Author of liturgical manual found inspiration in unexpected form
Michno's 'A Priest's Handbook' continues to sell nearly 30 years later[Episcopal News Service – Duluth, Minnesota] If the Holy Eucharist is a meal that gives participants a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, then it might seem appropriate that the inspiration for the format of the Rev. Dennis Michno's ubiquitous "A Priest's Handbook" was the work of a famous cook.
"Do you know what my model was for the way it's written?" Michno asked rhetorically during a recent interview in his home here. "Julia Child."
"You knew what you had and you went first to the index and you found all the places that was, and then you carefully follow every instruction and it comes out right," Michno said of Child's famous manuals of French cooking.
The New York Times said of Child in its 2004 obituary that she insisted "competent home cooks, if they followed instructions, would find even complicated French dishes within their grasp."
"A Priest's Handbook," in print since 1983, is one of a small group of liturgical manuals, among the others are "Prayer Book Rubrics Expanded" and the more-recent "Celebrating the Eucharist," and is arguably one of the more definitive efforts. The book explains the use of vestments, the liturgical colors, altar preparation, as well as gestures and movements during the various services. It also explores prayer and liturgical options for the Holy Eucharist, Holy Week, Baptism and other events in the church year. The Daily Offices and use of the lectionary also are covered.
The third and most recent edition has sold nearly 13,000 copies since publication in 1998 and continues to sell 700-800 copies a year. The previous edition sold nearly 6,500 copies between 1983 and 1997. Church Publishing Inc. does not have sales records for the first edition.
It is likely that a copy of "A Priest's Handbook" resides in the sacristies or offices of most Episcopal Church congregations. And, especially, for annual or rarely done liturgies, the question of "what does Michno say?" often precedes a search for and consultation with the manual.
The book is "not more than an arm's length away" for many priests and lay people who help plan and execute liturgies, the Rev. D. Jay Koyle, president of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Music and congregational development officer for the Diocese of Algoma in the Anglican Church of Canada, acknowledged in an interview.
"Michno seems to have a whole lot of things in one pretty compact book and was one of the first" to produce something this comprehensive, he said. "So I think that's why it's been an important book for a lot of people."
"I think a lot of people – when it comes to ceremonies of the Eucharist per se – either have other resources they go to, or should go to," Koyle said, noting that "a lot of people don't think through these things." However, Michno's handbook "is still widely used by people, whether they cling to it because they don't feel comfortable in what they're doing and they're new to things or … just as a reminder sometimes of these things that just come up occasionally [and they are wondering] what's the best way to go about doing something."
How often, for instance, does a priest get asked to commemorate the anniversary of a marriage liturgically, Koyle asked, yet Michno provides a format for doing just that.
Michno, 64 and now retired due to multiple sclerosis, wrote the nearly 30-year-old book in the wake of the introduction of the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was revolutionary for priests and lay people. He had previously written the popular "A Manual for Acolytes."
His liturgical background includes having taken "every course I could come across in liturgy" while doing his undergraduate work at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and continuing that study while at the General Theological Seminary in New York.
The Rt. Rev. Paul Moore, the then-bishop of the Diocese of New York, where Michno was serving, asked him to visit parishes in the diocese to help "smooth out" the transition from the 1928 prayer book to the 1979 edition that many Episcopalians still refer to as "new."
Among the major parts of the 1979 revolution was one in the prayer book itself -- the shift to Eucharist as the principal act of worship on Sundays (previously Eucharist was usually celebrated once a month or once a quarter) -- and one prompted by the liturgical-renewal movement happening at the same time -- and a decision by many congregreations and their leaders to move altars away from the wall so that the bishop or priest celebrating Eucharist faced the congregation.
The movement to Eucharist each Sunday was "the big win" in the 1979 revision, Michno said, calling the shift in the celebrant's orientation at the altar as the "big change."
The Rev. Louis Weil, emeritus liturgy professor at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, told ENS via e-mail that "we had to think through what gestures are appropriate with a different starting point: we had to begin within the rite and ask how the gestures we might or might not use embodied in what the text was saying."
"Many laity were accustomed to seeing the priest go through quite a number of gestures (e.g. various signs of the cross, etc.) and many got the idea that these were all 'essential,'" he added.
The same might be said for priests and while some liturgists debate some of Michno's answers, he said that many priests in those years "were really confused as to what to do and I thought I could make their lives easier."
Officials at Morehouse Publishing, now a part of the Episcopal Church-affiliated Church Publishing, suggested that Michno ought to follow his acolytes manual with one for priests and the project began, he said. Once a manuscript was done, it had to be indexed, which was a major task, given his model of the precision of those in a Julia Child cookbook. He noted that the index in the third edition is slightly less precise than the first two editions. It took a year to proof and correct the first edition, Michno recalled.
Liturgy done well and with precision is important, he said. "Precision is important because without careful practiced motion it becomes that word 'chaos' and chaos is the biggest fear … for all liturgists so a book like mine is meant to avoid chaos," he said.
In the end, Koyle said, "some people would find him a little too prescriptive" in some areas but, he added, when confronted with a unfamiliar liturgical situation "he's the first place a lot of people turn because he gives clear directions, he gives illustrations for things, he lays out what you need to do to prepare for things."
And, if Julia Child was his model, Koyle said, it's an apt one because as with any cookbook, "if you're a really good cook, you can play with it. You know what you're doing. If you're not, you don't have to panic. It's all right there step by step."
And, Child, for whom Michno once cooked a dinner that included Peking Duck, was "delighted," he said, when he sent her a copy of the first version of the book.
"She said in a note to me that she had fun reading through the table of contents and making sure that she could go some place and find the instructions."