Almost a year ago, I finally got my own copy of the Book of Common Prayer. The BCP is a tool for worship that’s vital to faith practice for many Episcopalians*, but is frequently viewed with suspicion or bewilderment by non-Anglicans, if they’re even aware of its existence at all. When I got it, I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was acquiring at the time; it came in an order from Amazon along with a hymnal and some textbooks, and I set it aside, figuring I’d get to it eventually.
Last January, I was rereading Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, and I decided to commit to the inward spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study for the duration of Lent. That’s when I discovered how essential the Book of Common Prayer can be to the modern life of prayer for Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike.
*There are a few terms that I’d like to clarify right off the bat, in case you’re not familiar with them. The Episcopal Church is the American derivation of the Church of England. The term “Anglican” thus refers to those within the Church of England, as well as to those who are considered Episcopalian, along with both churches’ liturgical traditions.
The first Book of Common Prayer (BCP) was written in 1547-9, generally assumed to be the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, though like many non-recorded historical events, it’s not possible to absolutely substantiate this. A council was created at the start of the reign of Edward VI to reimagine worship and the religious life of the country, to transition the Church of England from the Latin rites (which they had continued to observe after the official split of the Church of England from the Papacy). The book came from 3 major sources: the Sarum Rite, which is the 13th century Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury; a reformed Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quiñones, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by the Archbishop of Cologne, Hermann von Wied. It was extensively revised in 1552, but retained its roots, and over the centuries, though the text was sparingly updated, the traditions and language remained largely the same.
The BCP was updated a third time in 1559, and again in 1662, which is the version still used by the Church of England today. 1787-9 saw the publication of the Revised Book of Common Prayer, which was the version adopted by the American Episcopal Church, based nearly entirely on the 1662 BCP and remaining in use for a century until minor revisions caused its republication in 1892. There were additional minor revisions in 1928 and 1979, but the BCP used within the Episcopal church today is still, essentially, the 1662 BCP. My copy is this current version from the Episcopal church, and it includes the text of the book’s ratification in 1789, along with a verifying certificate from 2007.
What is it, exactly?
The BCP is essentially a handbook of Christian worship in the Anglican tradition, the tradition from which all Protestant denominations essentially derive. The book begins with an informative introduction, explanation of the major feast days of the church, and continues with orders of worship for the Daily Offices, the Great Litany, traditional and contemporary Collects, daily devotionals for individuals and families, and liturgies for special days, baptism, Eucharist, and other special services. Following these worship orders is the entire book of the Psalms, which as we know is the prayer book of the Bible, then some other prayers and thanksgivings, the catechism, historical documents of the church, and then the complete three-year Lectionary.
It’s clear why this book is second to the Bible to many Episcopalians: paired with a hymnal, it contains absolutely everything that a faithful Christian would need to direct their personal prayer life. It brings the historical traditions and documents of the church into the modern worshipper’s life and practices.
Why are Episcopalians the only ones who really use it?
Having been raised in the United Methodist Church, I was only vaguely aware of the BCP, and with the strong undercurrent of anti-papist sentiment in the churches of my childhood, I was never all that interested in exploring something that seemed so similar to the Roman Catholic traditions which I had grown up rejecting.
In my research into the development of some of the Protestant denominations, and especially the spread of the Methodist movement in England and the Americas, the BCP came within discussions of the kinds of psalters, hymnals, and other worship materials that were being published in the colonies. Most of the first ministers within the Methodist movement were ordained in the Church of England, John Wesley and several of his contemporaries in England. As the movement spread and took hold in the colonies, there soon developed a crisis– they didn’t have enough ordained leaders to shepherd the ever-growing numbers of converts. Initially, the Wesleys were committed to requiring ordination within the Church of England before individuals (well, ahem, men) were allowed preach and preside over communion; as the need for leaders grew ever more pressing, they were forced to reconsider the practicalities of that commitment. John Wesley sent Francis Asbury to the States to reevaluate the situation, and he became the first Bishop within the Methodist Episcopal church in America, setting up his own network of itinerant preachers to evangelize to the colonies.
This background is essential to understanding the Methodist church’s relationship with the BCP. With a heritage so closely aligned with the Episcopal church, with a founder ordained in the Church of England who never actually wanted his own denomination, it would make sense for the Methodist church of today to have as close an historical tie with the BCP as the Episcopal church does. But when Methodism traveled across the ocean, it lost its liturgical roots. Very quickly, due simply to the need for ordained preachers, men were leading the church who had no experience in the Church of England whatsoever. So while the first preachers within the Methodist movement, John Wesley and his ordained peers, had an identity within the Church of England and a liturgical attachment to the BCP, those ordained as the movement progressed, and especially in the colonies, had little to no exposure to the liturgy of the Anglican tradition, and though they were encouraged to use the BCP, largely dismissed it as stuffy and irrelevant to their ministries.
And the roots of the second-wave Methodist preachers were in the American Revival movement of the 19th century, which finished off the BCP for good. They had no need for prayers that were written down; it was the age of speaking from “the heart”. The revivalists’ belief that the Spirit can speak to the Church only through extemporaneous prayer is one that is still held by many Baptist, Pentecostal, and spontaneous evangelical worshipping churches today.
These days, there are many Protestant churches in America that still retain some severe anti-papist sentiments, and oddly enough, that is frequently reason enough to continue to write off the BCP, lumped in with the other liturgical worship traditions that are dismissed as irrelevant because they “feel too Catholic”.
Why does the Book of Common Prayer still matter?
It’s not often that a 500-year-old book still has relevancy to the church today, but the more time I spend with mine, the more I discover about the refreshing and renewing traditions that have sustained Christian prayer lives for centuries, and continue to sustain mine.
This lovely article in Christianity Today demonstrates the book’s relevancy for today’s church:
If you’ve ever pledged to be faithful to someone “till death do us part,” mourned to the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” or hoped for “peace in our time,” you’ve been shaped by Cranmer’s cadences, perhaps without knowing it. …In making his prayer book, Thomas Cranmer wanted to make sure that the people of England were constantly exposed to Holy Scripture in a language they understood, working through the whole of the Bible regularly and the Psalms every month, while following a calendar that rehearsed in every church year the whole story of salvation starting with the Fall and culminating in Christ’s unique sacrifice of himself on the Cross and his glorious resurrection, the benefits of which we are not worthy to receive on any merits of ours—”we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table”—but only through the purest grace extended on the basis of Christ’s unique status as Lord and Savior. How can you get any more evangelical than that?
I’m not Anglican, and I don’t really have any idea what to do with liturgical worship… how could I incorporate the Book of Common Prayer into my personal spiritual life?
This is the version that I have, which is the full 1979 revised edition of the BCP in a lovely red hardcover, and as I mentioned above, I grew to really appreciate the BCP during my Lenten practice this past year.
For prayer practice: I’ve adapted the liturgy for individuals and families to my own personal use. There’s also great comfort to be found in the section devoted to prayers and thanksgivings. You can also use the reading schedule of the Psalms that’s included in this book: they assign each chapter of the Psalms for a specific office of the day, and you work through the whole book of Psalms in a month.
For scripture study: The daily lectionary readings take you through Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings, helping you work through the scriptures in an orderly, and achievable, fashion. I also used that Gospel reading as the foundation of a meditation practice.
I personally find the most spiritual growth when I set up a structure for myself, even if that structure just sets aside time for me to spend with God in silence. I have found that my BCP makes that structure effortless, it guides my bible study, and at times, gives words to prayer that I wouldn’t have found on my own.
I’ll note here that none of this is rocket science, nor is it something no one has ever said before. The BCP simply takes several of these elements and puts them together in one versatile volume; there’s a reason it’s lasted these 500 years, I think.
If you, like me, grew up in a tradition that didn’t use the Book of Common Prayer; if you, like me, are looking for guidance on some of the inward spiritual practices; if you, like me, find meaning in practices that tie us to the historical Christian church, I would encourage you to acquire a copy of the Book of Common Prayer for yourself. It has added so much to my personal spiritual life, and I would hope that you might find the same thing.