Prayer Book 101

The Book of Common Prayer offers a way you can praise God, pray with the church, and be formed by the Scriptures. It contains services of daily prayer you can use at home (Morning and Evening Prayer), and services in which a priest administers the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). It contains many other rites that sustain and shape our faith through every season of life, including Confirmation, Matrimony, and the Burial of the Dead. It includes a statement of what Anglicans believe (the Thirty-Nine Articles) and a resource for Christian education (the catechism).

There are many different versions of the Book of Common Prayer, but the one used at Christ Church Anglican is the classic version, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This version is noteworthy for its clarity about the gospel, its simplicity and ease of use, and the vigor and rhythmic beauty of its language. The forms of worship in this prayer book have definitively shaped the way Anglicans experience, think about, and live out the Christian faith.

We use the International Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that is suited to use not only in England but around the world.

Want to know more about the Book of Common Prayer? A good place to start is J.I. Packer's short meditations called The Gospel in the Prayer Book. If you want a beginner's guide to Evening Prayer, you can find one here. And here is a guide that walks you through Morning Prayer. The following Q&A may also be helpful.

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

“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of our own hearts but in living in and by the Word of God.”—Anthony Burton, “Some Observations on the Daily Offices” (unpublished lecture).

Why is there repetition in the liturgy?

Some liturgies have lots of options and choices. That allows a minister to pick a different option every week, or a lay person to pick a different option every day. But there are downsides to constant churn and change in the liturgy. It is harder for the prayer book to work its way into your memory and heart. It is harder for young children to participate, because there aren't as many of the repetitions they love. And it requires a lot of conscious choice and effort.

C.S. Lewis understood this. In his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis said that a liturgy "'works’ best . . . when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God."

Why is the liturgy in 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.

First, there are 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.

Second, the traditional language of the prayer book reminds us that we are engaged in a distinct activity. We approach God with reverence and humility. As Rowan Williams has said of this sacred register of English, “we’re reminded that what we’re trying to talk about is not just the business of the house in the street, it is also strange and astonishing and terrifying.”

Finally, 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, twentieth, and now twenty-first 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.