I’ve began this series of reflections in a very deliberate manner. Because our Book of Common Prayer has its roots in the 16th century and has gone through over 400 years of revision, it is important that we familiarize ourselves with some of the concepts and history that has guided its development. In our first reflection we considered “Lex Ordendi, Lex Credendi,” - if you want to know what Anglicans believe, look to how and what they pray. Last week we explored the Anglican principle of “Via Media,” a concept that reflects the constant tension of differing visions for our church that have marked its milestones and is captured in many ways throughout the evolving versions of the Book of Common Prayer.
So, this week, before we delve into the heart of this series, an exploration of the Holy Communion service as found in the 1962 Book of Common Prayer, we will add a few more concepts from the Reformation. Although these principles were central to the overall direction of Reformation theology and criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, we need to keep in mind that as a via media, their influence on Anglicanism was continually tempered by the more Catholic-minded in our church. That being said, these concepts will help us to better understand the context of the creation and revisions of the many Books of Common Prayer.
The first reformation concept I’d like to introduce is Sola Scriptura.
Sola Scriptura, “scripture alone,” asserts that Scripture is the ultimate and infallible authority in matters of faith and practice within Christianity. This doctrine challenged the Roman Catholic Church's reliance on both Scripture and Tradition as sources of authority.
According to Sola Scriptura, the Bible contains all the necessary teachings for salvation and the Christian life. It emphasizes the priesthood of all believers, encouraging individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than relying solely on clergy or tradition. It is worth noting that before the invention of the printing press only 100 years earlier, books were a relatively rare and expensive commodity. The printing press allowed more people to not only have a copy of the Bible but facilitated the growth of general literacy. This made Sola Scriptura, and, coincidently, the Book of Common Prayer possible.
Reformers championed Sola Scriptura as a means to address what they saw as the corruption and deviations from biblical doctrine within the Catholic Church. Some of the issues addressed included, papal authority, clerical celibacy, monasticism, religious images, and icons, and may many more.
Examples of Sola Scriptura in the Book of Common Prayer include:
The inclusion of the eucharistic readings, pages 94ff and the Table of Lessons, pages xviff which allowed everyone who was literate to read and interpret the same Scriptures as the clergy.
Although Anglican reformers supported the right of every person to have access to the Scripture and even the principle of Scriptural guidance, the ‘sola’ part of this concept was debated, in fact, the balance of authority among Scripture, Tradition, and a third element, Reason, remains a significant point of debate even today….but that’s for another series…
The second reformation concept I want to introduce is Sola Gratia.
Sola Gratia, “grace alone,” asserts that God's grace is the sole source of salvation and that human works or merits play no role in earning or securing one's place in heaven.
Reformers argued that the Roman Catholic Church's teachings about salvation had become corrupted, with an overemphasis on human effort and good deeds as a means of earning God's favor. One of the main points of contention between reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was over the use of indulgences: pardons sold by the church granting remission of sins or time in purgatory. Simply put, one could buy salvation.
One good example of sola gratia in our Book of Common Prayer can be found on page 83 in the Prayer of Humble Access: Even after absolution from our sins, “We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy (grace).”
The third reformation concept, closely related to Sola Gratia, is Sola Fides.
Sola Fides, means "faith alone." It asserts that faith in Jesus Christ is the sole means by which individuals are justified and reconciled with God, apart from any human works or merits.
At the heart of Sola Fides is the belief that faith itself is a gift from God, received through trust in Christ's atoning work on the cross. Faith is the instrument through which individuals lay hold of God's grace and forgiveness, but faith is not a product of human effort but a divine gift.
Like Sola Gratia, Sola Fides challenged the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on salvation, which involved a combination of faith and good works. The reformers argued that this obscured the Gospel's core message of God's unmerited favor and reliance on Christ's righteousness rather than human deeds.
One good example of this concept in the Book of Common Prayer can also be found on page 83, in the Eucharistic Prayer: “most humbly beseeching thee to grant, that by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion.”
While Sola Gratia emphasizes the source of salvation (God’s grace alone), Sola Fides emphasizes the means of receiving that salvation (faith alone). Together, these doctrines underscored the central reformation belief that salvation is a gracious gift from God, received by faith and not earned through human works or merit.
All three concepts, sola scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fides, find expression and are challenged in the various versions of the Book of Common Prayer.
Note: The image above is of two pages from a travel version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer printed during the reign of Queen Victoria. In the history of the Book of Common Prayer, this version has the longest pedigree, almost 300 years, and spread throughout the world with the expansion of the former English Empire. (Image provided by Peter Hounsell-Drover.)