Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

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.
The use in the prayers of ‘we’ and ‘our’ aren’t original – it mirrors the Lord’s prayer.
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.

 

Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer in this sense is common too and if you recite it with any frequency, then this is liturgy in a fashion. Its tragic that, in my own experience, many evangelical churches seldom say it anymore publicly, or even share communion that often anymore.
The other thing I found challenging about the BCP is that it contains morning and evening prayers. I had to check with someone but the BCP assumes this is done every day. The idea of church being open every day, both morning and evening for me was pretty challenging. The idea of getting together with others early in the morning reminded me of a letter by Pliny the Younger on the Early Church.
..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

C.S Lewis on old books

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S Lewis Introduction to Athanasius: On the Incarnation

Free trade and the democratisation of theology

Free trade and the democratisation of theology

For the vast majority of individuals attending church their theological education comes from a number of places. The Church they attend plays a role in the forms of sermons they hear, songs they sing, words they pray and small groups they attend. Increasingly however we look to any number of various books we’re recommended or the latest worship music that makes the rounds to inform out attitudes and insights concerning our religion. At an individual level our theological development, outside of any small group, for the lay person comes from private purchases. Even in the form of conferences, the experience is accessible only via means of private purchase and the biggest tangible takeaway is often in books or music acquired. An indicator of how ‘Christian’ an individual is, at least socially, is by the volume of Christian themed books and music they possess. I’ve even heard the acquisition of such things recommended from the Pulpit on occasion as part of Christian growth. Our Bibles today largely originate from the presses of for-profit private publishers.

This isn’t something that has always taken place in the church, but the degree to which it does now when we stop and consider it is actually pretty shocking. Many of the most well known figures in Protestantism are Authors, Speakers and Musicians. We engage with these figures not through traditional denominational lines or on any personal level but through mass media, peers and endorsements that lead to the purchase of their material. Increasingly we vote with our wallets for content that is appealing or ‘speaks’ to us that is often outside our own tradition. As we allow this content to influence and shape us we end up situations at a macro scale where one church very much feels like any other irrespective of denomination. We are instead defined increasingly by what Authors, Speakers and Worship Leaders we follow in the style and substance of. The Western Protestant (Although I’m sure Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox see this emerge in their own ways) Christian subculture in many ways operates now as a microcosm of the broader free market driven society we find ourselves in.

The free market approach to theology in some ways provides ample opportunities for spiritual growth in a way which at first appears undiscriminating. However on closer inspection their are a number of issues with this current approach to Christian development..

Expense as a barrier

The most obvious issue is that access to content, teaching or any other material is locked behind a barrier that discriminates, on the part of its consumers, along economic lines. This touches on the broader issue of intellectual property and copyright in the Church which I won’t go into here. Yet one of the common accusations aimed at the Church in the UK is that it is an increasingly middle class institution. The middle class in this country are really the only people with the means, and arguably inclination, to engage in this material with any regularity and can soak up the expense.

The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

The other side is that such material produced has an expense attached to breaking into the market. The content of any material produced can frequently play second fiddle to its marketability. A well known speaker will sell better than a lesser known individual with often little regard to the quality of the content they produce. In recent years scandals have even emerged of US Mega Church ministers using Church funds to boost the marketing and sales of their own books. Such practices are defended as utilising ‘any means possible’ mentality to spreading the Gospel. Something condemned by St Paul himself.

Encourages churn

The other issue with this model is that material will age significantly quicker due to new content constantly being pushed into the market. Its hard to imagine which material produced today will be accessed by successive generations the way we might access The Book of Common Prayer, Pilgrims Progress or even Mere Christianity. Even the status our classics hold is harmed not by necessarily worthy successors but by the growing crowd of material itself. Theres more noise and as a result less signal because of our desire to produce so much content. Even looking back to the time I lead worship at my Universities Christian Union meetings I noticed a new song book every year from worship ‘labels’ with the latest and greatest songs inside. Of course all this material is optional, but even in its production such material requires some measure of space in our cultural bandwidth at the expense of something that was present previously.

13925929_631049963724893_6248546789731789474_o.pngThe churn in contemporary Christianity’s marketplace means that our faith is no longer ‘timeless’ in the sense of transcending time. Rather it is timeless in that our Christianity has become an empty void ready to be filled with the constant stream of freshly produced ’emerging’ material . We are arguably living in the Western Christian ‘end of history’ as a result of this free market attitude.

No upper limit

With the arguably limitless volume of material out there. We might ask the question, how much is too much? We might reason that is no end to our sanctification in this life, likewise their is no end to our purchasing. In fact we might, albeit subconsciously, even come to link the two. Such a statement isn’t absolute of course, but their is a measure of truth in this. Their is nothing wrong inherently in the purchase of books or music etc. but their is a danger that we might see the acquisition of such things so highly that it might become an idol in our lives that leads us astray.

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In our churches we may see preaching and teaching as ‘equipping’ yet in keeping our primary focus on such things we might fail to explain or actually get round to the task we are equipping individuals for. Paul uses the analogy of an athlete running the race, but perhaps we spend so much time training today that we do very little participation in the great race itself.

Opt-In instead of Opt-Out

If theres something important that needs to be said, or something that needs doing in a community its necessary that such things are made normative or default. However because all such content published today is optional, the material consumed or valued is that which is not necessarily important, but appealing. This can also cut the other way by subconsciously teaching us that even the essentials in our local church communities are now Opt-In. People shouldn’t be compelled but this leaves a situation where congregations are increasingly theologically compromised because those who attend are so fragmented in their beliefs. The only way to operate with any efficiency is to keep any practice at a basic, universally applicable level that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

An appropriate analogy of Opt-In/Out might be that which I experience frequently in my work. Android as an operating system for mobile phones has many more active versions live than at any given point in time than Apple’s iOS. This is because Android is open source (a good thing) which means that any company can use the software and can choose whether or not to lock the operating system to a particular version. The problem then is that if I design something to work across all these different devices, all running different versions of the same software (some really old and some brand new). It either makes things incredibly complex in order to deliver a good experience or I have to restrict the experience heavily so that I can ensure a consistent experience across all platforms. This is why iOS lock down their system so much, so they can control the variables more and deliver what they believe is a better, deeper experience. From a systems perspective if your leading a church you either have a really tough time trying to engage with everyones foibles and quirks which is much more labour intensive (The approximate marketing equivalent is Narrowcasting) or you become much more restricted in your message and appeal to the lowest common denominator in your practice (like Broadcasting). The alternative is to clearly demarcate your theological boundaries as a Church community in order operate within those boundaries at a much deeper level.

Is there alternatives?

Its one thing to talk about this but is there realistically any alternative? I love books and certainly don’t have any issue with publishers. However, there are a number of things that could allow individuals and churches address some of the issues outlined in this post. Its not so much we can pretend this doesn’t occur, but we can mitigate it and even use it to our advantage.

  1. Churches could offer adult theological education distinct from preaching – Many churches offer something in the way of Sunday school for children. Why should this stop when they become adults? Churches offering seminar style structured theological training gives the church an in-depth platform to engage with the spiritual formation of congregants.
  2. Individuals need to commit to a theological tradition – Their are distinctions in the theology and history of many churches which are in the UK. Developing an appreciation and affiliation to one will allow you to go deeper and seek out instruction in it rather than skimming across the top of a number of varied groups.
  3. Churches need to be more nuanced in the distinction of leadership and laity – One of the biggest barriers to something like option one is the lack of leaders in a church. Giving members the option to lead a class session or have responsibilities delegated to can help everybody. It also ensures that competent, godly and gifted people get a chance to develop themselves whilst being invested in a particular church and tradition. In scripture I think this is the place of the Deacon.
  4. Christians need to be more visible in the practical working out of their faith –  This is to help mentor others in the community of faith and in serving one another everyday encourage growth and a missional witness. It also provides something only obtainable through a physical gathering of believers.
  5. Communal life needs to be more prominent – Placing a greater emphasis on the shared life of the church helps guards against individualism. It is also something that can’t be purchased and places an emphasis on aspects of the faith not so caught up in the practice of buying and selling.
  6. Christians need to move past copyright – We currently promote our music, Bible and theology through systems like copyright. This means that the material we produce will always come from a place motivated in part by profit motive. If thats our aim that is one thing, but if its not and we believe what we produce has significant cultural or theological value then we should perhaps explore positive options like the Creative Commons or variations on this. The situation we find ourselves in today is a relatively recent one in church history with no shortage of alternatives.
  7. Place a greater emphasis on the sacraments – We worship Jesus Christ, who came and dwelt among us. Theres no better way than to ground and bring the church together through regular and persistent celebration of the sacraments. This is the pattern of the church since its foundation. This is how we encounter God and his grace in our lives, without charge.
  8. Encourage Bible reading for the sake of reading – We live with the greatest access to the Bible in history yet is often bemoaned how illiterate Christians are. A 2008 study suggests that whilst 87% percent of church leaders say the Bible is taught regularly only 68% of church attendees say the same thing. Which if nothing else suggests a disconnect in the perception of leaders and those attending churches when it comes to the place of scripture in the church. Both in church and at a personal level we should encourage people to interact with the Bible on its own terms and read it for the sake of reading it instead of necessarily trying to sermonise and analyse it constantly. Why not start a Bible book club?
  9. Accountability and discipleship as essentials rather than extras – I’ll be honest, I’ve never gone to a church (despite attempts otherwise) that has done accountability in any meaningful way. Nor one that has offered a consistent definition or handling of discipleship. The culture is very firmly against it today but these are things explicitly outlined in the New Testament as integral to the life of a Christian that can’t be bought or sold. We do these not as transactions, or because we pay people to, but because we are asked to love one another as followers of Christ. If we, the church, don’t have the time for people then people won’t have time for the church.