Shield of the Bishop of New York
From the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk
May 2011

To the Priests and Deacons of the Diocese of New York

I send this letter to you in keeping with my custom of occasional letters on general topics of importance.

The topic of this particular letter has to do with our ordination vow to abide by the "doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Episcopal Church. The genesis of this particular topic comes from a conversation at the Priests' Conference of 2010. The article that follows by The Rev. Dr. Patrick Malloy, Associate Professor Liturgy at The General Theological Seminary has been very helpfully distilled, from an article in the 2008 Michaelmas issue of the Sewanee Review Theological Review by Professor Marion Hattchet, late professor of Liturgy at the University of the South.

In Professor Malloy's words Professor Hatchett's article provides "...a call to step back and consider how well we are actually doing what the Prayer Book intends, and to continue the on-going work of liturgical renewal."

Faithfully yours,
Signature of The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk
The Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk

Note: This document is available as a more easily printed web page by clicking on the link at the top.


Why do the rubrics matter?


  1. Unlike most other churches, we in the Episcopal Church do not consider our liturgical books to be a collection of optional resources.  Rather, they outline a mode-of-operation approved by General Convention, and all Episcopalians, by definition, make a commitment to follow it.  Clergy do this explicitly at ordination.  In a sense, the BCP and the other liturgical books are a covenant we make with one another.  We promise to use them faithfully so we will be shaped by a shared vision, and we promise not to force upon one another liturgical practices that fall outside of the boundaries we have agreed upon.
  2. Because we Anglicans do not have confessional documents that define who we are and what we believe (like the Presbyterians, for example, who have the Westminster Confession) or a magisterial hierarchy (like the Roman Catholics, who have the Pope and the various related officials and curial bodies), our liturgy is our agreed-upon self-definition.  What we do in the liturgy and how we do it declares what we believe and impresses an identity upon us.  The liturgy is foundational for us.
  3. When we say that the Book of Common Prayer is our defining document, we do not mean only the prayer texts.  We mean also the rubrics.  The rubrics express our doctrine as much as our prayers do.  The first rubric in the "Concerning the Service" section of Holy Baptism (298), for example, says that God establishes an indissoluble bond with the person through baptism.  This makes a doctrinal statement about baptism and, by extension, all the sacramental rites:  They are acts of God. 
  4. The rubrics enunciate and safeguard the structure of our common life.  They insure that all the members of the Church, whatever their order, are full and active participants in the liturgy and, if our liturgy reflects our life, in all we are and do as a Church.  The rubrics are where we find, for example, that it is the laity's role, not the clergy's, to read the Scriptures before the Gospel.  The rubrics insure that a vestry cannot force a priest to cede the Eucharistic Prayer to a layperson.  Similarly, they insure that a priest cannot insist upon leading the Prayers of the People when a deacon is present.  The rubrics also protect everyone from the whims of, as Hatchett says, "an idiosyncratic bishop."  (No matter what one's theological opinions or liturgical tastes, it is good to know that the rubrics constrain the bishop as much as they do the lay person, the deacon, and the priest.  No one can hijack the liturgy.)
  5. Hatchett has a great deal to say about this "protective" function of the rubrics, and he gives examples of how they are sometimes ignored.  For example, he points out that in all the Eucharistic Prayers in both rites, a rubric directs that the "Celebrant and People" sing or say the Sanctus.  (He implies that when the choir alone sings it, something is being taken from the entire congregation.)  Hatchett is not saying that the people must sing the Sanctus because rules are rules, and they simply must be obeyed.  He is not being legalistic.  He is saying that the liturgy is an action shared by all the orders and ministries, and great care must be taken not to lose the balance.
  6. The rubrics also set forth the structure of our rites.  For example, the headings (which were edited by the rubrics committee) indicate what are the primary divisions of each rite, the secondary, and so forth.  The headings in The Holy Eucharist, for example, show clearly that the two major units are "The Word of God" and "The Holy Communion."


Where did the rubrics come from?


The 1979 Prayer Book was created by many committees, each working on one service (e.g., Ministration to the Sick) or one section (e.g., the calendar), drawing upon history, theology, and feedback from trial rites.  Each of these committees wrote rubrics for their respective sections. 


A separate committee - Hatchett's committee - edited all of the rubrics to weed out duplications, regularize spellings (e.g., Postcommunion, not Post-Communion or Post Communion), and achieve consistency throughout the Book. 


If Hatchett had one point to make it was this:  The Rubrics Committee had a clear intention or a compelling reason when it put something in, and it had just as clear an intention when it left something out.  He writes: 


Words for use in rubrics were quite carefully chosen.  The word flagon was deliberately chosen rather than cruet for a container of wine, because a flagon connotes wine whereas a cruet connotes oil or vinegar... Bread should be distributed from a plate or tray or basket, utensils which signify bread, not from a ciborium which looks too much like a chalice to be a suitable utensil for the ministration of the bread...  In The Book of Occasional Services at the installation of a new bishop, the word "seating" is used rather than "enthronement."


He gives many other examples.  The point is that the words chosen were chosen with intention.  They are not "just" words, and they are not insignificant.


At the same time, Hatchett admits that some of the rubrics are vague, and the Rubrics Committee intended that as well.  When, for example, historical precedent or a theological rationale could be found for more than one approach, the rubrics were worded to allow more than one interpretation.  The rubrics, then, are sometimes the opposite of restrictive.  They almost force a reasoned decision.


Within what parameters did the committee work?


The committee was limited by:


  1. The predetermined length of the Prayer Book.  It had to no more than1001 pages. 
  2. Pastoral realities (at least as they imagined them).  Hatchett notes, for example, that at The Peace, the people are not required to exchange a gesture of peace among themselves.  The members of the committee feared that if they insisted upon such a gesture, they might anger and alienate some congregations.


The committee assumed:


  1. That basic liturgical terms did not have to be defined, e.g., "Chrism" and "the Grace."
  2. That some key theological concepts could be taken for granted.  He notes, for example, that in the Eucharist, the first time the presiding cleric is mentioned, she is referred to as the "principle celebrant."  The implication is that everyone in the room is a celebrant, while the presiding priest is "the one who will vocalize the thanksgiving of all the celebrants."  Thereafter in the rite, the presiding priest is simply called "the celebrant," but that is not to imply that only the priest is celebrating.  All the baptized are celebrants.  The Rubrics Committee, wrote Hatchett, took for granted that everyone knew that.
  3. That the clergy understood and would uphold the core principles of Anglican worship, viz., that our liturgy is "grounded in Scripture, consonant with the practices of the early church, and edifying rather than mystifying to the people."
  4. That when a rubric directs that something "may" be used, that means "only under special circumstances."  Hatchett gives the example of the blessing that "may" come at the end of the Rite II Eucharist.  The Rubrics Committee assumed that normally it would not be used since every person would have just received Communion (the greatest blessing) or would have approached the Altar for a personal blessing.  He proposes that in the next edition of the BCP, all of the optional material be moved out of the rites themselves and printed after.


What were Hatchett's gripes?


  1. Rubrics that enshrine important theological and ecclesiological principles are sometimes violated.   Hatchett lists many examples.  Here are just two.
    1. He says, e.g., that the rubric directing the clergy to receive Communion as the rest of the assembly approaches the Altar, not before they approach the Altar, was meant to do away with the distinction between the clergy's Communion and the laity's Communion.  That the Church is one Body taking part in one Communion in the one Lord, suggests Hatchett, is an important theological principle in the BCP, and the rubric is meant to support it.  He regrets that in many congregations the lay people are kept in their pews until the clergy have received.
    2. Hatchett points out that the 1979 BCP is the first one to mention reserving the Sacrament.  He points out, however, that reservation is not for the purpose of distribution during the Eucharist.  Rather, it is for the Communion of the sick, for distribution by a deacon when a priest cannot be present, and for Communion at the Good Friday service.  The rubrics make this clear.  In some churches, he complains, the reserved Sacrament is distributed during the regular Sunday Eucharist.  This separates the community's prayer of Thanksgiving from the Eucharistic Food, while, in fact, the Presence is brought about by the Prayer.
  2. Where many options are given, they are often not taken.  For example, there are four options for how to conclude the Prayers of the People.  The last is to pray one of the collects provided in the BCP (394ff), but that is the one nearly everyone takes.  In many cases, then, the rubrics are not meant to restrict but to expand, but the opportunity to be creative has not been seized.
  3. People seem not to know that rubrical changes between previous Prayer Books and the 1979 BCP were all intended.  He points out that the 1928 BCP allowed a hymn, announcements, and other items to be inserted between the Gospel and the Sermon.  The Rubrics Committee made a conscious decision to remove all of that so that the preaching would be related directly to the Scripture.  I suspect that Hatchett was frustrated that in many congregations, the second half of the processional hymn and a prayer by the preacher still separate the proclamation of the Word from its exposition.
  4. Some people think that if no rubric forbids an action or text, inserting an action or text is allowed or even expected.  For example, there is no rubric or "additional direction" that forbids a closing hymn after the blessing or dismissal.  Many congregations insert one.  Hatchett writes that the Rubrics Committee did not mention a closing or recessional hymn because it thought that the rite would be more effective without one.  The Postcommunion prayers all suggest an immediate movement into the world.  "Send us now into the world," they say, and "now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do."  Then comes the dismissal, which, by definition, sends the Church forth.  Hatchett writes that the action - the leaving - should come immediately without further words and songs.  When the Rubrics Committee did not put in a rubric allowing a closing hymn, they imagined that there would not be one, yet closing hymns are very common, and Hatchett saw them as contrary to the solid theology of the Eucharist that informed the rubrics:  The Eucharist sends us out, so the rite should reflect that.
  5. Some actions and items, which are believed to be ancient, are actually recent, and some are not particularly helpful.  If they are mentioned in the rubrics at all, they are listed as the last option.  For example, he writes that the use of a lectern apart from the pulpit is a 19th-century innovation, and the procession of the Gospel into the center of the church is probably from the 1950's.  The Rubrics Committee listed these variations second and third in a list, suggesting that they are not preferred.  He sees each as problematic: the former, because it diminishes the symbolism of the unity of God's Word, and the latter because it often reduces audibility and visibility.
  6. The rites for blessing the sacramental oils (of the sick and Chrism) are embedded in the rites where the oil is used.  This is so the community will hear the rich language of the prayers and, thus, achieve a deeper appreciation of the symbol.  In many places, the oils are blessed in the cathedral at the so-called "Chrism Mass."  The members of the parishes never hear the prayers and never see the oil, since it arrives in an oil stock.  The Rubrics Committee, he claims, directed that the oils be blessed in the presence of the community, but the rubric is ignored to the detriment of the Church.
  7. It is seemingly not clear to many Episcopalians that the Rubrics Committee intended consistency from rite to rite.  The reason the consistency may not be obvious is that many patterns were fully spelled out only once in the BCP (since the Committee had to stay within the 1001 pages, and so it tried to use as few words as possible).  Hatchett gives this example.  Throughout the Prayer Book, the Gospel is introduced this way:  The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to ______ .  What goes on the line?  To save space, the four options are not printed each time.  Does the reader, then, say "Saint So-and-so," or simply "So-and-so?"  Only once in the entire BCP is the line filled in:  in the Burial office.  That is because all the funeral Gospel readings are from John.  Inserting a blank line in place of the name would save no space.  The BCP has "The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John" (479, 495).  So, writes Hatchett, the word "saint" is not to precede the name in any BCP liturgy.  (This is reflected in the Church Publishing lectionary, and it is consistent with the Latin usage, e.g., "secundum Matthaeum.")  The insertion of the word "saint" in that place in earlier Prayer Books was meant to counter the Puritan aversion to the cult of the saints.  Since that is no longer a theological battle in the Church, the Rubrics Committee intended a return to the more ancient wording.
  8. In general, Hatchett complains that the Church has not taken enough concrete steps to give full expression to the vision enshrined in the BCP.  The preferred method of Baptism, he writes, is immersion:  the first option listed in the rubrics.  Few congregations, however, have procured a font in which even an infant can be immersed.


So what?


Does it really matter whether we announce the Gospel using the word "saint?"  Is much lost or gained either way?  I think not, and that is another pitfall of Hatchett's article.  It seems to make everything as important as everything else.  Stepping aside from that, however, and from his sometimes-acerbic tone, this article makes crucial points and raises crucial questions.


  1. The liturgy holds us together as Episcopalians by expressing who we want to be and forming us into a particular kind of community.  How far can we stray from the BCP pattern before we no longer have anything in common?  When does Common Prayer cease to be common and instead become local or personal?
  2. Part of the hospitality Episcopalians offer one another is a liturgy that feels "like home."  When we move from congregation to congregation, we can expect to find variety but we can also expect to find a familiar core.  By observing the rubrics, we provide that kind of assurance to one another.
  3. What we do in the liturgy is just as expressive and formative as the words we say.  Our common actions are an essential part of our Common Prayer. 
  4. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer embodies a consistent set of liturgical and theological understandings.  It is not a haphazard collection but, at the deep level, a unified one.  When we ignore its structure, omit key elements, introduce foreign elements, etc., we are expressing a different worldview and forming ourselves in another way.
  5. The rubrics are the "ground rules" that the Church has put in place to insure that both the rights and duties of all the members are honored.  As Hatchett says, even a bishop cannot rightly ignore them.  In this way, the rubrics are not dictatorial but democratic, and are not controlling but liberating.


Patrick Malloy, PhD

Associate Professor of Liturgy in the H. Boone Porter Chair

The General Theological Seminary