The Uncommon <em>Book of Common Prayer</em>: Still a best-seller after 450 years

How long have God’s people been debating about the language and order of worship? Almost as long as we’ve been gathering for prayer and praise.

The history of the Christian church has been marked by times of stability broken by periods of reform. Almost without exception, the rethinking of the church’s faith (theology) has inspired the reworking of the church’s worship (liturgy), not always in that order. Prayer in one tradition must be extemporaneous, or it is not thought to be authentic. A century later, those who have inherited the tradition of extemporaneous prayer are publishing prayer books in an effort to offer thanksgiving and intercession to God in a style and form deemed worthy of divine attention. One generation’s metered psalms are the next generation’s “stodgy” hymns. The patterns evolve and occasionally repeat but never seem to end. Prayer books, hymnbooks, worship orders, and lectionaries come and go. Governments and denominations rise and fall. Through it all, some elements of the church’s historic faith and worship persist.

Pentecost 1999 marked the 450th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer. Anglicans recall with excusable pride that this is the oldest prayer book in continuous use in the English-speaking church. Library shelves, periodical indices, and websites are filled with detailed history and exhaustive analysis of “the prayer book.” But this anniversary is not merely historical trivia, nor should its observance be limited to Christians who answer to Canterbury. Church historians and liturgical theologians will quickly remind us that much of the language of the Book of Common Prayer is familiar to countless worshipers who have never even held one in their hands. This uncommon prayer book, first conceived a generation before Shakespeare, continues to shape the life and faith of Christians around the world.

Origins of the Book of Common Prayer

Although Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican Christians all trace a significant portion of their theology and worship to the reforms that took place in the sixteenth century, the Church of England is unique in both the origin and the outcome of its reform. The infamous British King Henry VIII challenged the authority of the pope and led the Church of England away from Rome for reasons both personal and political. Liturgy and prayer were low on the list of Henry’s complaints. As a result, liturgical reform followed political separation at a safe distance.

It was not until Henry’s death in 1547 and the coronation of Edward VI (which occurred in the new king’s life somewhere between nappies and knickers) that the reform of the English church came into full flower. In January 1549, two short years after Henry’s death, a committee headed by Thomas Cranmer, the long-tenured Archbishop of Canterbury, compiled and presented a prayer book for approval by Church Convocation and Parliament. This first edition of the Book of Common Prayer would be greatly revised within three years (1552) and subsequently banned throughout the reign of “Bloody Mary” (1553-1558). But the influence of its structure and the power of its prose changed the church.

Catholic and Reformed

Although it might seem rude to discuss genealogy at a birthday party, Reformed and Lutheran Christians must remember that in many ways the Book of Common Prayer is partially our book too. Archbishop Cranmer was well versed in the progress of church reform on the continent. Throughout the 1520s and early 1530s he had traveled Europe in the service of Henry VIII. He came into contact with the teachings of the reformers, Luther and Calvin among them, and learned the politics of reform. In time, Cranmer was instrumental in bringing Lutheran, Calvinist, and Zwinglian scholars to university posts in England. The orders of worship, the postures and language of prayers, and the understanding of the sacraments contained within the 1549 prayer book reflect a complex synthesis of Reformed and Catholic theology and practice.

While much could be said about the structure, style, and influence of the Book of Common Prayer, perhaps most important for Christians in the Reformed tradition is the language of its prayers and the centrality it gives to the Lord’s Supper. To some extent, the prayer book maintained aspects of Calvin’s heritage for his direct descendants until we were ready to receive them.

The Language of Prayer

In the sixteenth century, the language of worship was a central concern. Worship in the language of the people was not a new debate in the 1500s, nor was it the initial point of contention for many of the reformers. But the translation of worship from Latin into German, French, English, and many other local languages quickly followed initial theological disputes. Each reformer had his poet. Cranmer was no exception (although his may have been a committee!). In any event, from the first edition in 1549, a mark of the Book of Common Prayer has been the beauty of the text.

Collects (brief prayers that collect the silent petitions of the worshipers at various points in the order of worship) have been a trademark of the Book of Common Prayer. Many of these have found their way into Reformed resources like the Book of Common Worship (PCUSA 1993). In the examples that follow, notice the use of words and images that make these prayers simple, elegant, and sincere. (Also see box p. 38.)

Prayer at the Close of Day

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work or watch
or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
bless the dying,
soothe the suffering,
pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous;
and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

Collect for Maundy Thursday

Lord Jesus Christ,
who stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross
that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace:
So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love,
may bring those who do not know you
to the knowledge and love of you;
for the honor of your name. Amen.

A Prayer for the Sick

O God,
the strength of the weak and the comfort of sufferers,
mercifully hear our prayers
and grant to your servant [Name],
the help of your power,
that his/her sickness may be turned into health
and our sorrow into joy;
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

We in the Reformed tradition would struggle for another four hundred years with the language of prayer, creating patterns of intercession that were memorable for their length if nothing else before returning to the style of the prayer book as inspiration for a new generation of worship resources.

The Centrality of Holy Communion

Central to the Book of Common Prayer, though not always to the practice of many Anglicans, has been the understanding of Lord’s Day worship based around Word and sacrament. The 1549 prayer book offered daily worship (morning and evening) in a synthesis of the historic Roman pattern, with Eucharist on the Lord’s Day. Throughout the following centuries much of the non-Roman church has varied this practice to suit the understanding of the time.

Christians in the Reformed tradition still celebrate the Lord’s Supper in quarterly, monthly, or weekly cycles, depending on the customs and traditions of congregations or regions. The Book of Common Prayer has served as a constant reminder of the intent of the reformers, and a perpetual nag for those who craft the worship resources in each new age.

So What?

An anniversary this notable is important for present-day Christians, as it can serve to remind us that the struggles we face as worship leaders in 1999 are nothing new. The church reforms that rocked sixteenth-century Europe were by no means unique or surprising. A revival of learning had brought into serious question much of the tradition that had evolved in the church. Meanwhile, the power of the Scripture was being rediscovered by those within the church who were not content to watch the trappings of human tradition discredit the Word of God. Reform was inevitable.

The church reform that continues to shake North America in the last days of the twentieth century is by no means unique or surprising for many of the same reasons. Change remains inevitable.

In times of reform, those who guide the church have much to learn and remember. The 1549 prayer book brought together prayers and psalms, litanies and liturgies from a vast number of separate sources, organizing them so as to be useful in public and private prayer and translating historic texts from Latin into the language of the people. Had the publication of the Book of Common Prayer accomplished nothing else, this alone would have been noteworthy. But during the reign of a child-king and in an age of rampant religious restructuring, the Book of Common Prayer anchored the reform of the Church of England within the tradition of the historic church. Truly this is an uncommon book that offers the broader church a vision for common prayer. Thanks be to God for 450 years of common prayer, and for grace yet unknown.

The Collects of Thomas Cranmer

For those interested in more on the contribution of Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer Book of 1549, see The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, a new book by Frederick Barbee and Paul F. M. Zahl. The collects are found in their original language; each one is followed by commentary on its historical context and a meditation with contemporary Christians in mind.

Excerpt

PRAYERS FOR ADVENT , CHRISTMAS, AND EPIPHANY
FROM THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER

The following collects (pronounced COL-lects) are from the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer according to the use of the Episcopal Church in the United States. (See RW 52, p. 44 for information on this prayer form that concludes or “collects” the individual prayers of the people.) The 1979 edition includes services and prayers in both historic and contemporary language; one example is included of this historic form; the others are contemporary.

First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We beseech Thee, Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

First Sunday After Christmas Day

Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Holy Name: January 1

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Second Sunday After Christmas Day

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Epiphany: January 6

O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at reformedworship.org. He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).