The Book of Common Prayer: A Christian Treasure

So for the last few weeks I’ve been doing the Daily Office out of the Book of Common Prayer for my morning and evening devotions, and I have to say that it has been a wonderful time of spiritual refreshment and renewal in my own life. I struggle with prayer. My prayer life is one of the most insecure parts of my Christian walk and always has been. But now, I’ve been shown the way to a meaningful and fruitful prayer life through the use of a very old book.

First, some history. The Book of Common Prayer had its beginnings in the English Reformation and was largely the work of one man, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. The Reformation in England happened very differently (and with far different results) than the Reformation on the Continent. Anglicanism, the Catholic/Protestant hybrid that emerged from the confusion, serves as a sort of “middle way” between Catholicism with all its ritual and history and mystery on the one hand, and Protestantism with its emphasis on justification by faith alone and the proclamation of the Word of God on the other. So while in essence, the fundamental doctrine of the Church of England is Protestant, the practice is quite Catholic (big “C,” in the sense of both the universal church and, more specifically, the Western church as it existed at the time of the Reformation). 

The early years of the Church of England were full of controversy and upheaval. The church began, after all, with Henry VIII breaking away from the Roman church in 1534 because the Pope refused to grant him an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could instead marry Anne Boleyn. Under Henry’s son, Edward VI, radical reforms were attempted, including the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1549 (revised 1552) and the drafting of the original Forty-Two Articles (later revised down to thirty-nine) by Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury.

However, the Reformation was short-lived as Mary ascended to the throne at the death of Edward. Mary, a staunch Roman Catholic, rolled the clock back and resubmitted the church in England to the authority of the Pope, persecuting Protestant ministers fiercely, causing many to flee to the Continent (some of whom would end up in Geneva, where John Calvin was, and produced the famous Geneva Bible). Cranmer was executed. Fortunately, Mary died childless, and under the reign of Elizabeth I, the church stabilized somewhat. It was during Elizabeth’s reign that the Church began to be seen as a Via Media, or middle road, between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Prayer Book was restored and those ministers who had fled were allowed to return. 

The story does not stop there, of course. The next century was fraught with controversy and disagreement. The Puritans desired to see more far-reaching reforms in the Church, including the establishment of a Presbyterian form of church government. The Westminster Standards were drafted by the Westminster Assembly between 1643 and 1649, and from 1649 to 1660, under the Commonwealth and Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book were outlawed and the Westminster Standards took their place. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the church was returned to its former state as the Via Media. Thus, the Book of Common Prayer, as revised in 1662, remains to this day the official standard of the Church of England and those churches historically connected to it. An Americanized version for the Episcopal Church first appeared in 1786, with significant revisions in 1928 and 1979. The Anglican Church in North America, a new denomination formed in 2008, published their own prayer book in 2019. 

Why the BCP?

What’s so great about this book? I consider myself more in line with the Puritan/Presbyterian side of things myself, so why would I take up this Catholic-sounding book and use it for my morning and evening prayers? Let me offer three reasons why every Christian ought to own a copy of this book for devotional use. 

1) The Book of Common Prayer is steeped in Scripture.

Make no mistake, it is not the Bible. But there is more Bible in this book than most other devotional works published these days. The forms for morning and evening prayer both include three separate times of Scripture reading interspersed with prayers and songs. First comes a Psalm or group of Psalms, either according to the calendar or following the 30-day reading plan in the Psalter itself). Then an Old Testament reading according to the calendar and similarly a New Testament reading. These readings cover a good majority of the Bible, with many readings specially selected to fit the time of the church year (less so in the 1662 than in the 1928). For example, the season of Advent has many readings from Isaiah and other prophets for the Old Testament and gospel readings about the Nativity for the New. Morning and evening prayer both begin with what’s called a Sentence of Scripture, which is a short passage, usually a verse or two, intended to call the people together to pray. Both forms end with the Grace, from 2 Corinthians 13:14. 

The prayers themselves are also steeped in biblical language or come straight from Scripture. References and allusions to Scripture abound. The Lord’s Prayer is said twice in the 1662 forms for both morning and evening (once in the 1928). Furthermore, most of the appointed canticles (songs) come directly from Scripture. These are: the Venite (Psalm 95), the Benedictus (Zechariah’s prophecy, Luke 1:68ff), Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100), the Magnificat (Mary’s song, Luke 1:46ff), Cantate Domino (Psalm 98), Bonum est confiteri (Psalm 92), the Nunc dimittis (Simeon’s song, Luke 2:29ff), Deus misereatur (Psalm 67), and Benedic, anima mea (Psalm 103). The other three listed in the 1928 book are the Te Deum laudamus (an ancient Christian prayer) and the Benedictus es, Domine and Benedicite, omnia opera Domini (both from the Apocryphal “Song of the Three Children”). Of the twelve possible canticles, six are Psalms, three come from the gospel of Luke, and three are non-scriptural in origin. I’d say that’s pretty good. 

You can see that the Psalms form the core here. I like that emphasis. The Psalter is a treasure trove of praises, laments, prayers, and thanksgivings. The modern neglect of this great book is a sad thing. The Book of Common Prayer keeps the Psalter at the center of daily worship, right where it should be. That leads us into my second point.

2) The Book of Common Prayer is rooted in history.

In some cases this is both a blessing and a curse. For example, I don’t much care for the BCP’s liturgy for the Lord’s Supper, which has a far higher sacramentology behind it than I will ever care to embrace and smacks of Romish superstition. But overall, the BCP is deeply connected to history in a good way. 

Having forms for morning and evening prayer is in itself historical, both biblically speaking and otherwise. The tradition of morning and evening prayer times began in the synagogue, but there are Scriptures throughout the Old Testament describing times of worship and prayer both in the morning and the evening, as well as throughout the day. The Psalter especially is full of such references: “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch” (Psalm 5:3); “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:2); “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8); “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice” (Psalm 55:17); “But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning” (Psalm 59:16); “But I, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you” (Psalm 88:13); “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night” (Psalm 92:1-2); “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” (Psalm 141:2); “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust” (Psalm 143:8). Psalms 3 and 4 appear to be a set of prayers written to be used in the morning (3) and the evening (4). 

In the Christian era, daily prayer was taken for granted. Luke records for us that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Apostle Paul admonishes Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Our Lord taught us specifically how to pray in Matthew 6, giving us not only words to say but a form on which to hang our own prayers. Daily morning and evening prayer was common in Christian communities for centuries. 

Over time, especially in the monastic communities, prayer became much more involved, until it got to be so complicated that the average Christian was left in the dust. Seeing this, Cranmer set out to distill and simplify the monastic practice of daily prayer for the common people. He brought it back to prayers at morning and evening, rather than the complicated practice of up to eight times a day; he rendered the prayers in English, rather than Latin, so that all could understand; and he provided ways for the congregation to pray with the minister, rather than the minister praying alone. It is this practice of simple daily prayer that the Prayer Book keeps alive. Of course, the forms provided in the BCP are not the only ways to pray, but they are a good place to turn. 

Beyond the forms themselves, though, many of the prayers come from historical Christian sources. A prayer of St. John Chrysostom is said at the conclusion of both morning and evening prayer. Many of the collects trace their origins to ancient Christian authors. The Gloria Patri (Glory be…), said at the conclusion of the Psalms portion and at the end of each canticle, dates to the second century at the earliest. And of course there are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, both bedrock doctrinal statements of the historic church that lay down orthodox teaching about Christianity. 

Then there is the Great Litany, a lengthy yet beautiful prayer about all sorts of things that dates back to the fourth century. If you haven’t yet read this prayer, I highly encourage you to do so. It covers all sorts of topics and does so in a responsive fashion. Even Martin Luther considered it one of the most important prayers in Christian worship. 

3) The Book of Common Prayer provides words for you to pray.

Some reading this may wonder how this is a positive attribute. I grew up in a tradition that prized ex tempore prayer (that is, prayers made up on the spot), while written prayers allegedly stifled true spirituality. However, I’ve come to see the value of both written prayers and ex tempore prayers. For me, especially, I find it difficult sometimes to pray, especially when I don’t know what to say. Written prayers provide words for me to say, not only with my lips, but with my heart. And isn’t it true, that even when we do pray extemporaneously, we find ourselves slipping into our own patterns and saying the same sorts of things over and over? In a way, even extemporaneous prayers can lead to spiritual dead ends. 

What matters, of course, is the heart. (This is the Puritan in me speaking.) It all comes down to the heart. It is true that many Anglican churches have become dead shells full of orthodox unbelievers going through the motions; the same could be said of any number of evangelical churches as well. The point is, though, that unless we put our hearts behind our prayers, the words are meaningless. What did Jesus say of the Pharisees? “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6). We must not end up that way. 

So whether we are praying anew or rehearsing something old, we must put our heart behind it. When, during morning and evening prayer, it comes time to confess our sins (right at the beginning, no less!), we must sincerely confess before God and ask for pardon. When we pray the collects toward the end of each service, we must genuinely ask God for our petitions and thank him for his provision and whatever else. When we read the Word as appointed, we must be attentive to what it says and act accordingly. This is all part of the Christian life. 

The Prayer Book gives us prayers to pray in dignified, formal language as befits a poor creature coming before an almighty God. The prayers are carefully constructed and have literary power in their own right. As I’ve already mentioned, they are steeped in the language of Scripture and theologically rich in their content. Many of them are prayed over and over, such as the General Confession at the beginning of morning and evening prayer, or the collects for peace, grace, and aid against perils at the end. This act, of constantly praying the same thing, ingrains the words in your heart and mind. Then, when you must pray without the prayer book, there is no fumbling for words, because you have the words already. You can make a clear, direct, and sincere petition to God without needing to “um” or “Father, just, Lord, just, please, Father” any longer. 

Conclusion

The Book of Common Prayer may be an Anglican creation and a primarily Anglican resource, but Christians of all denominations (or no denomination) can profit from using it. I personally have benefitted greatly from doing morning and evening prayer (as well as compline). It is a simple act to take my Bible and Prayer Book to my bedside and kneel as soon as I wake up, and then again with my family in the evening, and finally once more before I sleep. Am I consistent? No, but that’s not the point. The point is to pray. And for that, the BCP is a great resource. 

I hope that this has inspired you to get a copy of the BCP. Like I said, I’ve been using the 1928 edition, but the 1662 is readily available on Amazon for purchase. (Stay away from the 1979; they made some unsettling changes.) The 2019 is good also, and also provides forms for midday prayer and compline. 

One complaint I have with these prayer books is that they include readings from the Apocrypha in the daily lectionaries (a “lectionary” is basically a calendar with a Bible reading plan for each of the lessons during morning and evening prayer). This is because Anglicans have a different view of the Apocrypha than that of most Protestants; they regard it as useful for instruction in life and manners, but not for establishing doctrine. However, reading it during morning and evening prayer in the same place as Scripture rubs me the wrong way. So for that reason, I’ll not be including the Apocrypha in my daily devotions.

Join with me and countless other Christians throughout the ages in communing with God daily both morning and evening.

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