As you said so well, it all works together and we shouldn’t avoid it or “dumb” it down!

  5. Gary Goldacker says:

    I’ve just changed this parish’ s “Holy Saturday” liturgy of Lighting the Paschal Candle, saying the Exultet, reading some prayers to an Easter Vigil. Comment from the crowd? “Why are you doing Mass before Easter Morning?” Lots of liturgy this Triduum that’s different from the BCP/Roman Missal/Devotional stuff of years past.

  6. Louis Weil says:

    Just a word about Prayer C. When it was drafted, by the late Howard Galley, his purpose was specifically experimental, to use fresh language and images. Those are good goals, but the main problem for me as a sacramental theologian is a serious theological issue — especially for Episcopalians: what is known as the split Epiclesis. Obviously this is not the place to give an analysis of the problem — but when I questioned Howard about this many years ago, he said he thought that Episcopalians should be aware that the work of the Holy Spirit can be structured into a Eucharistic Prayer in two different ways. What this does not acknowledge is the fact that when after the American Revolution we developed our own BCP, we drew emphatically and deliberately upon the Prayer of the Scottish Church. The Roman Prayers continue to keep a split Epiclesis simply because it is argued that this focuses the consecration in the Words of Institution. There has been enormous criticism of this within the Roman Church by highly qualified people who point out, as we do in the Episcopal Church, that the two dimensions of the work of the Holy Spirit — upon the gifts and upon the people — are theologically complementary; a split Epiclesis erodes that unity. We have a great treasure in our tradition from the strong convictions of such people as Samuel Seabury that this is a profoundly important theological issue — and is deeply rooted in the Anglican understanding of the need to see the entire Prayer as consecratory, and not merely one isolated phrase. If one prefers the Roman Catholic theology of the Eucharistic Prayer, then Prayer C would be appropriate. But we should note that only a few years after our BCP was authorized in 19979, the Canadian Church authorized its new BCP, and they included an adaptation of our Prayer C, but marvelously transformed not only with regard to the Epiclesis, but also with regard to the role of the people. People who like Prayer C should take time to find a copy of the Canadian BCP and and to compare the two texts. For years, in class, I have involved my students in a discussion of the two versions in parallel columns in a hand-out. When they are compared in this way, the theological integrity of the Canadian version is striking.

  7. Jen says:

    I have Attention Deficit Disorder. The worship in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church quiets my mind. The rhythms, rituals, seasons, and music are all so very perfect and, along with God, make me complete. (ADDers need routine, they say) Holy Week services, from Palm Sunday up to and including the Great Vigil are *not to miss* in my family, and I have teens and young children. [Please, please go this year if you can!] Liturgy means the work of the people, I believe.. How appropriate.

  8. Ah yes, the washing of hands aka the Commissioning of Pilates! How much more tone-deaf can you get?

    In fairness, I have to note that the celebration of the Easter Vigil in the early afternoon or even the morning was normative for several centuries! Even now I believe the Veneration of the Cross is optional during the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified according to the rubrics. While I would deplore any facile reasons for abandoning it, I wouldn’t be prepared to defend it as the climax in the same way as the proclamation of the Passion or the (re-)distribution of the Maundy communion.

    Finally, while I appreciate Dr Weil’s kind words about our Book of Alternative Services (which marked the first time the Holy Week liturgies were “officially” authorizes for us since the Reformation), I am bound to note that it is highly rhetorically significant for the Canadian liturgical settlement that it is _not_ a “new BCP.” Formally it remains an approved alternative to the “prayer book of Elizabeth II” (authorized provisionally in 1959 and finally in 1962), and liberal use was made of the latter during the SCP provincial conference at Trinity University in the University of Toronto last fall.

  9. Jane C says:

    I’m not a geek but I didn’t move on. When you said “(as if anyone pays attention to 7WD in the first place)” I’d like you to know that some people do pay attention and think that 7WD or Seven Wheel Drive gives them more traction in their lives.

  10. Suzanne LeVesconte says:


  11. Deb K says:

    I love this – our church celebrates the three days and has services Mon- Wed (this year we will not be doing Tenebrae because our interim ‘has never done it before’ ) I’m only a bit of a geek but the symbolism of all three days makes the First Eucharist of Easter all the more sweeter. I am not a huge fan of prayer C – which we have been using regularly, again interim, but some wording I like ‘be known to us in the breaking of the bread’ the split Epielesis has always bothered me and now there is talk ,from -you guessed it, of shortening the liturgy and the hymns (or using only short ones) to “fit” a service into one hour (good Lord deliver us!)

  12. Donna Wessel Walker says:

    Amen. Amen.

  13. relling says:

    I love Eucharistic prayer C. I miss it whenever we have a priest who decides not to use it due to whatever whim. I don’t think the language is dated, but it is different. I do enjoy the participatory role for the congregation.

  14. Cheryl Greene says:

    I was in tears reading this post! Because I realized how true this is…Easter isn’t “Easter” if you haven’t been through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil. For a number of reasons, none of them really good, I have missed those steps in recent years, and Easter has NOT been the same, has not touched my heart. I am SO glad that I read this today,before Holy Week. I had planned to go to church on all three days; now I will CERTAINLY be there. Thank you for taking the time to write this and share it.

  15. Barbara says:

    Wonderful post.

    I think the urge to be “creative” is a dodge, mostly. It’s just another way to maintain the illusion of “control” – to AVOID being deeply affected, or (Oh, no!) even changed by the liturgies and by faith.

    My real objection to “creativity” in the liturgy, though, is that we’re then subject to one person’s particular take on the world (or, possibly worse, a committee’s take). Which is by definition extremely limited and certainly affected by biases of all kinds (almost certainly unknown to the person him/herself).

    I much prefer liturgies that have been use-tested over many, many years and have been shown to be effective. The amateur stuff just doesn’t measure up.

    Blessed Holy Week to all….

  16. Linda T. says:

    I think Egeria would agree.

  17. John Alexander says:

    Well, of course I agree with the general thrust of your piece, Scott. Of course. Make-it-up-yourself liturgy has everything wrong with it that you say.

    But I fear that the actual Holy Week texts of the BCP 1979 don’t bear quite the weight you want to lay on them. For one thing, the rubrics are full of “mays” and comparatively few “shalls”.

    Palm Sunday does appear to require a Liturgy of the Palms and Procession at the principal service, along with the Passion Gospel. Fine.

    Maundy Thursday leaves the washing of feet optional. It says *nothing* about the Procession to the Altar of Repose or the Stripping of the Altars. Just that “Where it is desired to administer Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament on Good Friday, the Sacrament for that purpose is consecrated at this service.”

    Good Friday requires a Passion Gospel and Solemn Collects. Fair enough. But then the placing of a wooden cross in the sight of the people is optional — *nothing* is said about the people coming forward to venerate it — as is the administration of Communion from the Reserved Sacrament.

    The Easter Vigil itself is optional (p. 284, first sentence), although the service as presented is well constructed in the texts and rubrics that follow. The chief omission is the Litany of the Saints. Also the various bits said by the celebrant when preparing the Paschal Candle.

    My point is simply that rather than *prescribing* the full Catholic liturgies of the Triduum, the 1979 BCP *permits* them — but for the most part forces the traditionally-minded liturgist to make heavy use of other, older, sources to fill in the many blanks.

  18. Scott Gunn says:

    John, for what it’s worth, I’m not concerned about someone adding elements from within our tradition. I’m more concerned about the tendency to invent from whole cloth or to avoid things because they are deemed off-putting or difficult. “Let’s not read the Passion because it takes too long” etc.

    I fully agree with your reading that the prayer book provides the skeleton for a fleshed out catholic Triduum, and that many traditional elements are optional. My plea is to do what the prayer book says, perhaps more, but not less and not something made up.

    It’s the made-up-stuff part that sends me over the edge. In Christian charity, of course.

  19. i agree with you about everything–except foot washing. Yes, I know that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. But the symbolism is lost now that we wear enclosed shoes and no longer walk dusty roads, much less have servants washing our feet. It isn’t just awkward, it’s pointlessly awkward. The awkwardness you write about has become so awkward that no one wants to do it anymore. We wash hands, figuring that it is better than nothing. Finally, most churches have the priest washing the feet of members of the congregation, as if the only people who should follow Jesus’ example of service are the ordained. Just not a fan.

  20. Debbie says:

    Holy Week was and is a transformation time for me. About 15 years ago our church had a rector who was verycreative with his liturgy and during Lent had a program that looked at each day of Holy Week via music, prayer, art,meditation and drama. He brought to life the mighty acts of God and gave me a new understanding and respect. Who knew bones could dance? Amazing. The first time I sat for the vigil by myself in the church lit only by a white candle at 5am, with the blessed scaraments draped in sheer black material, I could feel God’s presence and believed his promise. The veneration of the cross gave me shivvers and brought me to tears. Sunrise service in the wee hours on Easter morning was beautiful as we all prayed at a fire in the churches graveyard and walked into the dark church with a lit candle. The smell of the flowers, like in the garden where Mary Magdalene went Easter morning. The bells ringing and the black drapes falling off the crosses and statues and the “Alleluia Christ is risen” and Jesus Christ is risen today, drove it all home. And if that wasn’t perfect enough, I went to the Easter Day service a few hours later. I couldn’t get enough. This was when my “light” went on…after all these years, I get it! So each year since then, I go back to the room on the second floor to enjoy the agape meal, to walk in the light of the full moon, to sit with Jesus as he prays, to his death upon the cross and rising again the third day. This is when I reaffirm myself and my faith. There is nothing like it!

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