Discovering the Book of Common Prayer
It is a most invaluable part of that blessed “liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free,” that in his worship different forms and usages may without offence be allowed, provided the substance of the Faith be kept entire; and that, in every Church, what cannot be clearly determined to belong to Doctrine must be referred to Discipline; and therefore, by common consent and authority, may be altered, abridged, enlarged, amended, or otherwise disposed of, as may seem most convenient for the edification of the people.
(Preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, BCP 9)
In Pixar Studio’s popular children’s movie Finding Nemo, Nemo’s father, a worried and protective clown fish named Marlin, is searching the ocean for his lost son, who has been captured by a scuba- diving dentist from Sydney and taken to live in an aquarium in his office. Marlin encounters many dangers in his lonely search, but also one faithful friend named Dory. When at last they discover the address of the dentist’s office, they are directed to find the East Australian Current—that will take them where they want to go, they are told.
Gathering their courage, Marlin and Dory brave a swarm of stinging jellyfish and land in the current, finding themselves swiftly carried along amid a great celebratory parade of sea creatures. They no longer have to spend so much energy swimming alone, making their own way in a vast ocean. An especially wise old sea turtle named Crush teaches them some of the important things they need to know at that point in their journey in order to grow and continue on. By the time the current has carried them to Sydney and Marlin and Dory leap out, they are changed fish. Their fears have been replaced by joyful hope and their isolation by the caring support of a diverse community.
For many new Episcopalians, Marlins experience of the East Australian Current echoes their experience of entering the liturgical life of prayer and worship in the church. Many of us have searched for God on our own for years, praying by ourselves, perhaps sharing our yearnings with a few faithful friends or perhaps being completely alone. And yet when we make the leap into the church’s ongoing liturgical life, it is like suddenly discovering that a vibrant, powerful stream of worship and praise to God has been going on for centuries upon centuries. We are at first swept off our feet, perhaps a bit confused and uncertain. But soon we catch the rhythm; we begin to understand what is happening at each celebration of the Eucharist, at every baptism, at each service of Morning Prayer. We grow from the wisdom of the learned and saintly among us. And we discover we have been welcomed into an enormous, eternal, diverse community of human beings who are likewise seeking to worship the God who created all things, who is beyond all things, and yet who lives among us. We discover we are not alone, and this liturgical current of worship, prayer, and praise will indeed take us where we want to go—to union with the God we seek to love.
What Is a Prayer Book?
When you visit an Episcopal church for the first time, you will quickly notice that the worship service follows a particular order. The bulletin may direct you to a number of different pages in a book in the pew. Or the entire service may be printed in a leaflet, to help you avoid the confusion of finding your way in the various books. As you come back in the following weeks, you will notice that the service does not change all that much from sunday to sunday. You might see small variations here and there—different prayers and Scripture readings and hymns—but the basic form of the service remains the same. That’s because in the Episcopal Church our faith in God is expressed, shaped, and formed by the rites for worship found in the Book of Common Prayer.
In the Anglican tradition (of which the Episcopal Church is a part), our prayer book is primarily a book of prayers and liturgical rites for public worship, though it may also contain devotions for private or family use. We call our prayer book the Book of Common Prayer: it is “common” because it contains the fixed texts of the regular services of the church, those used for public or common worship. It is also “common” because it uses the vernacular language spoken by most of the people who are using that particular book, rather than a specialized “religious” language, such as Latin or Hebrew. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, when our first prayer book was written, the term “common” may also have been used as a way of contrasting this book with the private devotional manuals used by medieval clergy and not available to the “common” people during worship.1
While called a “prayer” book, the Book of Common Prayer contains more than just prayers. There are also instructions for how to do the liturgies (called “rubrics”), biblical passages and a lectionary that lists the Scripture readings for the year, statements of beliefs called “creeds,” and the texts of songs called “canticles.” In addition to the well-known services of Eucharist, baptism, and Morning and Evening Prayer, the prayer book also includes the liturgies for less frequent services such as weddings, ordinations, and funerals. Having all of the texts for public worship in one book has been a part of our liturgical tradition from the earliest editions of the Book of Common Prayer.
The 1979 revision of the American prayer book also includes historical documents and a catechism—the basics of our faith in question-and-answer format. In many ways, the Book of Common Prayer defines and sets forth the faith and teachings of the Episcopal Church. Instead of spelling out our doctrines in a formal teaching document, we Episcopalians prefer to pray our way to belief. This way of moving from prayer to belief and back again is expressed in a Latin phrase, lex orandi, lex credendi—the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, our praying shapes our believing and our believing shapes our prayer.
Many Christian communities and denominations choose not to have a prayer book guiding their worship, but prefer the spontaneity of composing a different order for worship every week. We Episcopalians, on the other hand, find a sense of unity in shared liturgical texts for all congregations, in all situations, used throughout the nation—though the ways those rites are expressed in worship vary considerably from one congregation to another. We believe our worship needs to be “in common” and a part of the ancient liturgical traditions of the church: it is our way of living within the rich tradition of Christian worship, as we speak the words and do the liturgical rites prayed by Christians for centuries. Prayer book worship is part of our identity, and therefore is the foundation that binds the Anglican Communion together.
At the time of the Reformation, strict conformity to the actual texts used in worship was a matter of utmost importance because the church was “established”—intricately linked to the political rulers of the realm. As Louis Weil and Charles Price note in their classic Liturgy for Living:
Refusal to abide by the authorized liturgy could be taken to mean theological heterodoxy or even political infidelity. . . . The invention of printing in 1440 opened the way to a liturgical conformity that could never have been demanded as long as only handwritten manuscripts were available.2
We live in a very different time, of course, and we have much greater flexibility in the liturgies available to us in the Book of Common Prayer. Our words and patterns of worship as Anglicans are no longer a matter of strict conformity and are not linked to our political affiliations; rather, they are the common ground of prayer from which we share in the Christian life. It is a remarkable experience to travel to different Anglican churches and discover that you are “home” wherever you are: the prayers and style of worship may be somewhat different, but the basic liturgical patterns and many of the words are familiar. It is even more remarkable to recall that some form of these liturgies has been used by Christians for centuries.
Prayer Book Origins
The Book of Common Prayer used in your parish church today was authorized in 1979, but it follows a 450-year tradition of worship books in the Anglican Church. The reformers in England at the time of the Reformation, including Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, wanted the church’s public worship to be available not only to the clergy and liturgical ministers, but to everyone in the congregation. The first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, established this norm, and it has been a hallmark of Anglicanism ever since.
To understand the history of this first Book of Common Prayer, however, we must begin not with Thomas Cranmer and the Reformation, but with the early church. For when Cranmer and his committee of bishops and theologians sat down to write an English prayer book, they did not start from scratch. Rather, they drew on many different sources: the ancient prayers the church had been using since its beginnings in Judaism, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox liturgical traditions, the elaborate rituals that marked the church’s common worship and private devotions in the Middle Ages, as well as the emerging rites and prayers from the Reformed traditions in Europe.
Although we have very few liturgical texts dating from the time of the early church, the origins of Christian worship are found in Judaism, and reflect the customs of the Jewish Christians who lived in the years immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jews were accustomed to praying at certain times throughout the day—morning, noon, and evening. The earliest Christians continued and adapted this practice, and over the next few centuries it developed into what we call the Daily Office. As in our offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the psalms and other biblical songs were likewise significant in the prayer life both of Jesus and the early Christians. All Jewish meals were accompanied by prayers and thanksgivings, and our Holy Eucharist of bread and wine is rooted in this tradition. Christian baptism too is adapted from the Jewish ritual customs of Jesus’ time, as we see, for example, in the gospel stories of the crowds who traveled to the wilderness to be baptized by John in the river Jordan.
During the next few centuries, written liturgical texts known as “church orders” began to appear. They are collections of prayers, teachings, and liturgical rites that express the worship practices of a particular location at a particular time. These texts claim to be materials handed down from the apostolic age, as their names imply: the set of texts called Apostolic Tradition, for example, contains the early liturgical traditions from the church in Rome, while Apostolic Constitutions collects those from the church in Syria. These church orders are not prayer books as we know them; rather, their prayers and rites probably served as models for the liturgical prayers church leaders would freely compose during worship.
The next step in the early development of the Book of Common Prayer was the emergence of books called “sacramentaries,” which were collections of prayers that could be used in the liturgy by the celebrant or leaders of worship. Since these were written prayers that would have been used regularly, they are more similar to our prayer book than the church orders, but their use was limited to the leaders of worship.
Between the sixth and ninth centuries the church developed the basic liturgical forms that we use today. For those of us living in the churches that originated in western Europe, the Roman rite is the foundation for most of our prayers and liturgies. Many of the collects (prayers with a fixed form—address, petition, and conclusion) in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, for example, are drawn from a book called the Leonine Sacramentary
dating from the early sixth century.3
Other texts for worship also emerged during the early Middle Ages: books containing the readings from the New Testament epistles and gospels used during worship, books of music chants for the choir, books of rules and directions for how to do the liturgies. Most were composed in monastic communities, where prayer and worship were a part of the daily routine of the monks and nuns. Beginning in the ninth century, these books were collected into a single volume called the Missal. In addition, books were needed for the Daily Office, containing the prayers, psalms, canticles, Scripture lessons, and readings from the lives of the saints that would be used for the hours of prayer throughout the day. These books were consolidated into a four-volume Breviary, as well as into a single-volume Book of Hours.
Other liturgical texts were also developed in the early medieval church, including the prayers and liturgies for services called the pastoral offices, such as marriage, baptism, burial, and visitation of the sick. These texts were collected in a book called the Manual, and the services specifically used by the bishop were collected in a book called the Pontifical. Finally, a book of rubrics, or directions, for all of these rites was compiled; it was called the Pie.
Thus by the eve of the Reformation an abundance of liturgical books, almost all for the clergy and monastics, had emerged in the church. Since the books varied according to the liturgical practices and customs followed in different locales, they provided a wealth of materials on which reformers like Thomas Cranmer could draw.
Why a Reformation?
In order to understand the origins of the Book of Common Prayer we have to first understand why such a book was needed. At first glance it might seem that the Book of Common Prayer is simply a compilation of all the books used in the medieval church into a single volume; looking deeper, we find it is a book formed by the principles of the sixteenth-century Reformation. So we must first look at the practices and traditions that prompted the need for “reformation” of the church’s liturgy, practices that the liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix has called the “deformation” of the liturgy.4
To do that, we need to look again at the history of the Christian church.
When the emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire early in the fourth century C.E., the church suddenly was transformed from an outlawed sect marked by persecution and secret gatherings for worship in the homes of Christians to an established and popular religion with enormous wealth at its disposal. In the following centuries, Christian liturgies became elaborate ceremonies in stately buildings, where it was difficult to hear the words of the service and the distant lay participants grew increasingly passive and silent. Worship also became more standardized and controlled as the church developed a hierarchical system of oversight.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the societal upheavals and traumas of the early Middle Ages, the piety of the medieval church became increasingly penitential. The focus shifted from Christ’s triumph over death in the resurrection to his suffering and death and to human sin and moral purity, with seemingly little confidence in Christ’s justification of all people. The social and political turmoil made it difficult to sustain the abundant joy and thanksgiving of all the people in the celebration of the weekly Eucharist.
As people troubled by an unrelieved sense of unworthiness, fear, and guilt shied away from receiving the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the liturgy became primarily the activity of the clergy. A distorted understanding of the Eucharist as in some way supplementary to Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross led to a popular theology that “the priest sacrifices Christ afresh at every mass.”5
And with the words of the liturgy continuing in Latin long past the time most people could speak or even understand it, medieval Christians in the pews simply said their own private prayers while the priest quietly celebrated the eucharistic liturgy at the altar. A Christian from the early church would find these masses hard to recognize as a Eucharist.
A similar “deformation” occurred in baptism. As the Roman Empire extended to the tribes of northern Europe, entire households were baptized with little preparation in the faith—a very different experience from the early church’s “catechumenate,” the extended period of study and prayer before baptism. With the wholesale baptism of the people of entire countries, the only candidates for baptism left were infants. Infant baptism became the norm, and with the high rate of infant mortality, baptisms were done as quickly as possible. So the custom developed that baptisms should be done within eight days of the birth, effectively moving baptisms from the Easter celebrations in the church’s liturgy to private services done throughout the year.
Clearly, by the late Middle Ages the worship and theology of the church, especially in the West, had lost ...