I have to catch myself sometimes, I never thought I’d be this kind of Christian. Even a couple of years ago I was a fairly generic brand of miscellaneous evangelical. I’m still trying to work through what I think and where its leading me, part of this is getting my head round the challenge and appeal of the Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer is a foundational text for the Anglican church, its been adapted for use by both Catholics and Orthodox and at a time was the backbone of Church services nearly everywhere English was spoken. It contains Prayers but it also contains Orders of Service, Psalms to be sung or prayed, Catechism, the Creed of St Athanasius, the 39 articles of the Anglican church and more. For many it’s considered not just a foundational part of Anglicanism but of the English language alongside Shakespeare and the Bible. It was originally compiled during the reign of King Edward the VI, the son of Henry the VIII by Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.
With the decline of liturgy and the various changes within the English church in the 20th century however the Book of Common Prayer is currently out of favour with many Christians. I have the 1662 pocket edition and it reads like the King James Bible, to many and myself initially it can prove complicated and overwhelming. Yet this is partly because, archaic language aside, its prayers are primarily corporate in nature which is something increasingly rare today. The secret to the BCP is in its name – it is meant to be common, or rather something we share ‘in common’ with one another. One person I was talking with, about the liturgy and prayers of the BCP, articulated it in the following way.
One of the things that is most blessed about the liturgy is the fact that it binds us into the community, whether we are praying in our corner alone or united with others in one place. The prayers are ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’. It transcends space and time, uniting believers around the world and through the ages — not just to Cranmer but beyond, through the centuries of medieval development and to the ancient church. I love that feature of it. And this emphasis on community, made explicit in many prayers but also built into the traditional structure of Anglicanism from parish to diocese through province to primate, is definitely at odds with much evangelicalism — and this is a shame, because there is something beautiful about the knowledge, zeal, commitment, and drive for holiness that is embodied in evangelicalism at its best. But today, evangelicalism, even in corporate worship, continually uses ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘mine’ (one thinks immediately of the Beatles) and spends much of the time of praise looking to the praiser and his or her experience, not to the one being praised.
The Prayer Book sets us free from that without jettisoning the important, deep, biblical theology evangelicals claim as their own.
OUR Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread;And forgive us our trespasses,As we forgive them that trespass against us;And lead us not into temptation,But deliver us from evil,(For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.)Amen.
..they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so..
Excerpt from the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan
This idea suggested Church, not just Christianity as a way of life. It was something always going on, always coming together and the emphasis was on the ‘common’ faith shared between believers. This is a Church, like the early church, which changed the way society was structured and run. Discussing this with my own minister I was disappointed to hear that the majority of ministers trained today have little to no exposure to the Book of Common Prayer and we are exchanging our heritage for something that seems in comparison so minimal. I only knew anything about because I sought it out, otherwise this is a text many of us either knowingly disregard or are ignorant of.
More recently when a family member was admitted to hospital I was distraught and I prayed till I didn’t know what to say. Out of words I went and picked up the BCP opening it on the section detailing ministry for the sick and ailing. Praying those words knowing that they had been said thousands of times of people in similar situations throughout the ages was profound. The words themselves have power, but so does the common nature of the text I had been given. I knew whatever happened, me and my relative were bound together in the footsteps of Christians who knew that same pain and struggle and responded by bringing it to God. When you push past the archaic language the words are surprisingly candid, human and they help give us focus, directing us out of ourselves towards God.
The BCP is full of prayers thanking God for all areas of our life but it also contains everything you need to know theologically to be considered an Anglican. It contains a Catechism, a Creed and the 39 articles. If an apocalypse were to happen today and all knowledge of this world to disappear, you could, upon discovering the BCP amongst the rubble, continue the practice and belief of the Anglican church from this small book. The faith in the BCP is a common faith, a public faith that is easy to understand and consistently referencing scripture throughout. The BCP is a ticket to a new (but really ancient) vision of church.
Despite all this I struggle to read the BCP consistently, the prayers are long and its not a fashionable thing to do. Yet theres an appeal to it, to be honest it feels a bit of dirty secret when I’m amongst my classically evangelical friends. The BCP is meant really for corporate settings, but I pray it alone because no one really does it anymore – not even my minister. I pray that changes. Even when I struggle I’ve taken to incorporating elements from it into my more open prayer. The doxologies, key phrases and terms are hooks I use to tap into the theology contained within it when I go about my day.
I don’t really understand the point in all the formality in so many church services but I am now beginning to understand the point of the BCP. If you’ve never read the BCP I would encourage you to do so. For all the christian books and music published today you can do worse than to direct funds elsewhere temporarily and pick up a copy for yourself. Let it speak for itself and instead of merely reading the words, like I used to, consider what is being said and why on the pages you read. Its worth it.
O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.
Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP