There was a day (not very long ago) when you could walk into any Anglican church anywhere in the world and join in the service blind-folded, as it would be practically word-for-word the same as what you were accustomed to. Over the past twenty years that has become less and less the case.
The main reason for this was that, although there have always been moves to revise the Book of Common Prayer historical and political circumstances have made this impractical (if not impossible). What began to happen in the mid-nineteenth century, however, was that while the words of the services may not have changed, the way in which the services were conducted began to vary widely. Candles, colored vestments and hangings, genuflections, processions, incense and a host of other practices began to be introduced in various combinations from parish to parish. At first there was trenchant opposition, but gradually, by the early years of the twentieth century this had given way to acceptance of a breadth of expression in worship within Anglicanism.
The first attempt to make any major changes to the Prayer Book itself and to gain popular support within the church came in England in 1928. In that year the church convocations gave permission for a revised Prayer Book (rather like the 1929 book or Rite I of the Episcopal Church) to be authorized. The attempt was thwarted in parliament, however, and the revised Prayer Book became the “deposited” Prayer Book of 1928. At the same time, elements of the new book came into popular usage in many of the parishes and college chapels in England. While the revision of the Prayer Book had been quashed for the moment, the need for revision along a number of lines became increasingly apparent.
For one thing, the Book of Common Prayer had been devised to suit the needs of a single national church. It did not take into account the fact that that church had begun to spread to almost every corner of the world, to cultural and political milieux quite different from England in the sixteenth century. In many of these places Christianity (much less the Anglican form of it) was not the national religion or even the dominant one. Yet that seems to be assumed at many points in the Prayer Book.
In addition there were local customs and traditions that needed to find their way into the worship of the church. One Canadian contribution in this respect is the service of Thanksgiving for the Blessings of Harvest, which was added to our Prayer Book in the revision of 1918. Besides this, one of the underlying principles of Anglicanism has always been that within each country the church has authority to develop its own forms of service (always, of course, in conformity with Scripture).
A second factor was that liturgical scholars were becoming familiar with documents such as the Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus and the Apostolic Constitutions, which had been unknown before the nineteenth century. A new awareness of the worship of the primitive church brought with it new debates about the propriety of some of the practices contained in the Prayer Book. With regard to the Holy Communion, for example, a new understanding of Jesus’ words, “Do this in memory of me,” had arisen out of recent studies of the Jewish concept of anamnesis.
Thirdly, the language of the Prayer Book, which had once helped the English language to soar to new heights of eloquence, was becoming less and less the language of the common people. The Anglican Church was in danger of becoming like the Coptic Church or the Russian Church, both of which use classical forms of the language frozen in time and no longer understood by the vast majority of the laity.
This fact came into sharp relief when the Roman Catholic Church began translating its liturgies into the vernacular and contemporary texts of English liturgical materials common to most denominations (e.g., the creeds and the canticles) began to be produced. One of the principles of Anglican worship has always been that it be “in a tongue … understanded of the people” (Article 24).
What this has meant is that, since the 1960s a host of liturgies has burst onto the scene. While in many cases the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (or one of its near relatives) remains the lawful pattern, almost every branch of the Anglican Communion has now produced its own service book.
Initially the pattern was to merely revise the original Book of Common Prayer. The church in New Zealand was the first to move into “you” language in addressing God in the late 1960s. Since then liturgical committees have been increasingly innovative in what they have produced, to the point where in many places it is possible to conduct a service without the appearance of a single word or phrase from the Book of Common Prayer.