If we open The Book of Common Prayer (1662 & 1928) then Sunday, May 25th 2003 is “The Fifth Sunday after Easter commonly called Rogation Sunday” but in Common Worship (2000) and the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church USA it is called “The Sixth Sunday of Easter”. The next Sunday in the 1662 & 1928 Books is called “The Sunday after Ascension Day” because the Feast of the Ascension occurs on the previous Thursday. In contrast, in the American Prayer Book and the Common Worship it is called “The Seventh Sunday of Easter”.
Why this obvious difference?
The classic Book of Common Prayer in its Calendar follows the tradition of Western Europe from early medieval times of seeing the period from Easter Day to Ascension Day as a unity of 40 days, when the Lord Jesus appeared to his apostles & disciples. Of these days the last three are days of rogation and preparation, immediately before Ascension Day (thus the Sunday before the Feast is called Rogation Sunday). Then it sees the period from Ascension Day to Whit-Sunday as a further period of 10 days when the church prepares for the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (see Acts 2). So there is a 40 plus 10 arrangement to take account of the major festival of the Ascension of our Lord.
So why did the 1979 Prayer Book and then the Common Worship depart from this 1,000 year tradition? Because it became well known that in the very early Church (2nd & 3rd centuries) the period from Easter to Pentecost was seen as a unit and called “the Great Fifty Days”. Thus since liturgists have developed a near obsession with certain aspects of the primitive Church and sought to imitate them (e.g., the passing of the peace and the Easter Vigil) they also decided to import this idea, which meant not only changing the received names of the Sundays after Easter in the Calendar but also traditional western piety and practice. Thus all the Sundays beginning with Easter Day and ending with the Sunday before Pentecost (Whit-Sunday) became Sundays of Easter, for the 50 days were known as the Easter period. So there is one number and that is 50.
In doing this liturgists can claim the support of the Orthodox Churches who kept alive the tradition of “the fifty days” in contrast to the Western forty plus ten. However, various problems have arisen and remain where this “fifty day” unit has been taken seriously in Anglican churches by zealots. For example, the Feast of the Ascension (the feast which completes all the other feasts of the Lord Jesus) has been seriously neglected for it seems to interrupt the flow; congregations have been told that the public confession of sins in the Eucharist is banned as not appropriate for this is a time of rejoicing not penitence; and congregations have been forbidden to kneel for prayer since kneeling is seen as not related to celebration!
The chief architect of the 1979 Prayer Book, Massey Shepherd Jr., claimed that the primary principle behind its novel content and structure was imitation of the practices of the Early Church! And in saying this he reflected the mood of many western liturgists. More accurately, we may claim, what they were doing was a modernisation of certain practices of the Early Church, with other important practices (e.g., discipline & fasting) and all dogma not taken seriously at all!
Of course there was/ can be a profoundly rich piety associated with the early Church keeping of the 50 days and of course there was/can be also a rich piety associated with the later Western keeping of the 40 days plus 10. The problem today is that we have taken the structures, with some little knowledge of the piety and in a modern way to suit our secular context, and then we pretend that we keep the season aright!
So what we call Sunday May 25th and Sunday June lst does matter in the greater scheme of divine things!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon