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“Amen” in the Book of Common Prayer
 Lionel E. Deimel

The upcoming General Convention of The Episcopal Church will be called upon to make a decision about revision (or not) of the Book of Common Prayer. We have been using the current prayer book for nearly 40 years, and there are a number of possible revisions that could be considered urgent. Among these are a gender-neutral marriage liturgy and the replacement of the current Sunday lectionary by the Revised Common Lectionary. (Some, however, would like to dump the RCL and return to the previous Episcopal lectionary. I have no opinion about this, though I regret that the currently used lectionary does not appear in the prayer book.)

There are changes some would make for theological reasons, but, as a non-theologian, I have no strong opinions regarding theology-based revisions.

What do concern me in the 1979 prayer book are fonts, formatting, and consistency. Below, I will consider use of the word “amen.”

AmenIn a book of common prayer, it is not surprising to find more than 560 instances of the word “amen,” with which prayers conventionally end. The word somehow affirms what has come before, but authors disagree on a phrase that would exactly replace it. Marion J. Hatchett, in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, equates “amen” with “so be it.” That meaning is good enough, although I am inclined to simply say that “amen” means amen.

The 1979 prayer book is substantially consistent in its rendering of the word. “Amen” always appears at the end of a prayer, capitalized and followed by a period. The word is italicized if a change in speaker is indicated. For example, the rubric indicates that the “Celebrant” may say the Collect for Purity (Holy Eucharist II, p. 355). The collect ends with “Amen.” in italics, denoting that the word is spoken by the people. On the other hand, the Lord’s Prayer (p. 360) ends with “Amen.” set in roman type to match the body of the prayer and to show that the prayer and the concluding amen is said by everyone.

The aforementioned distinction manifests itself with particular clarity in Ministration to the Sick (p. 453 ff.). The Prayers for the Sick (pp. 458–459) end with an italicized “amen” because the prayer itself is said by the person doing the ministration. The sick person (or others present) then say “amen.” On the other hand, in the Prayers for use by a Sick Person (p. 461), both prayer and “amen” are set in roman, as only the sick person is addressing God.

The prayers in Prayers and Thanksgivings (p. 814 ff.) may be spoken by clergy or used, possibly by laypersons, in special contexts. All the prayers end with an italicized “amen.”

An exception to the above convention occurs at the ends of eucharistic prayers (pp. 336, 343, 363, 369, 372, and 375). Here, the amen is set in italic small caps. Hatchett explains the reason for this:

The mid-second century description of the eucharistic rite in Justin Martyr’s Apology stresses the Amen of the people: “Bread and wine and water are brought up, and the president offers prayers and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen.” Even late in the middle ages, when most of the prayer was said silently, the priest raised his voice at the last words of the prayer so that the people might know when to respond Amen. The present Book prints the Amen in small capital letters, unlike any other “Amen” in the Book, to give emphasis to this assent and affirmation by the people.

As much as I appreciate this explanation, I would argue that the expectation in the present day is that an Episcopal congregation is literate and is paying attention. When the prayer book is revised, these particular instances of “amen” should simply be rendered in italic with normal capitalization.

A peculiar rendering of an amen occurs on p. 401 as part of An Order for Celebrating the Holy Eucharist (pp. 400–405). This section of the prayer book is a kind of template for assembling a do-it-yourself Eucharist. The essential elements of a proper Episcopal Eucharist are listed in the appropriate order. Under the heading Make Eucharist—is this not an odd heading?—we find

The people respond—Amen!

I have no idea why there is an exclamation point here. In a revised prayer book, a period should be substituted.

In other places, an exclamation point might actually be appropriate. In the ordination services for bishop, priest, and deacon (pp. 521, 534, and 545, respectively), we find

The People in a loud voice respond    Amen.

Were an exclamation point to be substituted for the period, the “loud voice” instruction might be unnecessary. If it is felt that this part of the rubric is necessary—Episcopalians are normally are such reserved people—a more proper rewrite of the line would be

The People, in a loud voice, respond    Amen!

— LED, 3/14/2018

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