Loving the Book of Common Prayer 3: Theological depth (and breadth!)

Edward VI, who approved the 1552 BCP

My last post on the Prayer Book proved unexpectedly controversial amongst Anglicans and Lutherans when I shared it in a Facebook group I’m part of. Unfortunately, in the midst of the controversy, no one actually dealt with the substance of my post, merely my use of the word Protestant. This serves as a testament to the horror of all Facebook arguments.

In fact, had they desired, any of the antagonists (if informed enough, as some were) in the debates could easily have pointed out that the BCP statements of justification by faith I was using in that post — regardless of anti-Roman Catholic intention (which I suspect on the part of Cranmer) — were not incompatible with the Council of Trent. That is to say, even by that post’s own controversial definition of Protestant, the BCP is not a particularly or peculiarly Protestant document.

Since I’m addressing what I think of as the ‘historic’ Prayer Books in these posts (as I mentioned in the first of them), today I will use the text of 1552, having last time used the Canadian BCP of 1962, and the time before that 1662. (Just for information.)

Although not strongly Protestant, what the BCP is — and herein lies one of its chief glories — is a ‘broad church’ document with great theological depth. It is broad church in that more catholic Anglicans can use it without having to add or excise anything (although sometimes they do), and even Reformed (not just reformed!) Anglicans can use it without having to add or excise anything (although sometimes they do, too). It is capable of embracing Anglicans of theological orthodoxy who disagree on a variety of issues. This is part of its intra-Anglican catholicity alongside its inter-denominational and international catholicity.

Besides being broad, it is deep. It is the depth I love. Even if many more Anglicans found the worship and language of the Prayer Book a stumbling block than currently do (that is, were it not quite so broad), I would still love its theological moments.

I’ve already mentioned its statements on justification and merit last time.

It is also very clear about the human condition. Immediately — and scandalously for many — it is apparent that the BCP believes we are sinners; at Morning and Evening Prayer, the service begins with a confession of sin that includes the phrase, ‘and there is no health in us’. The Letany begins with antiphonal entreaties to each Person of the Trinity to ‘haue mercye upon us miserable synners,’ before saying:

Remember not, Lorde, our offences, nor the offences of oure forefathers, neyther take thou vengeance of our sinnes: spare us, good lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast redemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.

Spare us, good Lorde.

Prayers for deliverance from a variety of sins follow.

Of course, most of us will encounter the BCP (whether 1552, 1662, 1962 or when-have-you) in Holye Communion. Common to these is this opening Collecte:

Almightie God, unto whom all heartes be open, all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hyd: clense the thoughtes of our heartes by the inspiracion of thy holy spirit, that we maye perfectlye loue thee, and worthely magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.

Then the Law — and in 1552, it is the Ten Commandments, with no recourse to Christ’s Summary of the Law. Common to 1552 and 1662 is the Exhortation, calling upon the congregation to examine themselves and their conduct in preparation for receiving the Sacrament. Then, ‘we knowledge and bewayle oure manyfolde synnes and wyckednes, whiche we from tyme to tyme moste greuously have committed’. We are sinners; we must do something about it.

I read once in a self-help book when I worked at Chapters (all about how to empower yourself and get rich) about someone who left the church over ‘manifold sins and wickedness.’ He didn’t believe it was true of him. Obviously the Prayer Book has a strong theology of the depth of human sin and our right response (‘the burthen of them is intollerable’), but manifold is a term of quantity, not quality. That is, even if your sins are ‘peccadilloes’, and even if you sin, say, only once a month, that’s twelve times a year; between the ages of 10 and 20, that’s 120 sins. Manifold applies.

But the Prayer Book, of course, says that there is no health in us. It doesn’t leave us there, though. The BCP knows full well the solution to sin, which is why it keeps making us repent — repentance is the cure. Hence the ‘comfortable woords’, such as:

If any man sinne, we have an aduocate with the father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propiciacion for our synnes.

Christ offered himself up for us on the Cross as oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. All we need do is accept this gift through faith, and we enter into right relationship with God and are set upon the road to salvation. This also the Prayer Book says in abundance, although I’ve been fixating on sin. The whole Gospel is there. It makes the heart sing.

One final prayer related to the human condition is one of the chief glories of Prayer Book worship, the Prayer of Humble Access:

We doe not presume to come to this thy table (O mercyfull Lorde) trustinge in our owne righteousnesse, but in thy manifolde and greate mercies: we bee not worthye, so much as to gather up the crommes under thy table: but thou art the same Lorde whose propertie is alwayes to haue mercye: graunt as [sic] therfore (gracious lord) so to eate the fleshe of thy dere sonne Jesus Christe, and to drinke his bloud, that our synfulle bodyes maye be made cleane by his body, and our soules wasched through his most precious bloud, and that we may euermore dwel in him, and he in us. Amen.

I love this prayer. If I am at a church using the Canadian BAS, or Common Worship, or the Scottish Liturgy of 1982, and this prayer is missing, I say it quietly before approaching the Lord’s Table. Some, I’ve been told, call it the Humble Crumble and are not fond of it. Others feel it unnecessary, since we’ve already confessed our sins.

But that’s the point, I think.

Even having confessed our sins, we still are not worthy. Generally speaking, in classic Christian theology, confessions of human smallness, frailty, and weakness are actually confessions of divine largeness, strength, and power. There is an ontological gap between humanity and God that God chooses to bridge in the Eucharist. We come from dust, and to dust we shall return. In the classic theology of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, human beings come from nothing, and without God, we tend to return to nothing. God, on the other hand, is self-existent and in need of nothing external. He is also, however, overflowing love, as I blogged recently.

God is Love (not mercy), and always having mercy is a property of the Triune God who is Love.

Therefore, although we are unworthy, although we are sinful — as the Prayer Book has already made abundantly plain — God comes to meet us in the Eucharist, joining the divine with the human. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

The Prayer Book response to God’s mercy, the response to the grace bestowed upon us in the Sacrament?

Glorye bee to God on hyghe. And in yearth peace, good wyll towardes men. We prayse thee, we blesse thee, we worshippe thee, we glorifye thee…

The historic BCPs are also unfailingly Trinitarian. I have been at some modern liturgies that an Arian could have prayed. Not so the BCP. At Morning and Evening Prayer, we affirm the Apostles’ Creed (an Arian could say that, I suppose), and at the Communion, we confess our faith in the words of the Nicene (Constantinopolitan) Creed. Not only that, in 1552, at the end of Evening Prayer we are instructed that:

In the feastes of Christmas, the Epiphanie, Saincte Mathie [sic], Easter, Thassencion, Pentecost, Sainct John Baptist, Sainct James, Sainct Bartholomew, Sainct Matthew, Sainct Symon and Jude, Sainct Andrewe, and Trinitie Sunday; shalbe song or sayd immediately after Benedictus, this confession of our Christen fayth.

What follows is The Athanasian Creed. A German friend of mine who was praying the BCP with his mother on Christmas followed the rubric. She loved this statement of faith. So do I — besides my aforelinked translation, I have this post and this post on the subject. I have another friend who had a bad experience in a particular evangelical denomination, so he went off, read the Bible for himself, decided to become an Arian. An Anglican priest handed him the BCP; he read the Athanasian Creed and converted to Trinitarianism.

The Trinity is the heart of all orthodox Christian faith, rooted in the literal history of the incarnate life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God the Word, sent to save us sinners. This theology, this story, is played over and over again in the Prayer Book as our response to God’s grace in our lives and in the world.

There are other pieces of great theology throughout the historic Prayer Books — the collects, Holy Baptism, Confirmation. The Buriall of the Dead is enveloped in the rich biblical passages about the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. I could go on.

Whenever I go a time without using the BCP in prayer and worship, it is a balm and a delight to my soul when I return. This theological depth, of which only one small portion was discussed here, is part of why.

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3 thoughts on “Loving the Book of Common Prayer 3: Theological depth (and breadth!)

  1. I didn’t think your last post was “anti-Roman Catholic”. Your posts have been very informative. I often give Anglican works to my family and friends because they bridge both worlds.

    • Thanks, Fariba! Indeed, no Roman Catholics found that post troubling at all! The world is most unusual. This bridging of the worlds is one of the things that keeps me Anglican. 🙂

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