It is a truth frequently stated that Episcopalians are much more concerned with how we worship than the specifics of what we believe. While I disagree that this should be the case (or even that it is, in fact, necessarily the case), this statement gets at something that is very true about the Episcopal Church and the Anglican way of being in general. Ever since the Reformation, the Book of Common Prayer has been not only one of the cornerstones of the modern English language but also, along with the Scriptures, thoroughly foundational to Anglican religious practice. One could argue that Anglicans have a confessional document in the 39 Articles, but many Anglicans (regrettably) do not even know these exist, much less what they say. No, for most Anglicans, what their church believes is expressed in its worship, and the standard for that has always been the Book of Common Prayer.
When the Church of England severed communion with the Bishop of Rome, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, took it upon himself to begin to reform the Church’s services, slowly but surely. The English reformers having been successful in influencing Henry VIII to provide the English Bible for use in every parish church, Cranmer soon set about to do something similar for the service of the Church. When Henry died and his son, Edward VI, rose to the throne, Cranmer had the chance to bring to light the first Book of Common Prayer, promulgated by royal act for use in every parish church in 1549.
The Book of Common Prayer was both revolutionary and conservative. It was revolutionary because, in many ways, it was so markedly different from the late medieval services that the Christians of England were so familiar with. For one thing, it was not in Latin, which even most common priests did not understand, but in English, a tongue much closer to home. For another, Cranmer brilliantly consolidated into one book what previously required a whole bookshelf – one book for the Daily Office, one book for the Eucharist, one book for the pastoral offices, one book just for readings, one book just for music, one book just for the bishop, and so on. He also managed to consolidate the sevenfold and overly-complicated Daily Office used by monks and clergy into a much simpler twofold Office of Morning and Evening Prayer for use by everybody, both laity and clergy. He also did away with some ceremonial whose meaning had become totally lost and detached from its original usage, clearing up a lot of late medieval clutter.
But it was also very conservative because it retained the essentials of what came before it, and it recovered the spirit of what the Church had done in its first 500 years after the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In his preface to the first Prayer Book, Cranmer stated his intention of restoring the “godly and decent order of the ancient fathers.” Cranmer was not interested in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and the Book of Common Prayer represents a balanced approach to reform that contrasts markedly with what many reformers on the continent were doing. The Prayer Book shows that the Church of England was interested in retaining set forms of prayer, bishops, priests, and deacons, sacraments, vestments, and things of beauty in the church. It enshrines the ancient Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, standards of the faith explicated by the ancient councils of the Church. Finally, the Prayer Book ensured that the Bible was read frequently and in its fullness; in fact, large parts of its service are quotes from or allusions to Scripture. The point was to show that the Church of England was not intending, in any way, to sever continuity with the Christians of the first centuries of the Church.
It might be hard to believe but, at the time, the Prayer Book made almost nobody happy. For the reformers it did not go nearly far enough, and for the conservatives it went way too far. Over the course of the next 500 years, the Prayer Book would see some revision, but, overall, it retained its basic nature. Over time, its balanced approach came to be venerated, and Anglicanism echoed its reformed catholicism – returning to the ancient essentials, retaining helpful accretions, and discarding unhelpful ones. The Prayer Book came to be seen as containing a well-balanced system and rule for Christian life, from the font to the grave.
Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer does the same thing. While much of the language is updated and some of it newly composed, in its essentials it does not depart from the spirit of the Prayer Books that went before it. It represents the best of liturgical scholarship at time of its publication in attempting to reshape the forms of the church’s services along the model of the early Church. It is comprehensive, providing services for the great Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, along with the lesser sacraments of confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, and unction, as well as forms of prayer and worship for every stage and season of life and for the daily life of Christian individuals and communities. It is one book for use by all orders of the Church – layperson, bishop, priest, and deacon, secular and monk. It is in the language of the people (including translations in Spanish, French, and other languages used by Episcopalians). It continues to be thoroughly grounded in the Scriptures. It embodies the same reformed catholic ethos grounded in the teaching of the Scriptures that Cranmer and generations after him sought to retain, live, and pass on.
The Book of Common Prayer remains a great gift, for us who use it, and, indeed, to the whole Christian Church. May God give us the grace to guard and to treasure this wonderful inheritance.
The Rev. D. J. Griffin works at Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville