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This page last updated 13 July 2013  

Common Worship: What is it?

This month the Church of England publishes some major new liturgical materials.  This article describes what is happening, and explains the publishing context, and gives a very brief description of the contents. More information will be available on the Common Worship web site within a few weeks.

For the past twenty years, the Church of England has had two principal prayer books. First, the (1662) Book of Common Prayer, which has not itself been revised, and will continue to be authorized indefinitely (it would require an Act of Parliament to change it).  Second, the Alternative Service Book, 1980.  The date was deliberately made part of the title of the latter when it was first published, and originally it was authorized for only ten years, but this period was subsequently extended for another decade which is now drawing to a close. The ASB as it is commonly known will no longer be authorized for use after 31 December, 2000. It has been very widely used, and its existence has certainly contributed to a decline in usage of the Book of Common Prayer across England.

For several years the Church of England, through its Liturgical Commission and its General Synod, has been preparing a replacement for the ASB.  This replacement is not, however, a single printed book. Rather it is a comprehensive collection of liturgical materials which is being published both electronically and also in a series of printed books. The programme of publication is the responsibility of a separate synodical committee known as the Liturgical Publishing Group and the work of publication has been undertaken by Church House Publishing, which is a department of The Archbishops’ Council. The latter body is the copyright holder.

The first parts of Common Worship were in fact published in 1997, when the Calendar, the (Sunday) Lectionary, and the Collects (and Post Communion prayers) were published in book and electronic forms. The Initiation Services followed in 1998. Last year a version of the collects in “traditional language” was also published, and the Common Worship web site was launched.  The web site contains the full text of all these books.

This month two further Common Worship books are being published.  One of these is concerned entirely with what are described as Pastoral Services, i.e. Marriage and Funerals, and also Wholeness and Healing.

The other new book, which is known as the “main volume”, is not intended to be a direct replacement for the ASB or a direct alternative to the BCP, both of which contain the full range of church services.  The new book, subtitled Services and Prayers for the Church of England, is intended to be a Sunday Service Book and therefore includes only those services likely to be needed in ordinary parishes on Sundays and the principal feasts of the church year. It therefore does not include material specifically for weekdays or for the occasional offices such as are in the Pastoral Services book. The Common Worship web site already contains the full text of these books in .pdf format and will soon contain the same material in standard .html format as well.  The other electronic publication, which is a Windows-based software product called Visual Liturgy will shortly be publishing an upgrade to Version 3.0, which incorporates all the new material, and for those who prefer something much simpler there will also be a set of text disks available which simply contains the same material in word processing format.

There will be further printed volumes in the future, and again all of the additional material will be published electronically at the same time.  The details of future publications are not yet definite, but they are likely to include:

  • Material for weekday morning and evening prayer, which will probably be published first in an interim edition for trial use, perhaps as early as 2002. 
  • A revision, also expected in 2002, of the 1995 book Patterns for Worship, which was in some ways the forerunner for many key aspects of Common Worship,
  • Additional seasonal material along the lines of the books such as Lent, Holy Week and Easter and Promise of His Glory which were published in the 1990s to supplement the ASB and were “commended” by the House of Bishops, rather than formally authorized by the General Synod
  • A revision of the 1998 Initiation Services
  • A new Ordinal, which would replace that included in the ASB which meanwhile remains authorized.

The main volume is being published in two distinct editions (not counting the different page sizes and various bindings beloved of deadtree book publishers). The Standard Edition is intended as a “pew edition” although it is expected that many churches will purchase separate paperbound editions of individual services (e.g. Holy Communion Order One or Morning and Evening Prayer) for use in churches. It is also accepted that very many parishes will make their own local booklets from the electronic sources for their regular services. Indeed although there has been a huge effort to make the official books easy to use despite the existence of many alternative texts and rubrical options, one major reason for adopting the local booklet approach will be to make the services easier to follow for worshippers, both regulars and visitors.  The President’s Edition is designed for use at the holy table and is quite differently arranged. First, it only contains those materials from the Standard Edition that are needed by the bishop or priest who presides at either Holy Communion or Baptism, and second the pages are arranged in a quite different order to the standard edition in order to make it much easier for use in that situation. It also contains some additional texts that might be needed there, e.g eucharistic  prefaces for funerals or marriages, and some limited additional seasonal material.  No version of the book contains the scripture readings printed out in full, as the ASB did.

One notable feature of the new books is that they contain material in both contemporary English and in “traditional language” e.g. with thee and thou in it, whereas the ASB contained only (1980-style) modern English.  The main services from the BCP are included in the main volume, with some minor rubrical adjustments to reflect usual current practice in England, alongside the modern services.

The Common Worship collection of liturgical materials can usefully be considered in four categories:

  • Main Services
  • Pastoral Services
  • Resources
  • Tables

each of which is described in turn below, and which can be further subdivided into a total of 12 categories (plus a further four categories in the future: Daily Prayer, the Ordinal, seasonal material and Patterns for Worship revised).

Main Services include the following:

A Service of the Word, Morning and Evening Prayer, Night Prayer
Holy Communion
Initiation Services

The first category contains not only the listed services, each in modern form and also as in the BCP,  but also modern and BCP forms of The Litany, and a collection of prayers, forms of confession and absolution, creeds and other affirmations of faith.  The Service of the Word is itself a key concept in the development of Common Worship, which was first published and authorized in 1995, and which consists entirely of a structure, or rubrics, into which particular texts must then be inserted. The book contains a detailed explanation of all this (pages 21-23) which I will not try to summarise here.

Holy Communion rites are provided in four forms:

  • Order One, modern Western structure, contemporary language
  • Order One in Traditional Language
  • Order Two, BCP structure and language
  • Order Two in contemporary language

Together with a large quantity of supplementary texts, providing a great deal of seasonal variation and alternative forms for various situations.  Order One in contemporary language includes a total of eight eucharistic prayers, which deserve a separate article.

Initiation Services are only partially included in the new books. For a complete set of texts, we await a revision of the 1998 book in due course. The rubrics in these services were slightly modified since publication as a result of comments from parishes about them: these services had not been subjected to the process of trial use in parishes which is now normative and which has been followed in the preparation of all subsequent material.  Although the main Baptism service is included in the main volume, and the revised rubrics are published in the President’s Edition, the other services of Confirmation etc. are not included.  Updated versions of all of them do appear on the web site however.

Pastoral Services includes:

Wholeness and Healing (ministry for the sick)

It needs to be understood  that the Church of England conducts a very large number of marriages and funerals each year for people who are not necessarily churchgoers and indeed may well not be Christians. This is a pastoral situation not found in most other Anglican provinces. These services therefore reflect the need for a very wide range of material to be available to ministers for handling these situations.  Again, this area is worth a whole separate article in due course.

Resources comprises:


The Collects and Post Communions previously published in 1997 are here included twice: both contemporary and traditional language forms. Those for Lesser Festivals are included only in the President’s Edition, however.

The Psalter in the Standard Edition (only) is a major revision of the US Episcopal Church BCP psalter.  The revision is however very English in character, and it will be interesting to hear American comments on the changes.

A large number of canticles is included for use both at Morning and Evening Prayer and at other services, and the Pastoral Services book includes a further selection designed specifically for weddings and funerals.

Tables include:


The Calendar is unchanged from 1997, apart from one change of date (the Cornish St Petroc is moved to 4 June, to bring the whole Church of England in line with the Diocese of Truro) and one correction of names (the Venn family on 1 July). 

The Lectionary as published in the main volume is only that for Sundays and Principal Feasts. A weekday lectionary has recently been authorised for use starting this Advent, and that lectionary will be revised before it receives long-term authorization and included in the proposed Daily Prayer book, forecast for 2004. Until that date this lectionary is not available, either in book or electronic form, except insofar as it appears in annual almanac publications, of which there are several.

The Rules category includes various tables of rubrics and other information, designed to keep liturgists employed, such as the Date of Easter, and what to do when two liturgical events occur on the same day, and other matters of greater or lesser necessity. You wouldn’t really expect anything else from an Anglican source, would you?

Simon Sarmiento, 5 November 2000


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