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Q & A on the Book of Common Prayer

What’s the point of the Book of Common Prayer?

“Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors, will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but that is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal — now as in 1549 — is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith.”—Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (2013), 193-194.

How does the Book of Common Prayer achieve that aim?

“The Prayer Book as a system of spiritual discipline is invaluable in helping us to grow to maturity in Christ. It continually reminds us that the good of the Kingdom of Heaven lies not in the devices and desires of our own hearts but in living in and by the Word of God.”—Anthony Burton, “Some Observations on the Daily Offices” (unpublished lecture).

What if I don’t feel like saying the words?

“I knew inescapably some things which my lighter will might not have chosen to know. I knew what penitence was (even if impenitent); the liturgy told me and made me enact it. I knew what joy was, and a refreshed turning to God (even if not joyful, not returning); the language forced me to know. . . . It came to me and changed me, this tough compelling language, which demands that its meanings be practiced even in the uttering of the words.”—Margaret A. Doody, “‘How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song upon an Alien Soil?’: The New Episcopalian Liturgy,” in Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, editors, The State of the Language (1980), 122-123.

But why am I saying someone else’s words instead of my own?

“People complain about praying someone else’s words rather than their own in the liturgy, but that is the precise point of liturgy. By ‘borrowing’ the language of the Church which has been handed over to us (in tradition) we hand ourselves over to God and to each other . . . . The psalms and the Lord’s Prayer are words that God has given to us. They are words that we ‘borrow’. As we ‘borrow’ these words we are participating in the inspired speech of the Holy Spirit, which will serve to reform all of our language. . . . The language that comes spontaneously to the modern worshipper is not the language of Christian worship but the language of the silly pop ditties that he grew up with. In the name of spontaneity the modern worshipper tends to unwittingly borrow the romantic language of the world. The purpose of chanting psalms and singing hymns is not merely to glorify our language, but to heal it. The language of worship that is given to us by Scriptures and the Christian tradition informed by the Scriptures is one that is quite unnatural to us. It is God’s purpose that, as we use this language, it will become increasingly natural to us. The words, although they are borrowed, are no longer entirely alien to us, for they have converted us to themselves.”—Alastair Roberts, “Garrison Keillor on Liturgy,” Alastair’s Adversaria (June 6, 2006).

Why repetition?

“The vulgarians conceive of scripture as a ‘read’ in the course of which ideas and information are picked up. They do not care about a text which can be appropriated and endlessly repeated, till it provides the furniture of the mind and etches itself on the soul. They do not realise how rich and solid memory deteriorates into bits and pieces—mere fragments, isolated incidents. Yet religion depends on what is known by heart, in the heart.”—David Martin, “Why Spit on Our Luck?,” Poetry Nation Review, vol. 6, no. 5 (1979), 2.

But doesn’t this constrain my freedom?

“In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest form of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding. The detailed history of repetition deserves a book to itself; here it will suffice to note that repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint.”—Edward Mendelson, Early Auden (2000), 172.

Are there other reasons to write down the words of the service?

“One of the advantages of having a written and printed service, is that it enables you to see when people’s feelings and thoughts have changed. When people begin to find the words of our service difficult to join in, that is of course a sign that we do not feel about those things exactly as our ancestors. Many people have, as their immediate reaction to that situation the simple remedy — ‘Well, change the words’ — which would be very sensible if you knew that we are right and our ancestors were wrong. It is always at least worth while to find out who it is that is wrong.” — C. S. Lewis, “‘Miserable Offenders’: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language,” reprinted in God in the Dock (1970), 120.

Is the Book of Common Prayer just for ministers?

“Out of the elaborate, complicated Canonical Hours of the medieval Breviary the sixteenth-century Reformers produced a pattern of daily praise and prayer that was loyal to tradition, solidly Scriptural in content, simple and convenient in execution, balanced and artful in design. The older Latin Offices had been a primary duty of the clergy, the monks and friars, upon whom their recitation was imposed by canonical law. But the Reformers intended their simpler, vernacular forms to be a means of corporate worship and edification in the knowledge of God’s Word for all the laity no less than the clergy. In this purpose their labors have borne abundant fruit.” — Prayer Book Studies VI: Morning and Evening Prayer (1957), 3.

Is the language too difficult?

“Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic, grandly alienated, perhaps what is most notable about the words of the Prayer Book are their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this ‘pithiness’; I would add ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.’” – James Wood, “God Talk: The Book of Common Prayer at Three Hundred and Fifty,” New Yorker (Oct. 22, 2012).

“Cranmer is as simple as: ‘O God our help in ages past’. People talk loosely of ‘beautiful Shakespearian English’ when in fact Cranmer is not at all like Shakespeare and very much more simple.” – David Martin, “Why Spit on Our Luck?,” Poetry Nation Review, vol. 6, no. 5 (1979), 3.

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