I’ll be honest with you. I have not always appreciated the Book of Common Prayer. I was a child of eight or nine when the first experimental Eucharistic Prayers were introduced in my home church, prayers that would eventually come together to form the core of the Book of Alternative Services. I quickly decided that the Book of Alternative Services was the far greater liturgical option for a number of reasons, not least of which were its hopeful tone and understandable language. In high school and university I continued to regard the BCP as the ‘old book’ who’s theology was outdated and mired in a dreary focus on our individual sinfulness. The BCP liturgy made me sad and the BAS liturgies made me happy! Not only that, but the language of the BCP was so male-oriented and exclusive that I found it hard to actually say some of the words from time to time.
I guess you’re wondering when I’m going to mention why I’m doing this series if I have such as distaste for the BCP. Wait for it. It’s coming.
When I started my training and formation to become an Anglican Priest, I was forced to realize that my likes and dislikes were not the measure of right and wrong. I ended up encountering more and more Anglicans whose faith was deeply grounded in the Book of Common Prayer and had reciprocal feelings of distaste for the Book of Alternative Services. Although I disagreed with their opinions, my respect for them challenged me to revisit the BCP again. Over the next few years of study, I came to slowly appreciate the BCP more and more. I learned how to read the book in its very complex contexts and understand that in it were expressed the fundamental aspects of what it means to be an Anglican.
Let me be clear, I still prefer more modern liturgies, but I hold the Book of Common Prayer in very special regard as a part of the formation and identity of Anglicanism.
This book is highly important for Anglicans in four different but interrelated ways:
Liturgical Consistency and Unity
- It provides a basis of liturgical consistency and sense of unity in worship. Prior to the first BCP, worship throughout Christendom (i.e., Europe) was only standardized insomuch as it was strongly influenced by the liturgies used in Rome. In addition, there were many different “prayerbooks” for different types of services and different parts of the liturgy. For example, a presider at worship might start worship using a book outlining the Mass (Communion) but refer to another book for the Psalms to be used, another for the proper prefaces before the prayer of consecration, with other ministers, called Epistlers and Gospellers with their own books for their place in the worship. In addition to all this, the service was all in Latin, which the great majority of the population would not understand. The Book of Common Prayer brought all these resources together for the first time and translated it into the vernacular English of the day. A tradition of revision started which provided a standardized liturgical framework for Anglican worship, ensuring consistency in rituals, prayers, and services across Anglican churches worldwide. It helped Anglicans feel connected to their fellow believers by participating in familiar and time-honored forms of worship, fostering a sense of community and unity.
A Record of the History of Anglicanism
- It has great significance as a record of Anglican History: The Book of Common Prayer is a piece of physical history, dating back to the English Reformation in the 16th century. The 1962 version we use in Canada today is a culmination of 400 years of revision, expressed in over 10 books which call themselves “The Book of Common Prayer.” Our history has included Catholic, Protestant, Reformed, Puritan, Methodist, Presbyterian, High Church, Low Church, Broad Church, and many other traditions. The BCP has been the place where each of these traditions has made their mark, and their fingerprints can be seen on almost every page.
A Common Ground for English Spirituality and Language
- It became a Spiritual Foundation as the Prayer book for the English-speaking world. The BCP became the foundation of literacy in an increasingly literate population, even if ‘literacy’ had come by rote memorization. It contained a wide range of prayers, scripture readings, and worship services, fostering a deep sense of spirituality and guiding Anglicans in their faith journey. As the English Empire expanded across the world, Anglican clergy used the words of the BCP for pastoral care, including conducting weddings, funerals, and other rites, not to mention Sunday by Sunday, ensuring consistency and influencing the very language and conscience of cultures worldwide.
Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
- Most significantly, the BCP is a source of Doctrinal Expression. The Book of Common Prayer articulates Anglican beliefs and theology through its liturgy, affirming core principles of the faith while allowing for some theological diversity in interpretation. The Latin phrase which describes this principle is “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” that is, "the law of what is prayed [is] the law of what is believed." Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, with its Church Courts, Papal Bulls, Church Law, and Dogma, Anglicanism, from its beginning, has had no central doctrinal authority. Unlike Lutheranism, and most other Protestant and Reformed faiths which have official Confessions of Faith to which their members are required to swear adherence, Anglicans have only had one document that holds them together, the Book of Common Prayer.
To put this more clearly, if you want to know what Anglicans believe, look to how and what they pray.
Overall, the Book of Common Prayer serves as a cornerstone of Anglican identity and worship, embodying both tradition and adaptability within the Anglican Communion.
Note: The picture above is of my paternal grandmother’s (Annie Louise Drover (née Murrin)) 1962 Book of Common Prayer and Hymn Book. It was a Christmas gift to her in the mid-to-late 60’s from my Uncle and Godfather, Harold French. It is worth noting that this would have been a relatively new book at the time. As a child, I marvelled at this book with its tissue thin pages and followed along in worship from it many times.