Jeremy Haselock explains the place of the Eucharistic Epiclesis in Common Worship


Father John Gayford is to be thanked for drawing our attention to the history and significance of the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Prayers of the Church over the centuries (New Directions, October 2020), their importance in the development of eucharistic theology and in personal devotion. Unfortunately, his brief analysis of the Eucharistic Prayers in Order One of the Common Worship Eucharist is not entirely correct so as I was one of those responsible for these prayers both at drafting and Revision Committee stages back in 1997, I thought I should set the record straight.  To give this some context, the opportunity presents itself to reflect on the history of the epiclesis in Anglican eucharistic praying since Dr Cranmer first introduced it in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. 

Like the Roman Canon, of which it is a local variant, the Canon in the Sarum Mass used by Cranmer as the principal model for what was still called the Canon in 1549 has no explicit epiclesis. The Quam oblationem which serves the purpose reads (in F. E. Warren’s 1911 translation of the Sarum Missal): Which oblation, we beseech thee, O almighty God, that thou wouldest vouchsafe in all respects to bless, approve, ratify and make reasonable and acceptable, that it may become to us the body and the blood of thy most dearly beloved Son our Lord Jesus Christ. For some reason Cranmer thought this unsatisfactory – maybe he did not like the idea of oblation or the implication of the word translated as become – so he substituted a paragraph with which we have become familiar: Hear us, O merciful father, we beseech thee: and with thy holy spirit and word vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ. Scholars, including the redoubtable F. E. Brightman in The English Rite, have suggested an Eastern source for this, notably the Liturgy of St Basil, knowing Cranmer had such material in his library and, indeed, the Act of Uniformity mentions having “eye and respect . . . to the usages of the primitive Church,” but there are a number of Western liturgical precedents which he would also have known and drawn upon. There may be another, more likely source. Martin Bucer, the Strassburg reformer, Cranmer’s “secret and special friend” and a strong influence on his thought, held that the presence of Christ in the eucharist was bound up closely with the work of the Holy Spirit. His protegé, Peter Martyr, whose eucharistic theology was equally pneumatic, was lodging with Cranmer while the final drafts of the Prayer Book were being prepared, so their combined influence may lie behind this new petition. However, conservatives like Bishop Gardiner welcomed it as asserting a position on a change in the substance of the bread and wine from which Cranmer had long since moved away. Bucer saw the dangers and criticised the wording when asked to review the Prayer Book with an eye to revision so Cranmer seems to have panicked and dropped the petition in favour of something with a strongly receptionist flavour in the 1552 Book: Hear us, O merciful father we beseech thee: and grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine, according to thy son our saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of his most blessed body and blood. No hint here of blessing or consecrating. These two approaches, that of 1549 and that of 1552, separately or in combination are the source of all subsequent textual developments up until the feverish fashion for composing new Eucharistic Prayers began in the final quarter of the 20th century.

Despite the efforts of Bishops Wren and Cosin at the Savoy Conference in 1661 and after in Convocation, the 1552 formula passed into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In the Durham Book, Cosin’s annotated copy of the 1619 printing of The Prayer Book, we find this suggestion: and vouchsafe by the power of thy holy Word and Spirit so to bless and sanctify these thy Gifts and Creatures of Bread and Wine, that we receiving them according . . .  This epiclesis has resonances with that in the 1549 Book but is closer to that inserted into the Prayer of Consecration before the Institution Narrative in the ill-fated 1637 Scottish Prayer Book: Hear us, O merciful Father, we most humbly beseech thee, and of thy Almighty goodness vouchsafe so to bless and sanctify with thy word and Holy Spirit these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved Son; so that we, receiving them according to thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ’s holy institution, in remembrance of his death and passion, may be partakers of the same his most precious body and blood. 

Features like this have led to the Scottish Book being labelled a Laudian compilation by some scholars. Laud himself had very little to do with the preparation of the text other than to see that the King’s instructions were followed. Oddly enough, this “high church” epiclesis is more likely to have been a concession to Scottish usage and puritan agitation. The lack of an invocation in John Knox’s Communion Office in The Book of Common Order had been criticised by many presbyterian ministers who, on the basis that they regarded Common Order as a directory not a script, would supply the deficiency in their own words. The later Westminster Directory, imposed by the Long Parliament in 1645 to replace the Book of Common Prayer and reflecting the shared theological position behind the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, had an impressive outline invocation: the minister is Earnestly to pray to God, the Father of all mercies, and God of all consolation, to grant his gracious presence, and the effectual working of his Spirit in us; and so to sanctify these elements, both of bread and wine, and to bless his own ordinance, that we may receive by faith the body and blood of Jesus Christ, crucified for us, and so feed upon him, that he may be one with us, and we with him; that he may live in us, and we in him who has loved us and given himself for us. Alas, the records of the Convocation in November 1661 are too sketchy to reveal why an epiclesis, apparently approved in principle by both bishops and presbyterians, failed to make it into the 1662 Prayer of Consecration. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with no epiclesis in its eucharistic praying, went in the pockets of English missionaries to the four corners of the globe and had an enormous influence on the liturgical life of the major part of what was to become the Anglican Communion. However, as is typical of Anglicanism, there were other influences at work.

In 1718, the Nonjurors – the followers of those bishops who had refused to take the oath of allegiance to the usurper, William III – expressed their discontent with the 1662 Book which up until that point they had used, by publishing a liturgy of their own devising. It need not detain us save to consider two points. First, it was a scholarly compilation and where the editors thought the 1662 and 1549 Books defective they drew upon the liturgies of the Early Church. Secondly, the principal source for the Prayer of Consecration was the so-called Clementine liturgy from Book 8 of the Apostolic Constitutions which had an anamnesis, oblation and epiclesis all rolled up into one long paragraph after the Words of Institution.

When in 1690 the Church of Scotland reverted to a presbyterian system, the Episcopal Church became effectively a minority, non-conformist group, its bishops Nonjurors. It experimented with an amalgam of the 1637 and 1662 Books until 1764 when, on his own authority, the Primus William Falconer, published a Scottish Communion Office heavily influenced by the 1718 Nonjurors’ rite which rapidly gained widespread acceptance. A distinct act of oblation – printed in capital letters – and the epiclesis followed the words institution. When Samuel Seabury sought episcopal ordination from the Scottish bishops for work in New England in 1784, they agreed on the condition he studied the Scottish Office and took it back to America with him. The 1789 liturgy of the Episcopal Church of the United States thus followed the Scottish pattern and subsequent revisions have maintained this tradition and passed it to other provinces of the Anglican Communion. 

The pressure for Prayer Book revision in England was much increased after the Great War of 1914-18 had demonstrated its inadequacy particularly with regard to its funeral provision and led to many proposals for changes not least to the 1662 Eucharistic Prayer. Debate finally crystalized around the 1927/28 Deposited Book presented to Parliament and rejected. The Consecration in the Alternative Order of the Communion in the 1928 Book introduced an epiclesis over both the communicants and the gifts placed in the Scottish manner after the Words of Institution and an act of oblation: Hear us, O merciful Father, we most humbly beseech thee, and with thy Holy and Life-giving Spirit vouchsafe to bless and sanctify both us and these gifts of Bread and Wine, that they may be unto us the Body and Blood of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to the end that we, receiving the same, may be strengthened and refreshed both in body and soul. 

The 1928 Book was approved by the bishops for general use in spite of its failure to gain Parliamentary approval. Its Alternative Communion rite was liked and used by some but disapproved of and spurned by many while continued dissatisfaction with 1662 manifested itself in more unofficial proposals for revision. The appointment of a standing Liturgical Commission in 1955 formalised the process and with much to-ing and fro-ing between catholic and evangelical members, Series 1, 2 and 3 Orders for Holy Communion appeared 1966, ‘67 and ’73 respectively with newly-drafted Eucharistic Prayers. Back in 1945, Dom Gregory Dix had observed caustically, “if you share Cranmer’s theology, you would do much better to follow his form of the rite; if you do not follow it, you will not achieve what you want by shuffling his wording around.” Whilst such “shuffling” continued, new prayers in contemporary language were proposed and tried which were heavily reliant on the so-called Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. This work came together in the 1980 Alternative Service Book which, following the example of the 1970 Roman Missal, had multiple Eucharistic Prayers, four in contemporary language (Rite A) and two in traditional (Rite B).

The Latin text of Hippolytus has the epiclesis after the Institution Narrative but following the apparently decisive rejection of this position in the reaction to 1928, the ASB Hippolytan prayers adopt a western shape. The Rite A prayer most popular among catholic parishes, the Third, was partly influenced by the Eucharistic Prayer II from the new Roman Missal, again in the Hippolytan tradition. The Roman prayer – in the 1973 translation – has: Lord, you are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness. Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The ASB version reads: Lord, you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness; grant that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, and according to your holy will, these your gifts of bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The ASB 1980 was never intended to be a permanent alternative to the BCP and was authorised for ten years, later extended to twenty. Its lack of seasonal material was supplied by the Liturgical Commission’s 1986 and 1991 books covering the Paschal and Incarnation cycles respectively which set the direction of travel for the post-ASB future. More prophetic was the 1989 report, Patterns for Worship, which contained four highly innovative Eucharistic Prayers in which the epiclesis was moved to after the Institution Narrative. Episcopal and Synodical examination and Commission redrafting continued for some years before six new prayers were eventually brought before a newly elected Synod early in 1996 where they failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority required for authorisation. In that year I was appointed to the new Liturgical Commission which had to pick up the pieces and provide acceptable Eucharistic Prayers for Common Worship in 2000.

The core Sunday Service book of what was the become the many-volume Common Worship series offers eight Eucharistic Prayers in Order One, two of which are also repeated in traditional language, and in Order Two, two versions of the 1662 prayer, one in traditional and one in contemporary language.  In Order One, the first three Prayers – A, B and C – are reworked versions of ASB Prayers with the epiclesis before the Words of Institution and using invocations which are familiar. Prayer D, a responsive prayer originally drafted for use when children are present, has a new epiclesis which invokes the Holy Spirit upon the communicants and not the gifts and is placed after the Words of Institution: Send you Spirit on us now that by these gifts we may feed on Christ with opened eyes and hearts on fire.  Prayer E, the only wholly new Western shape prayer (pace Fr Gayford) and thus has its new epiclesis before the Institution Narrative: We praise and bless you, loving Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord; and as we obey his command, send your Holy Spirit, that broken bread and wine outpoured may be for us the body and blood of your dear Son. Prayer F is a new composition, freely based on a Coptic version of the Prayer of St Basil, and, in the Eastern tradition, places the epiclesis (pace Fr Gayford) after the Words of Institution: As we recall the one, perfect sacrifice of our redemption, Father, by your Holy Spirit let these gifts of your creation be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; form us into the likeness of Christ and make us a perfect offering in your sight. Prayer G was rescued from the wreck of those Prayers rejected in 1996: it is in the Eastern shape and combines very economically epiclesis and oblation: Pour out your Holy Spirit as we bring before you these gifts of your creation; may they be for us the body and blood of your dear Son. Finally, Prayer H is in the Eastern shape and was drafted to supply the perceived need for a short, responsive prayer where the responses move the substance of the prayer forward: As we proclaim his death and celebrate his rising in glory, send your Holy Spirit that this bread and this wine may be to us the body and blood of your dear Son.


Fr Jeremy Haselock is an assistant priest 

at St Bartholomew the Great, London.