Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer

Before we dive into the book, we begin here:

The opposite of amnesia is anamnesis – remembering. That is the theme we will explore throughout this course. Remembering, in a particular way, is the central purpose of the Book of Common Prayer. Marion Hatchett, who has written the definitive commentary (670 pages):

“A person with amnesia has lost identity and purpose. To know who you are, to whom you belong, and where you are headed, you must remember… A Christian is one for whom, through anamnesis, the death resurrection of Jesus Christ is a present reality, and one who has already entered the Kingdom, though it is not yet realized in its fullness.”

That is the purpose of the Book of Common Prayer. To remember; and not just any kind of remembering, but remember as a community living in common.

That makes it more the collection of prayers or a guide to worship, though it is all of that.

Our prayer book contains much Holy Scripture; by some estimates, two-thirds of the book is from the Bible. It is sacred text imbedded in sacred text; and that makes the BCP a document that is alive and breathing, as a vessel of our sacred remembering, and a foundation upon which to form as a beloved community.

We call this liturgy, and the word means “the work of the people.” It is in our work together that our sacred remembering takes place. Those are themes we will explore together, and here is how:

The history of the book.

The earliest Christians had no liturgical books. They used Jewish forms of worship, and adapted, and remodeled those forms for their own use. There are many echoes of Jewish worship in our BCP today, and we will explore those as we go along.

By the second century, as Christianity moved away from Judaism, and as it sought to adapt in language and culture to the larger Roman world, church ordos, or orders, began to be written.

The most important is the Prayer of Hippolytus (215) with its distinctive and familiar call-and-response format at beginning, and its formula for remembering the creation of the Old Testament and how the saving acts of Jesus fit into the Creation story. All of our eucharistic prayers are based on this 3rd century formula.

The Medieval church went through a long history of rise and fall and rising again. It is worthwhile noting that when the Roman Catholic Church was wiped out on the European continent, the surviving liturgical books, or missals, were in England. When Catholicism was replanted in Europe, it was the English or Sarum rite that was brought back to Europe. All Roman Catholic rites are based on the English rites, and so when we reach the English reformation, it is a re-discovery of a very old English way worship. And that is where we now turn.

Bishop Otis Charles, one of the architects of our current prayer book (1979) in an email to me earlier this month, pointed out a principle that is true of all our prayer books through the ages:

“Much of the 1979 BCP is corrective of the 1928 BCP. I suspect that the next revision of the BCP will be corrective of our work. Each generation responds to it's own perceptions of the needs of the Church even as it seeks to express the best extant understanding of the Church and Liturgy.”

Keep that in mind as we walk through this history.

The English Reformation

Henry VIII broke from Rome over his divorce. That had less to do with lust than it had to do with finding a wife who could give him an heir that would not deliver England to Spain. His first wife, Catherine, was Spanish, and the Pope favored absorbing England into this holy of holiest Catholic countries – Spain. So the divorce was refused, the Pope badly miscalculated, and Henry broke with Rome.

Henry’s lawyer in Rome, Thomas Cranmer, was recalled to London and appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury to head the new Church of England. It fell to Cranmer, a scholar of considerable talent, to write a worship book that would unite England into a single church.

At the time of the Reformation there was no single unified book of worship. Local custom and local practice ruled, and the unruly English were not so easily persuaded to use a common prayer book.

You may recall from your history books that a major bone of contention in the Reformation was Luther’s insistence that worship and Scripture should be done in the local language so that people could access for themselves without the control of the Church. The Vatican resisted. Cranmer was much influenced by the Lutheran and Calvinist reformation ideas; in his travels had negotiated with Lutheran princes and saw the Lutheran translations.

Cranmer did more than translate the Latin mass into English. Cranmer borrowed heavily from Martin Luther’s litany and Myles Coverdales’ English translation of the New Testament.

Cranmer did something more revolutionary: His prayer book emphasized that the faithful should regularly receive the Eucharist. By then the Latin mass made no provision for the people to receive communion (only the priests and monks were receiving).

Cranmer also set out the offices, with public baptism, matrimony visitation of the sick. He borrowed from many sources, especially German Lutherans, and he adapted older prayers for the sick into newer prayers for the preparation of receiving communion. He also took much from the theology of John Calvin of Geneva, particularly around the Eucharist.

Processions were banned; the ban was a bow to Calvinistic Protestantism which saw processions as adulation of the saints. The elevation of the host and the manual acts (gestures) were forbidden, again as too Catholic.

The first book was deeply unpopular amongst the faithful who sought a return to processions. There was wide-spread resistance to the weekly celebration of communion; much of the reason had to do with the extra expense for parishes of purchasing bread and wine. There was still considerable loyalty toward the Catholic church, the king’s martial and succession issues notwithstanding.

Cranmer’s rite was called a “counterfeit mass.” A number of English bishops remained loyal to the Vatican, chief among them Stephen Gardiner, who would later become Cranmer’s chief inquisitor.

Cranmer also wrote a stripped down memorial for the dead, removing the more elaborate requiem mass; again, it was in opposition to the Catholic theology of purgatory.

Vestments were banned as too Catholic. Yet Cranmer’s prayer book was seen as too conservative by many continental reformers, particularly the Anabaptists. They would never embrace the book.

Most enduringly, Cranmer simplified the monastic “hours” or “offices.” Where there had a been prayers every three hours in Catholic practice, Cranmer simplified it to Morning and Evening Prayer. He also set a calendar for biblical readings for MP and EP; it is here where he was most successful, and these offices and readings remain in current prayer books. And Cranmer wrote a prayer, or “collect” for each Sunday, and we continue to use those prayers.

Cranmer assumed throughout the book that the people would participate in the worship rather than have worship performed for them. Ironically, that first book, written in 1549, was an abject failure. Riots broke out (stirred up by bishops who saw their power threatened by the new prayer book).

Cranmer revised the book in 1552 in the reign of Edward VI. He rewrote a fuller Eucharist and mended what were seen as flaws in his eucharistic prayers. It was a bigger, fuller book.

Bloody Mary

Edward VI died in 1553, and Mary took the throne. She was the Catholic daughter of Henry’s first wife, and she sought to re-institute Catholicism in England. Cranmer and other bishops were arrested, put on trial by Bishop Gardiner, and Cranmer was burned at the stake in Oxford. Queen Mary won the nickname “Bloody Mary.”

Elizabeth I

Mary soon after died, and Elizabeth took the throne, bringing back Cranmer’s prayer book in 1559. Elizabeth, whose personal piety was Catholic in style, eased up on some of the more austere aspects of Cranmer’s earlier prayer books. Vestments were back in even if purgatory was out. The emphasis on weekly communion also remained.

Elizabeth reached a political settlement that is crucial to our understanding of the importance of the prayer book as a political document. She appointed herself the “supreme governor” of the church, not exactly pope but still in charge. In what became known as the “Elizabethan compromise” she insisted that English churchgoers could believe what they wanted to believe – Catholic or Protestant – but they must worship out of a “common” prayer book, hence the import of the name.

She also got the bishops and Parliament to agree to a statement of religious principles, the “Articles of Religion,” which came to be known as the “39 articles.” The statement was notable by its brevity in comparison to the ponderous and windy “confessions” in the Protestant continental Europe. The 39 articles are to be found p. 867 of the American prayer book. One notable item: Article XX which limits the authority of the Church to dictate doctrine or interpretation of Scripture. The authority of the church was limited primarily to the practice of worship (p. 871).

English Civil War

The Elizabethan compromise collapsed in the reign of Charles I. England was polarized between the Puritan protestants and the royalist Anglicans. The English Civil War erupted in 1640, and the Book of Common Prayer of Elizabeth’s time was banned.

The war eventually ended, and monarchy restored in 1660; the prayer book came back in 1662. There were some 600 changes from the 1559 book, mostly minor. Manual acts were back, and the people got to say “Amen” at the end of the eucharistic prayer. Kneeling, banned in the Puritan era, was allowed again, with a specific rubric stating that it was not for the “adoration” of the eucharistic elements.

The 1662 version remains the official prayer book of the English church to this day. You might say that the English were loath to change it, fearing civil war lurked behind any change. That anxiety may help explain our own difficulties in embracing change to the book; other churches more easily change their “Book of Worship” because their books do not contain the baggage of civil wars and Bloody Mary.

The American Church

Remember the idea from Bishop Charles that each generation must fix the problems of the last in their prayer book? The Americans had a doozy of a problem. They chose order over innovation.

With the end of the American Revolution, the Church separated from England in 1789. The nation’s founders wished to retain their English form of worship, but the prayer book posed problems, for example, the prayers for the king and the oaths of allegiance by the priests to the English monarchy.

The new American prayer book of 1789 declared the changes would be small. The preface stated: “this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline or worship… further than local circumstances require.”

The Americans did add elements of the eucharistic prayer from the Scottish prayer book, an epiclesis, or blessing, of the elements. The first American bishop, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated a bishop by the “non-juring” bishops of Scotland when the bishops in London refused. In 1688, James II fled, and William of Orange became king. William was a Calvinist, and a group of bishops refused to validate his monarchy, and had fled to Scotland. The Anglican bishops in Presbyterian Scotland were known as “bookies” for their adherence to the English-style prayer book.

By the 1770s some of the “non-juring” successor bishops had made it back into the Church of England, hence the consecration of Seabury was valid in a round-about sort of way.

The Scottish bishops had consecrated Seabury, and they insisted the Americans adopt a prayer book that was, if not more Catholic, less Protestant. Seabury himself was against the new American prayer book but his objections were overridden.

The new American prayer book added some prayers from popular sources, including Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living and Holy Dying,” and Bishop Edmund Gibson’s “Family Devotions.”

The American prayer book was revised in 1892 and in 1928. Various proposals rejected in 1892 were adopted in the 1928 book.

In the years after World War I there arose a “liturgical movement” with an explosion of scholarship into early church worship practices and theology. The result was the 1928 book, but broader reforms were rejected.

By 1958, General Convention agreed that a major revision of the prayer book was in order. It took another 20 years. Again, as Bishop Charles points out, the work of the new prayer book was to correct the old so that it would be relevant to a new generation.

Vatican II

Liturgical reform came full circle. In 1963, Pope John XXIII convened the Vatican II council. In effect, he declared that it was time to end the Reformation fights and modernize the church. Theologians and liturgical scholars from around the world convened, and the impact was far reaching beyond the Roman Catholic church. The scholarship around early church worship reached full blossom, with a momentum to finally dispense with as much of the medieval barnacles as possible.

Vatican II caught up to the Reformation with scriptures and worship forms in local languages, and then moved a good deal past the Protestant world. Vatican II took seriously that liturgy is the “work of the people” and moved the altar out and had the priest face the congregation.

Other churches took note. The impact on the American Episcopal Church was enormous. Our next prayer book, adopted in 1979, probably would not have been possible without the Vatican II reforms in the Roman Catholic Church.

The new prayer book – the one we use today – retained most of the forms of the 1928 prayer book but then added alongside the older forms contemporary language. You’ll find the older forms in what now was called Rite One, in Morning and Evening Prayer, the Eucharist and the burial office. The traditional collects remained.

The 1979 book added the same rites and collects in contemporary English, and that was called Rite II. The prayer book brought back the early church liturgies of Holy Week and the three days of Easter. Historical documents were added in the back of the book.

Next week we will walk through the 1979 prayer book.

Besides language, the 1979 book brought one major reform: bringing the Eucharist out from the back wall and into the assembly of the people. We will talk more about importance and symbolism of that another day.


  1. Rev Jim, would it be possible for you to comment /discuss the statement about the Eucharistic prayers. ("The most important is the Prayer of Hippolytus (215) with its distinctive and familiar call-and-response format at beginning, and its formula for remembering the creation of the Old Testament and how the saving acts of Jesus fit into the Creation story. All of our eucharistic prayers are based on this 3rd century formula.") In particular, I would like to know how I can spot the formula in Rite I or Rite II. Or, will you get to this later? If so, I'll wait till then. Thanks, Virginia Wagner-Oak Harbor

  2. Hi Virginia -- We will get there next week. All of the Eucharistic prayers have the Hippolytus formula, but each is distinctive and emphasizes certain things. We are almost there, I promise!