BCP’s 350th!

I love my historical anniversaries. (Regular readers will know this, as do members of my church!) Anyway, 350 years ago today, on 19 May 1662, The Act of Uniformity received the royal assent in England. This enforced use of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a sad side to compelling the consciences of some Christian ministers, who preferred different ways of ordering their public church assemblies, but I will return to that another occasion.

Today I want to share a little about the famous 1662 BCP, as it’s often called for short. For a start, it has almost been as influential on the English language as the King James Bible! Think of such resonant phrases like “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (Burial of the Dead), or “till death us do part” and “for better for worse” (both in the Solemnization of Matrimony). These come from the BCP, not the Bible! Of course, on the other hand, the concepts and phrases found in such prayer book services reflect deep immersion in the biblical worldview.

The Book of Common Prayer emphasised the centrality of the Bible as God’s word to mankind. It urged its systematic reading at some length, in the language of the people. So it was a book to learn of God, and by which to worship God with others or alone. But it was also a book to live, love and die to! Millions of English-speaking people—both believing and forgiven or indifferent and wicked—have been baptised, married, or buried to its words.

It has travelled the world wherever there were English colonists, traders or missionaries: Canada to Brazil, Nigeria to Sri Lanka. It has also been translated into Gaelic, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Maasai, Hausa, French, Dutch, Italian, Cantonese, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Burmese, Fijian, Vietnamese and Inuit! Sometimes it has been a nation’s first printed book.

Now it is mostly ignored, a mere cultural memory, copies piled up in church cupboards or gathering dust on dining room bookcases. People today think of its old-fashioned language as being lofty and stately. But I understand that in its day, the BCP’s prose had a certain direct urgency and energy in its exhortations to do business with God, or rather to let him do business with you. And of course, for those who believe its wording is sacrosanct and should never be altered, the BCP’s own preface recognised that language changes over time, and its expression must be updated and adjusted to local circumstances. But its doctrine and patterns remains a legal standard for Anglicans, and its shape influences modern efforts today.

Of course the BCP had a history prior to 1662. The English Protestant Reformer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer published a first version in 1549. It moved right away from mediaeval Catholicism but was only halfway reformed. It was soon followed in 1552 with a version that gave full expression to Cranmer’s Reformed evangelical doctrine, made politically possible under the keen young Protestant but short-lived King, Edward VI. It was banned under Queen Mary’s bloody counter-Reformation. It was restored under the moderate Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, but retreated a little from Cranmer’s clarity over the Lord’s Supper. And this pattern continued after the brief English Republic, when the Monarchy returned and as part of that BCP was restored in the standard form that we have today.

Apart from its biblical phrasings, the part I love best is that it ensures all our public praying and exhorting of one another is based solely on the worthiness of the Lord Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death for our sins. The Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix, (with very Catholic leanings) said the BCP was “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone”. Long may its influence continue!

11 thoughts on “BCP’s 350th!

  1. I can appreciate that the prayer book has a lot of good in it. I think the most helpful part to me are the prayers of confession. After attending churches which almost never corporately confess sin I think it is an important thing which the prayer book ensures happens regularly. (Though I wouldn’t say corporate confession needs to happen every service either.)

    But my experience with the prayer book here in PNG has been a highly depressing one. The PNG Anglican prayer book is a little different (it includes the Hail Mary!), but I think my concerns would apply to any church which uses it in the same way.

    The problem is that seven days a week, two or three times a day, whole churches get together to recite someone else’s words and thoughts. The people whose words they recite are not from their church, and most of them have been dead for centuries. The problem is not that the words are bad, for they are on the whole good words, possibly almost perfect in places. The problem is that it denies the spirit. It denies he has given gifts to his people, and it denies that he acts today. The Bible never mentions the spiritual gift of recitation. The words of the service are set in stone. Even the Bible readings have been chosen by someone else!

    Part of the problem is their own fault because they do not take every opportunity they are given. But I don’t think the prayer book encourages that either. In the main service of the PNG prayer book I can only think of two occasions where there is freedom, but nowhere enough to live up to the ideals of 1 Corinthians 14:26. The first are the prayers for everyone. The book has a comprehensive list which is great for ensuring our prayers are not focused solely on ourselves. But despite the opportunity here for additional prayers, I guess that at least 80% of the time they are prayed word for word with no additions. I wonder if the list was less comprehensive if the prayers would be from the spirit’s current power rather than his power three centuries ago.

    The second occasion is the sermon, and here the PNG churches I have visited are doing better than those back home, for the task of preaching God’s word is shared around. I suspect some ministers only preaches a quarter of the time. It’s still not the idea of man of the church being given the opportunity (with appropriate on-the-job training of course) but it is a good sign.

    • Too many typos sorry. Only this last one is worth correcting:

      It’s still not the ideaL of EVERY man of the church being given the opportunity

    • Dannii, thanks for the comments.

      I have been away at our annual church conference, and then our regional ministry workers conference, so sorry for the delay.

      I have no joy in hearing of Anglican prayer books which deny or undermine the articles and betray the reformation theological tradition of BCP.

      Vain repetition, without meaning, or without heart faith and repentance, is always problematic. Agreed! But repetition does not automatically have to go this direction. So I am not as down on repetition as you. And I certainly do not think repetition is somehow opposed to Spirit. Rubbish. There is great value in reminders of the basic truths in the Bible (thinking 2 Peter 1 etc). For all that, I am glad however of much greater variety in services following a reformed Anglian prayer book tradition. And I think you guesstimate about 80% repetition of prayer book prayers without variation is way wrong in my circles.

      Dannii, I think the best part of your comment was about 1 Cor 14:26. I think the lack of flexibility and the lack of opportunity for wider number of verbal contributions is a weakness. However I think sociologically this is generally difficult in any meeting much larger than 40 people or so. And I have seen the lack of participation just as much in non-liturgical services, where the pastor is just about the only one who says anything (or at least prays anything) apart from the singing.

      • Hi Sandy, I think you took my comments a little differently than I intended them. Repetition has its place, and in non-literary societies that place will be bigger than what it has in our society.

        What I take issue with is the quantity/proportion of the content that is outwardly sourced. It does not matter if the repetition is genuine and from the heart. When 95% of the words in the service are by dead men it says that God cannot use anyone in this congregation to teach. When the Bible passages are selected by someone in some distant city it says that God cannot use anyone in this congregation to choose a passage for the edification of the others. And when 80% of the time the prayers are not even varied by one word (and I’m glad your circles do a lot better, so does my Anglican church in Australia. This number is my guesstimation for PNG) it says that no one in this congregation is able to talk to God themselves; all they can do is pass on a message from some other pray-er. It says that such things are undesirable. And though no one ever said this and I’m sure no one would believe it, it feels to me like it says that the spirit lives in no one in this congregation.

        As you say, it’s not really so different from many churches in Australia, where the only words you say are in songs by people from other churches, selected by a small group/one person from your church, where you have the same person every week for years on end give the sermon, and where your only opportunity for contribution is morning tea afterwards. Every church has problems. But when you’re locked into using the prayer book by the hierarchy above you and when that prayer book is so inflexible, then I cannot say that using the prayer book in this way is to the glory of God.

  2. The BCP is Gold!

    I use the Morning Prayer when I do the daily office.
    The prayer of confession is very powerful, confronting and true.

    Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed to much the devices and desires of our hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things we ought to have done, And we have done things we ought not to have done, there is no health in us: But thou, o Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord: And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, rightoeus, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen

    Although the language of the BCP seems rather Archaic (we don’t use mankind anymore, nor use thee, thy, thou), what this prayer acknowledges about us is true. There is no health in us, and we are miserable offenders and it is only by the mercy of God that we can be forgiven and made clean.

    Love the BCP!

  3. Joshua- I know you put that bit in just for me- many of us do use “mankind”, and so do most television presenters, journalists and other public speakers and writers. “Mankind” may not be liked by a few who have been over-influenced by feminism, but it certainly is not archaic.

    Back on the topic(!), the 1978 Australian Prayer Book retains a mopdernised version of the 1662 services, and I think it would be hard to find a better Lord’s Supper Service for the present day if we are going to use a set liturgy at all. A more informal and free service is sometimes a good thing, but Anglicans need to consider very carefully before discarding that 1978 version.

    Some of the other modern versions are to varying degrees beset by liberalism and/or sacerdotalism. Long live the revised 1662 (especially when it is closer to 1552)!

    • I know you put that bit in just for me- many of us do use “mankind”, and so do most television presenters, journalists and other public speakers and writers. “Mankind” may not be liked by a few who have been over-influenced by feminism, but it certainly is not archaic .

      Apologies. I still use the term. I was (rather poorly it seems) trying to contextualise as I assumed that many readers of this website live in a culture where terms as such are not used. Actually in the APBA, the 1st Order Holy Communion Service is a revision of the PCB and sadly, in the confession the term mankind is dropped altogether (even the term humankind is not used). (A small olive branch – when I use the term archaic, I did not mean it to be perjorative). Sorry!!!!!

      As I said, earlier, I love the BCP and actually I really like the old language (but that says more about me I think).

  4. Maybe at my age I should learn not to “stir” so much- although perhaps “stir” in that sense does show my age (which is?).

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