King’s Chapel and Its Prayer Book

King’s Chapel and Its Prayer Book December 1, 2022


King’s Chapel and its Prayer Book

John Harcourt

Members of Saint John’s visiting Boston may have discovered King’s Chapel on Tremont Street at the foot of Beacon Hill. Those who have ventured inside for a service may have been vaguely disconcerted. The text in their hands was entitled The Book of Common Prayer; its format and much of the language would have seemed familiar enough. But something seemed odd about it all. And indeed it might King’s Chapel uses a revision of the traditional Prayer Book—a revision that reflects its status as a Unitarian congregation. “High Church Unitarian,” we might be tempted to say.

Anglican worship was forbidden during much of the seventeenth century, when Puritans dominated the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in the confusion of the early 1680s when James II, the last of the Stuart monarchs, occupied the throne and issued new royal charters, the Calvinist hegemony began to crumble. The new royal governor may have preferred to commandeer part of the Old South Church for his Anglican services to the annoyance of those who had founded King’s Chapel in 1688, the first church of our communion in Boston, under the jurisdiction of the bishop of London.

Much later, after the American Revolution, more changes occurred. The American Episcopal Church came into existence, drew up its own polity, and issued the first American Prayer Book. But things were a bit more complicated at King’s Chapel, where the gentle winds of Unitarianism were beginning to stir. James Freeman was officiating there as lay reader, and it was hoped that he could be ordained by the new bishops of the Episcopal Church. But in 1785, King’s Chapel had already revised the 1662 Book of Common Prayer into a mildly Unitarian document, and this revision proved unacceptable to the new American bishops. King’s Chapel countered by itself ordaining Freeman as “Rector, Minister, public Teacher, Priest, Pastor, and teaching Elder.” This purely local “lay ordination” established the essential character of King’s Chapel to this day. It is not officially a member of any other grouping not even of the Unitarians. It defines itself in its Prayer Book as “Unitarian Christian in theology, anglican in worship, and congregational in government” (p. 120).

The King’s Chapel Book of Common Prayer is now in its ninth edition (1986); its development has paralleled in many ways the evolution of our own Prayer Book—and those of other mainline Protestant denominations. Its language is mostly (though not entirely) traditional; its contents have expanded to include Midday Prayer, three orders of Holy Communion, special services for Christmas, for tenebrae, for Easter Vigil, a two year daily lectionary, a three year lectionary for Sundays and Holy Days. A detailed Kalendar (in the back end pages) will seem familiar enough to us, although a close scrutiny will disclose the omission of Trinity Sunday (the long stretch of Sundays between Pentecost and advent are numbered as Sundays “after Whitsunday”).

The careful reader will also note the absence of creeds; the authors of our own American Prayer book at first rejected even the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds. The festivals of saints, even New Testament saints, are not explicitly mentioned. Within the liturgies, the Gloria Patri is replaced by a scriptural doxology:

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only Wise God; Be honor and glory, through Jesus Christ, for ever and ever. Amen (cf. I Timothy 10:17)

What to make of all this? We Episcopalians know very little about Unitarianism, especially in its earlier Christian forms. We are surprised to earn how vigorous it was during the period of the Reformation, especially in Poland and Hungary. The Arian impulse has never been wholly absent from Christian thought, despite the efforts of Athanasius and his followers. Many, perhaps most, of the New Testament writers were, to some degree. Adoptionists in their Christologies (that is, for them the many Jesus was adopted by God as His Son at some point in His early life at His Baptism or perhaps at the Transfiguration. Most New Testament passages are susceptible of an Adoptionist reading: 2 Corinthians 13:14 is typical:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy spirit be with you all.

The word Trinity does not occur in the New Testament nor for several centuries after its completion. Trinity Sunday was a late and unmemorable addition to the church year—think back on the sermons you have heard on that date! The most explicit formulation of Trinitarian doctrine, the so called Athanasian Creed (composed centuries after the death of its namesake) has never appeared in any American Prayer Book before 1979, where it is relegated to an appendix discreetly called Historical Documents of the Church pp. 864–865). In the past hundred years or so, we have come to accept more and more the fact that Jesus was an observant Jew throughout His life. However He may have conceptualized His relationship to God, it was not in the theological terminology of the early Middle Ages.

Or consider church polity. Episcopalians sometimes seem to think that the orders of bishops, priests, and deacons

(like gothic church buildings) stretch back to their institution by Jesus. Yet today’s Biblical scholars are hardly in agreement to what New Testament terms such as bishop (overseer, teacher, presiding officer?) or deacon (servant) may have meant originally. Few main line interpreters would maintain today that Jesus intended to found a church: did the very word exist in His first century Jewish vocabulary? Even Matthew presents “Go reach ye all nations” (28:19 20) as a post Resurrection utterance.

Congregational organization, in a wide variety of shapes rather than that of a modem diocese and its “monarchical” bishop? Secret rather than public services, held in homes before sun up, with great variety in what was said and done? Something like this would appear to have been the norm in the first Christian centuries.

King’s Chapel is thus no late eighteenth century aberration. It draws largely through an Anglican filter upon ancient traditions that go back to the time when Christianity was an underground movement. It bears living witness to a troubled past, complex and multiform, that we are only beginning to recover.

“In an age of liturgical change and experiment, we at King’s Chapel are sometimes asked why we keep the prayer book In fact, it is the prayer book that has kept us.” (xii)

Can not as much be said of Saint John’s, Ithaca?


A note to the reader from Professor Harcourt: I am not a “closet Unitarian,” a crypto Arian, or a “behind barred doors first century Palestinian Adoptionist.” My own views on the subject have been set forth in “Experiencing the Trinity” (which I regard as the central Christian metaphor) in The Eagle of June, 1993.

Dr John Bertram Harcourt was the Charles A. Dana Professor of English at Ithaca College. He was a member of St John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, and served in several positions including on the Vestry, until his death in 2005. This article was first published in the church’s newsletter, St John’s Eagle, in May, 2002.

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