What is the Book of Common Prayer?
The Book of Common Prayer contains forms for all the different kinds of worship in the Church. It includes a form for daily Morning and Evening Prayer, a plan for reading through the Bible in the course of a year and the Book of Psalms each month, a form for the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, for Baptism, for Confirmation, a form of instruction in the basics of the Christian faith, a form of prayer while visiting the sick, for weddings, for funerals. In other words, it provides the structure, content, and instructions for all the essential occasions of prayer and worship in the shared life of the Church. These forms of worship have definitively shaped, for more than 400 years, the way in which Anglicans experience, think about, and live out the Christian faith.
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“Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors, will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but that is not what they want or mean to be.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of our own hearts but in living in and by the Word of God.”—Anthony Burton, “Some Observations on the Daily Offices” (unpublished lecture).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).
“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.
Why use traditional language?
Beginning with its earliest editions in the sixteenth century, the Book of Common Prayer has had a definite character or linguistic register. Over the next four centuries, nearly all Anglican liturgies retained this character or register (sometimes called “prayer book English”), even as there was modest linguistic updating—for example, “Our Father, which art in heaven” became “Our Father, who art in heaven.” In the second half of the twentieth century, some Anglican liturgies were written that experimented with contemporary language. This experimentation continues, and today there is wide linguistic variety, with some Anglican churches using traditional language and some using contemporary. The most important thing is to love and serve God—not the kind of language that is used. However, there are positive benefits to retaining the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer.
One is the repetitions and rhythms of Cranmer’s work. Those repetitions and rhythms are not merely ornamental—they are part of how the Book of Common Prayer “works,” as ways of securing attention, increasing comprehension, encouraging memorization, and thus of influencing behavior. Modern liturgies sometimes seek to avoid repetition and often lack these prose rhythms; they suffer for it.
There is also an important advantage to stability in a liturgy. It allows the development of a rich system of interlocking texts. Indeed, this is exactly what has happened in English with the echoes and allusions between the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version and the hymns of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. With the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer, a congregation is able to more fully participate in this tradition of Christians past, present, and future.
None of this is meant to suggest that the language of worship has to be traditional. Instead, the point is simply that there are good reasons, grounded in the present, for retaining this feature of Anglican worship.
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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