Vol I No. 1

An Appreciation of the 1928 (American) Book of Common Prayer

by sinetortus

George C. Marshall, P.D James

Sir John Betjeman, Rose Macaulay


The 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
An Appreciation
By David Hein
of the
George C. Marshall Foundation, in Lexington, Virginia

This article was originally published on 31st July 2021

on The Imaginative Conservative website and is reproduced here by permission.


You will recall Parson Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s classic novel History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749). Mr. (never, in proper ecclesiastical usage, Reverend) Thwackum is a Church of England clergyman and young Tom’s tutor. Recent commentators have called him horribly insular and self-congratulatory, which, of course, he is; but he is also a highly memorable character. The parson famously affirms that “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.”
I’m afraid that I cannot help following in this wretched parson’s train, for in this essay when I mention religion, I mean just what the Reverend Mr. Thwackum means; and when I refer to the prayer book, I mean the Book of Common Prayer (BCP); and when I refer to the BCP, I mean in particular the 1928 American version I grew up with.

This perdurable liturgical presence—shared in recognizable form not only with Mr. Thwackum but also with John Donne, Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, George Washington, Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—started to shift when I was a teenager, when trial services with freshly composed prayers in twentieth-century vernacular were introduced; and the old book went out for good in 1979. Because the new service book included alternative traditional-language rites, its use was made mandatory, not optional. As a result, the 1928 BCP was pretty well banished, although for a time some traditionalist rectors got away with continuing to use it on Sundays, on every Sunday, that is, except for the occasion of the diocesan bishop’s annual visit, which would find only the 1979 books—in miraculously pristine condition, year after year—in the pew racks. Although this new prayer book incorporated some of the old services (with small but sometimes significant modifications) as Rite I options, most parishes have followed the contemporary-language, Rite II liturgies, at least for their main Sunday services.

The American Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is due for another revision, and in this era of cultural upheaval, who knows what that text will look like? At this point, for those of us who have left the mainline—now sidelined—Episcopal Church, these anticipated changes are almost entirely a matter of academic interest only or, more likely, of bemusement or even indifference. What is left to us to do—whether or not we have moved on to an Anglican church that uses a descendant of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer—is to be grateful for what we experienced, for the ’28 book’s impact was profound, impossible to shake off completely even if one wanted to.
Nor, I dare say, would most who partook of its ways wish to jettison whatever remains of its influence. No matter what religious course they have followed in later life, those who grew up with the 1928 prayer book or its near relatives in other parts of the worldwide Anglican Communion probably do not resent their regular exposure to its forms. Through it they became acquainted with—at the very least—an important cultural artifact, whose influence on English language and literature rivals that of the Authorized Version of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare.

Brought up in the Church of England and descended from various Anglican clergy, the English novelist Rose Macaulay (1881–1958), for example, spent nearly thirty years as an “Anglo-agnostic,” as she called herself, before her return to the fold in the last seven years of her life. Then she commented on how, even during that long stretch of spiritual desert, she had never been able to get Anglicanism out of her system; nor had she quite wanted to. Her attachment to the Church, although attenuated, remained. She remarked that during those years as a non-communicant, she was never free of spiritual guilt or certain of her unbelief or unable to appreciate the liturgy and a good sermon. After her return, she found the Church’s rituals of immense personal value and was no doubt glad to have this way already marked out for her by her earlier devotion.
Indeed, in her last years she produced one of the most delightful and engaging Anglican novels of the twentieth century, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), in which, interestingly enough, traditional liturgical prayers make a small but significant cameo appearance. By this time Rose Macaulay had adopted a rule of life, and she started each day with participation in the early celebration of the Eucharist at Grosvenor Chapel, in South Audley Street, not far from her London flat. Her close friend the poet John Betjeman, a fellow Anglican, observed that “what makes Grosvenor Chapel perfect is that people never bother you there.” The Towers of Trebizond—amusing and poignant by turns—received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for 1957; and in January 1958, on the recommendation of Harold Macmillan—a devout Anglican, rare among twentieth-century British prime ministers—Queen Elizabeth II included Rose Macaulay in the New Year’s Honours List, making her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

An even better-known English writer shaped by the Anglican ethos is the mystery novelist P. D. James (1920–2014). A member of the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, she is reported to have voiced doubts about the modernized service book; and certainly in her thought-provoking, futuristic novel The Children of Men (1992), there are references to a Church of England on its way out, while the Church attempts to hold on to its parishioners by devising new liturgies and even new sacraments.
P. D. James employed prayer-book language as titles for two of her books, The Children of Men and Devices and Desires (1989). The former phrase, ultimately derived from Psalm 115:16 (AV), occurs in the prayer headed, in the American BCP, “For a Person under Affliction”: “O merciful God, and heavenly Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men; Look with pity, we beseech thee, upon the sorrows of thy servant….”
The latter title, used for an Adam Dalgliesh mystery, is taken from the General Confession, recited by the congregation at all services of both Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer: “Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts….” This prayer’s composition goes all the way back, not to the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), but to the second, in 1552. Someone has ascertained that it comprises at least sixteen references to scripture, which should remind us that the prayer book is saturated with biblical phrases and allusions.

Given its venerable status, this General Confession, one might suppose, contains language that would be incomprehensible to children today. Perhaps—but I doubt it. I recited it often in church and sometimes at school, too, and found its meaning readily graspable. I don’t remember ever not being fully aware of what I was saying when I joined with others and confessed, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Twenty-five words, all but one of them (“undone”) monosyllabic. Hence I could not escape their implication: a mini-survey, a rapid stocktaking, would perforce ensue.
In those days, self-discipline was more prized and stressed than self-esteem. I suppose our masters thought that the latter would come our way if we succeeded in the former. Or maybe they figured we had enough self-esteem as it was. Nor did our overseers appear to spend any time at all fretting that we might be excessively burdened by feelings of guilt. This era was one in which you could still hear humility preached as a virtue and pride (self-centeredness) scorned as a sin.
The conclusive short sentence “And there is no health in us,” which immediately follows the admission “We have left undone those things…,” was excised from the General Confession in the 1979 Rite I service. Taken in its stark form, this self-assessment is a bit disconcerting. As one of my theology professors at the University of Virginia told us, “If human beings were all bad, then there’d be nothing left for God to redeem.”
But I don’t think that any of us who faithfully uttered this sentence ever thought we were completely corrupt. We intuited that this admission was an appropriate liturgical rendering of how we might well feel about some sin or failure, or about our whole state of being on any given day, and we knew that we lacked the ability in ourselves, on our own, to overcome this fault, to lift this burden. So the confession oriented us toward God’s strength, not ours: toward grace, not as a supernatural energy drink, but as the presence and power of our Lord for us and with us, like a trusted friend or coach or teacher or advisor. We definitely knew what it was like to come up with no solutions of our own and to need help.

This 1928 prayer book (and its predecessors) was unmistakably and consistently Augustinian, whereas Anglican sermons could often sound Pelagian, exhorting each auditor to exercise his or her conscience and free will to do better. Paying more or less equal attention to the themes of both prayers and sermons, Anglicans have never worried overmuch about consistency. If they wanted consistency, they could say there is no health in us apart from God’s grace, which we can beseech God to grant us, confident that he will, not because of our deserving but through the merits of his Son, received in faith through our life in him, itself a gift of grace.
Does that make Anglicans semi-Pelagians or quasi-Arminians? It’s not a question that ordinary Anglicans would care to take up, for they are not as prone to executing theological taxonomies as members of other denominations are. They invariably describe themselves theologically as “Prayer Book Anglicans” and let it go at that, leaving the refinements of categorization for PhD candidates to dissect in dissertations or for seminarians to debate at refectory tables.
The service of Holy Communion includes a powerful stress on grace as mutual indwelling, a theme that is most clearly discernible, I’ve found, when the service is read carefully straight through from beginning to end quietly on one’s own. This rite has a good bit of humility for believers to take on—especially in the Prayer of Humble Access: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
But this same prayer concludes with the petition that we might partake of Christ’s body and blood so “that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” Dominant is the hopeful theme of incorporation, not just later on, in God’s “everlasting kingdom,” but here and now. After receiving the bread and wine, communicants give thanks “that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people….” Then they pray that God will “assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord….”

In her later years, Rose Macaulay found this corporate nature of the Church to be crucial to her self-understanding and to her own needs. She spoke of being in the Church as “a wonderful corporate feeling of being carried along, being part of the body.” There are, she admitted, “bits one doesn’t yet grasp,” but “that doesn’t matter to the whole pattern and movement in which one is involved,” an experience which she found to be like “a great sweeping symphony that one can hear a little of the meaning of now and then.”
This corporate participation is why Rose Macaulay, an Anglo-Catholic, appreciated both the protestant and the catholic sides of her tradition. By itself, the protestant emphasis on the situation of each believer seemed too narrow, too individualistic, to fit her life. Instead, she affirmed the need “to get the right balance,” between “Protestantism (the individual seeking after God) and Catholicism (the seeking through the Church), neglecting neither.” Perceiving the Body of Christ to be like a “tremendous symphony” was especially valuable to her during those periods when she felt—even after her recommitment to Christianity—religiously off-key.[1]
Rose Macaulay’s was not a do-it-yourself kind of spirituality. Attempting to be “spiritual but not religious” she would have found incomprehensible or foolish or perilous; in any case, the wrong path. Without the religious life—sacraments, preaching, hymns, prayers, scripture readings—she could not have been spiritual. And without disciplined participation in the community of the faithful across space and time, she could not have been religious. In these respects, she was manifestly a prayer-book Anglican. Contrary to popular belief, Anglicans like her were not devoid of emotion, but their religious feelings took a literate form, finding both release and sustenance in well-crafted, time-honored words, as well as in music and silence, in art and architecture.


Incorporation in Christ is about much more than a communicant’s spiritual feelings anyway. Consistent with the eucharistic theology of the Church Fathers, Anglicans understand the Lord’s Supper to be the occasion of communion with Christ and with those who make up the Lord’s body. As a dramatic summary of the way of the Christ, the liturgy displays not only an object of faith but also a norm of conduct. It has real-world implications. Leitourgia is both an act of worship and a distinctive form of daily existence, the two sides of this commitment held together through participation in the life and obedience to the way of Christ.
In many and various ways, then, the prayer book imparts a theme never explicitly stated: identity. Who is the person I am called to be? And what am I called to do? Surely this matter of identity is the reason for the inclusion of the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed in each service of Morning or Evening Prayer and of the Nicene Creed in each celebration of the Holy Communion. If you look at the Apostles’ Creed, you might be disappointed that so much is left out, perhaps some of your favorite parts of the Bible, including all of Jesus’ teachings.
The Apostles’ Creed furnishes only a sketch of the faith in Trinitarian form: God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth; Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, crucified, dead, and buried, risen, and ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead; the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, the Life everlasting.
Every night at bedtime, when I was a young child, my twin brother, Stephen, and my mother and I would kneel next to Steve’s bed to say our prayers. My brother would be on one side of our mother, I on the other side, my saintly but cautious mother lacking confidence that even sacred family devotions would keep her sons from scrapping. Steve and I would offer thanks, and we’d ask for God’s blessing on each member of our family. And then all three of us would say together the Apostles’ Creed. Whether that solemn recitation was a standard feature of any other family’s evening prayers I never knew; the practice does seem rather Victorian. What was the point?
The quickest route to an answer is by way of history: the Apostles’ Creed is an elaboration of the Old Roman Creed, which at least from the end of the second century was the official baptismal creed of the Church of Rome. In fact, it survives in interrogatory forms. Essentially narrative in character, the Apostles’ Creed is not primarily—although it might sound like it—a statement of theological propositions to which believers give their assent.
The exposition of the Creed by my old friend and teacher David Baily Harned I find utterly convincing. In Creed and Personal Identity (1981; 2020), he argues that, although the functions of belief statement and loyalty oath are not excluded, the purpose of the Apostles’ Creed is first of all that of an identity avowal. That’s why it’s in these BCPservices, that’s why ancient catechumens proclaimed it before their baptism on Easter morning, and that’s why my parents must have thought it a good idea to have their children memorize the Creed and repeat its phrases every night at bedtime.
By saying the Creed, I am affirming that I want to understand my own little story in the context of this larger narrative, and by repeating its phrases I am reminding myself once again of what that life-giving narrative is. By grace, I’m even prepared to die to my old life and to be raised to this new life. Thus the Creed is very much a part of this larger scheme of incorporation, holding out vital answers to the questions Who am I to be? What am I to do?

Over the years, I’ve come to see and appreciate the effect of regular liturgical practice in the lives of a number of conscientious prayer-book Anglicans, almost all of whom are unfamiliar to the world at large.

But one Churchman whom I admire is famous, although he’s not as well known anymore as he should be. General George C. Marshall (1880–1959) is still renowned—at least within the United States Army and at the Virginia Military Institute—as a soldier-statesman of exemplary character, a man who embodied the virtues of faith, hope, prudence, temperance, courage, humility, patience, and justice, among others. Less well known is his background and life in the Episcopal Church, where he would have read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the ingredients of the American prayer book, first produced in 1789 and slightly modified in 1892 and 1928. When pressed for an answer about his political plans, he’d always deflect journalists by pronouncing, “My father was a Democrat, my mother a Republican, and I am an Episcopalian.”
Baptized at six months in his home parish, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, just southeast of Pittsburgh, General Marshall spoke in later life of the influence of this church and of its young rector on his personal development. Gradual nurture and slow transformation, not an emotional conversion experience, marked his spiritual journey. The Book of Common Prayer offered a structure to flawed human beings, including young George: a rhythm of contrition and repentance, thanksgiving and renewal. The prayer book’s mixture of tragedy (“no health in us”) and triumph (grace and life abounding) amounted to Christian realism avant la lettre.
Confirmed at St. Peter’s at the age of sixteen, George Marshall continued through the rest of his life in the way he had been brought up. A regular communicant who always sought to build up the church community on the posts to which he was assigned, Marshall ended his days a faithful communicant at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Leesburg, Virginia, close to his home at Dodona Manor.
Historians cite the impact of the Rules of Civility on George Washington and of Groton headmaster Endicott Peabody on Franklin Roosevelt. With at least as much confidence they should name prayer-book spirituality as a steady influence on George Marshall, not only as a boy and adolescent but throughout his life. Even the European Recovery Program, which everyone but the Secretary of State called the Marshall Plan, bears the marks of this formation. Realism and hope, prudence and promise, characterize its origins and purpose: balance-of-power strategy (defensive realism) wedded to compassionate intervention (active idealism), all in defense of human freedom and justice. A conservative internationalist, Marshall initiated and helped to secure passage of a program that we can at least say is wholly consonant with both his grand strategy as an American statesman and his faith as a prayer-book Episcopalian.
Marshall was a protégé of General John J. Pershing and had drawn up the outline for this World War I hero’s resplendent state funeral, complete with mourners and marching troops behind the caisson as it moved slowly in sweltering heat from the U.S. Capitol, where the body had lain in state, to Arlington Cemetery, as airplanes flew overhead and observers lined the streets.
But when Marshall expressed his wishes about his own rites, he forbade an elaborate ceremony for himself: no invitation lists for special dignitaries, no lying in state in the Capitol rotunda, the Order for the Burial of the Dead from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. And no eulogy: the focus should be on the meaning of the service itself. A five-star general, the only soldier to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, would receive the same burial order as a homeless person. Those who attended heard these words:
Almighty and ever-living God, we yield unto thee most high praise and hearty thanks, for the wonderful grace and virtue declared in all thy saints, who have been the choice vessels of thy grace, and the lights of the world in their several generations.
As in life, so also in death, prayer-book rites marked the man whose identity they had helped to shape.
George C. Marshall was a formal individual, austere even for a military officer who looked to George Washington and Robert E. Lee as exemplars of deportment and self-denial. Thus the formality of the Book of Common Prayer suited him. But much more than style or manner was involved in the way he construed and lived his calling. Marshall found his vocation in honorable service. For him duty and liberty were not at odds with each other but were complementary. Freedom was not merely an absence of restraint but a field for the exercise of virtue.
Therefore, General Marshall, whom Dean Acheson called the “least militant of soldiers,” would have prayed the Collect for Peace, in the Order for Daily Morning Prayer, with complete understanding and in a spirit of heartfelt approbation:

O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In his personal history of the Church of England, titled Our Church (2012), Roger Scruton analyzes these lines and comments: “The phrase ‘whose service is perfect freedom’ is a rebuke directed to those who think that freedom and authority are in conflict.”
Freedom and authority may be in conflict. But here Omnipotence and Omniscience (“in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life”) are established as “the author of peace and lover of concord” and hence trustworthy. But even more: God is for us and not against us. We know this because in his service lies our own perfect freedom. To serve this One liberates our true selves. Confidently, then, we can ask God to defend us “in all assaults of our enemies,” so that, “trusting in thy defence,” we may not live in fear.

David Hein is a senior fellow at the George C. Marshall Foundation, in Lexington, Virginia. He is the author of Noble Powell and the Episcopal Establishment in the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press) and coauthor of The Episcopalians (Praeger) and Archbishop Fisher, 1945-1961: Church, State and World (Routledge). His publications also include more than seventy articles in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, the New Criterion, Theology, the Journal of Military History, Modern Age, Touchstone, ARMY magazine, the Intercollegiate Review, and other periodicals. The present article appeared in The Imaginative Conservative on July 31, 2021, and is reprinted here, slightly modified, by permission.  Www.theimaginativeconservative.org.

[1] The quotations are  from Rose Macaulay, Letters to a Friend, 1950-1952, edited by Constance Babington Smith (New York: Atheneum, 1962).


This article was originally published on 31st July 2021

on The Imaginative Conservative website


and is reproduced here by permission.