Reflections on the BAS, 25 years on

Published September 24, 2010

Efforts were directed at producing, if not an official new Prayer Book, then an approved alternative. Some authors never really recovered from the experience.
Illustration by David Anderson,

It’s hard to believe that 25 years have passed since the Book of Alternative Services (BAS) came into print. To put it into perspective, the Book of Common Prayer 1962 was the last conservative revision of that hallowed volume. To give it its due, it represented the end of the old “high church versus low church” battles that had been the source of controversy in Canadian Anglicanism for so long.

Howard Clark’s presentation to the General Synod of 1959 in St. Anne de Bellevue, Que. produced a unanimous vote for the proposed new book, and also resulted in his election as Primate. But the 1960s brought about a radical questioning of all our institutions, and “our beloved church,” as our present Primate so aptly calls it, was in the forefront of that change.

In 1963 John Robinson’s Honest to God popularised what scholars for 200 years had discovered, and unleashed a wave of questioning among the laity. In the same year, the General Synod commissioned Pierre Berton, as a disaffected Anglican, to write The Comfortable Pew, which also had an impact, at least in North America. At about the same time Ernest Harrison wrote Let God Go Free, and the Anglican Congress of 1963 produced a document called Mutual Responsibility and Interdependence in the Body of Christ (MRI), which marked the beginning of a global shift in relations between “First World” and “Third World” churches, the implications of which are still with us today.

In any event, the decade of the sixties unleashed a demand for forms of worship far more contemporary than the Book of Common Prayer. Influenced too by other parts of the Anglican Communion, as well as by the winds of change ushered in by the Second Vatican Council, many parishes began to produce “experimental liturgies” while some began to admit children to communion before confirmation. In the late sixties the so-called Netten Report urged the church to adopt (for better or worse) a more business-like model of governance, and the New Curriculum attempted to infuse contemporary pedagogical principles into Sunday Schools.

While many of these initiatives failed, General Synod commissioned the Doctrine and Worship Committee to bring some kind of order out of the chaos which characterised much of our worship in this period. Official “trial liturgies” were produced and tested, and from 1970 on, efforts were directed at producing, if not an official new prayer book, then an approved alternative which would bring greater cohesion to our liturgical practices. One important lesson learned was not to assign the writing of new rites to single individuals. On a couple of occasions, individual authors had their work torn apart by the Doctrine and Worship Committee as a whole, and never really recovered from the experience.

From 1970-1974, I was privileged to be a member of the General Synod’s Doctrine and Worship Committee (now Faith, Worship and Ministry). Partly to save travel expenses, different regions of the country were assigned different areas of work. Having moved to Vancouver in 1973, I found myself primarily involved in the rites of Christian Initiation. This was also the time when the World Council of Churches was producing a ground-breaking agreement on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (the famous BEM document).

I was one of those who initially opposed the movement to create an official Book of Alternative Services, because I felt it might stifle much of the creativity which the sixties and seventies had unleashed. In some ways, this is what happened, but the BAS enabled a broad spectrum of Anglicans to embrace, under the guise of “an official book with a cross on the cover,”, a reasonable consensus.

There were, of course, clergy so opposed to change that they deliberately sabotaged the introduction of the new book; and many dioceses did little to educate clergy and laity on how to use it. But I also remember an introductory session on the BAS in which participants were surprised to discover that one of the “new” Eucharistic prayers was based on a second century model, and that in many ways, the BAS was more traditional than the BCP. In the end, the BAS has become the liturgical norm for most of the church, aided by the publication of Common Praise as the new official hymnal in 1998.

Still, the radical questioning of the church and its forms of worship and governance has continued. While the BAS has indeed helped us to move forward together, it still fails to meet the needs of a church engaged with a secular, pluralistic society. Many parishes are exploring forms of worship which, for better or worse, seek to engage the culture in which we now find ourselves.

The BAS is not “the last word in liturgy” but we can be grateful for the ways in which it has brought us together, and provided a platform for the ongoing renewal of the church. Still, what was true in 1985 remains true today-it’s not enough to produce a book of words; good liturgy happens when presiders and participants have a deep sense of what they are doing, so that form acquires substance, and the deep drama of worship springs to life. All this requires preparation and commitment. Parishes which take liturgy really seriously usually do it well, and they are the ones which continue to attract worshippers.

The Rev. Canon Peter W. A. Davison is a member of the Anglican Journal Board of Directors. He lives in Vernon, B.C., in the diocese of Kootenay.


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