Loving the Book of Common Prayer 1: Catholicity

Baskerville_titleBy 10:30 last night, I was completely bushed. So put down The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, turned off the light, and went to sleep. This meant that this morning I was awake at 7:30 and smelling the rich aroma of incense by 8:30 at the nearest Anglican Church. Like many Anglican churches, this congregation relegates the Book of Common Prayer to its early service — a fairly simple affair, said not sung, although with a bit of incense and clerical kneeling.

I wanted the Prayer Book this morning, most certainly, especially after the beautiful Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Baptism & Holy Communion I Skyped into in the middle of Easter Even last weekend! I realise that we now live in the midst of an international Anglicanism with a plurality of liturgical books called The Book of Common Prayer, so let me say that what I mean by ‘Prayer Book’ or ‘Book of Common Prayer/BCP’ is the Canadian BCP of 1962, the 1662 BCP, or the Scottish BCP of 1912.

I am not acquainted with other Prayer Books.

These Prayer Books, along with those of the reign of Edward VI and the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 and some from the early twentieth century, are the ‘historic’ Prayer Books. These BCPs maintain the historic content and language of the majestic and glorious 1662 (unless, of course, they pre-date it). When I worship using one of these Prayer Books, as opposed to The Book of Alternative Services or Common Worship or something your priest made up over a dram of whisky the night before, I feel a connection with the centuries-old tradition of Anglican worship.

The BCP is catholic, Protestant, and beautiful.

In other words, Anglican.

I’m going to write three wee posts on the BCP. Today, I’ll quickly look at how The Book of Common Prayer is catholic.


Let us take the traditional words of the Sursum Corda:

Priest: Lift up your hearts.
Answer. We lift them up unto the Lord.
Priest. Let us give thanks unto our Lord God.
Answer. It is meet and right so to do.
¶Then shall the Priest turn to the Lord’s Table, and say,
IT is very meet, right and our bounden duty …

These words not only connect us with the Roman Missal and the Use of Sarum, but to the Divine Liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great (Eastern Orthodox) and the third-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, a liturgical use that probably contains many traces of second-century liturgical prayers and actions. It is present in the ancient Liturgy of St James (Jerusalem & Syrian Orthodox), the Divine Liturgy of St Mark (Coptic), and something similar appears in the ‘Nestorian’ liturgy (Church of the East).

The Sursum Corda is not the only aspect of the Eucharistic liturgy in the BCP that ties to this historic, international body of liturgies. Anything that has a Latin name is present in the Roman liturgy — ‘Sanctus’, ‘Gloria’, ‘Gloria Patri’, ‘Pater Noster’, ‘Credo’, etc. Many of these elements are also present in the other traditional liturgies of the world, such as the ‘Sanctus’.

The twofold structure of the BCP Service of Holy Communion, of the Liturgy of the Word and then the Anaphora/Canon of the Mass (can’t think of a Protestant name for it!) is also held in common. The liturgical recitation of the Nicene Creed we hold in common with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, a ritual action dating back to the later sixth century; although glancing at some liturgical texts online, I see that the Coptic Orthodox and Church of the East also recite it.

The Prayer Book is shot through with prayers and ritual actions taken from the ancient liturgical books and practices available to Thomas Cranmer. It maintains the ancient structure and rhythm of Christian worship as it had already been practised for centuries not only in the British Isles but in Christ’s Church militant throughout the earth. Besides the Use of Sarum, Cranmer also made use of the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Gregorian Sacramentary, and the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (at least). The result is an English-language Prayer Book that stands in rank with the historic liturgies of world Christianity, linked to the wider and deeper tradition. Indeed, its catholicity is so strong that, with a few modifications, it was easily adapted for Eastern Orthodox use as the Liturgy of St Tikhon, and there are Roman Catholic parishes that use it as well.

The Prayer Book is a strongly catholic book. I think the point has been made, if briefly. Although Cranmer made some unsurprising changes to the texts for a Protestant, he maintained the essential Christocentric, Scriptural core of the liturgical texts he used, a core that links them in history as far back as the second or third century, and in geography to historic liturgies not only in Europe and the Mediterranean but the Middle East and India as well.

The Prayer Book is not simply a Protestant, vernacular liturgy for England. It is an attempt to reform the liturgy, but an attempt that seeks to stand within the tradition that gave it birth. For this, I love it.

Next time: The Prayer Book is Protestant.

6 thoughts on “Loving the Book of Common Prayer 1: Catholicity

  1. The 1928 American Prayer Book is still used in some off shoots of the Episcopal Church, USA. The early to mid 20th Cent. American Lutheran materials such as The Lutheran Hymnal 1941, and the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal was very similar. I actually like the 1549 BCP as opposed to 1552 or 1662.

    • Thanks! I’ve heard some American friends speak warmly of the 1928 Prayer Book. Lutheran liturgy is something I know little of, so thanks for that. Maybe I should pop over to the library and inspect their copy of the 1549 BCP! I tend to focus on 1662 because it is a BCP almost everyone has had in common at some point and is still in use in England (but never in Scotland!).

  2. […] seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we […]

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