Against the Book of Common Prayer

A few weeks ago I read a small flurry of interesting blog posts praising the Book of Common Prayer and its continuing role in Anglican worship:

Then earlier this week I found myself defending the use of the Prayer Book service for Flash Evensong, in the face of a suggestion that something more “contemporary and accessible” would have been better.

As I said at the time, I think the choice of the BCP service for Flash Evensong was entirely correct, given that the aim was to step in to the gap left by the cathedral’s closure. And I think the service, and the warmth with which it was received by Christians and non-Christians alike, vindicate that decision.

However, I do still feel a certain ambivalence towards the Book of Common Prayer – and not just because of the way later revisions pushed the text away from the “Lutheran” feel of the 1549 edition.

Edward Green defends the Prayer Book’s “archaic” language as follows:

It is a mistake to think […] that Cranmer wrote in the vernacular or everyday language of the people. Instead he built upon the Christian tradition of using special language in worship[…]. The prose is poetic to modern ears, but would have been equally so to its first hearers.

Again, I have a lot of sympathy with this view (just as I have very little sympathy with the view that “contemporary” and “informal” worship is necessarily more “accessible” than traditional or liturgical worship). Even if I have often felt that the Prayer Book is hoist with its own petard when it says (in the Articles of Religion usually included in it):

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

It’s one thing to say that Cranmer’s language was somewhat “heightened” or “special” even at the time, but ultimately the Prayer Book’s language could have ended up as another Church Slavonic – and in some contexts may already be there.

More seriously, though, I’m conscious of how unsuccessful the Prayer Book ended up being in practice. The attempt to impose a uniform liturgy through the Prayer Book led to a century or more of dispute within the church, and even played a part in the process that lead to the Civil War. It resulted in the ejection of Puritan clergy from the Church of England, and the loss of millions of members to various forms of non-conformity, from Congregationalism to Methodism.

Next year is the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. That is an occasion worthy of celebration. However, it is also the 350th anniversary of the “Great Ejectment” of the clergy who refused to use the revived Prayer Book, and the consequent permanent fracturing of English Christianity.

I’ll continue using the Book of Common Prayer on occasion in my own devotions, and defending its use in appropriate circumstances in the contemporary church. But I’ll also give thanks that, at last, the Prayer Book now takes its place as part of a diversity of forms of worship, rather than as “One Liturgy To Rule Them All”.

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2 thoughts on “Against the Book of Common Prayer”

  1. Thank you for the mention – feel free to add a comment to my blog saying you have responded!

    I agree both on the 1549 being more authentically Reformed Catholic and that the Prayer Book should not be the only form used. I tend to find I am either doing BCP or very children and adult involving all age worship these days.

  2. Thank you both…your remarks were interesting and informative. I love the CW liturgy but I grew up with BCP and when I do an Evensong or communion I am conscious of all those who have gone before me…it’s like a renewal of promises made when very young. I would not like this to get about but when I got married in my sixties I opted for the prayer book version. Love the words.

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