It started quietly enough. In 1903, acting on two overtures calling for the preparation of worship forms for congregational use, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the USA voted to form a committee to prepare a “Book of Simple Forms and Services.” The book was to be firmly rooted in Scripture and Reformed usage, avoid ritualism, embody sound doctrine, and enable a fuller participation of the people in the worship of God.
Henry van Dyke, a poet and prominent literary figure, was appointed chairman, and would have the primary role in shaping the new book. In 1897, he had joined with hymnologist Louis F. Benson in forming the Church Service Society in the U.S. to advocate the preparation of a service book. After serving as pastor of a New York City congregation, he became professor of English literature at Princeton University. A highly respected leader in the church, he’d served as moderator of the 1902 General Assembly.
At the 1905 Assembly the committee reported its progress to the Assembly, giving the commissioners their first look at a preview of the book being prepared. This set off an intense controversy spawned by those opposed to such a book, and leading to a contentious debate that lasted three hours.
Where did all this hostility come from?
Hostility toward the idea of a service book for the churches dates from the seventeenth century in the struggle for religious liberty. Unlike the Reformed folk on the Continent, where political entities remained Reformed, the Genevan-inspired Reformers in England and Scotland, after the execution of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were in direct conflict with the political and ecclesiastical powers of the day. Because those political and ecclesiastic powers had the authority to legislate the content of the service book and require its use, the Reformers were gradually driven to join with the separatists in rejecting liturgical forms thrust upon them. Eventually this grew into an antipathy toward all liturgical forms.
When these Christians sailed across the ocean to settle the New World, they brought with them their antagonism toward liturgical forms. Though now perfectly free to develop their own liturgical forms without political or ecclesiastical interference, they persisted in their opposition to liturgical forms—even if they’d forgotten why they opposed them. This lingering antagonism, then, resulted in the controversy over the 1906 service book.
At the 1906 Assembly, commissioners were able to obtain printed copies of the nearly completed Book of Common Worship. This time, anticipating controversy, the committee was prepared to carefully defend its work. To appease the opposition, the Assembly ordered that the title page avoid any appearance of being authoritative, and indicate that it was for voluntary use. Fortunately for all of us, the opposition did not prevail.
The resulting 1906 Book of Common Worship was a remarkable service book. It included prayers from Reformation and pre-Reformation times as well as new prayers. It provided services for every aspect of the church’s worship life, and prayers for the principle festivals and seasons of the liturgical year.
But its primary achievement was the recovery of a book of services for congregations in the Reformed tradition. Though not the first service book to be officially produced by an American Reformed denomination, it became a major stimulus for the recovery and renewal of worship during the century that followed among all of the Reformed churches in North America. And it was an important catalyst for subsequent Reformed participation in the reform and renewal of the church at its life-giving center, preparing us for such times as these.
The worship embodied in today’s books of worship, and the ecclesiology upon which they are based, give promise for a future that satisfies the deepest hungers of the human spirit. Remarkably ecumenical, centered in Word and sacrament, based upon the heritage of the early church, they form the core of a continuing reform of the church in our time.