Today is the “moveable commemoration” of the First Book of Common Prayer of 1549. It recalls the introduction of the BCP on Whitsunday of that year. For many, this is a very positive commemoration. Indeed, the collect for this day highlights not only Thomas Cranmer—the single most important name associated with this project—but the centrality of the “language understanded of the people” in our liturgy, as a means for us to pray “in the Spirit and with the understanding.” This is all very laudable and indeed central to the mission of the Church.
But, the very inception of the Prayer Book contains with it a contradiction that remains: when the people of Cornwall wished to pray in their own native tongue rather than the language of their masters in London, their rebellion against the new liturgy was violently suppressed. The long history of minorities who fall under majority rule in Anglicanism was inaugurated with a not-so-via-media-feeling character. We should not pretend that our tradition is without this often-vicious reflex in the face of diversity and questioning (see recent news stories about worldwide Anglicanism). Those in power rarely fail to follow in the steps of Henry VIII when challenged.
The tension between an orderly, national and centralized pattern of worship and a highly-localized, familial expression of spiritual community has been in Christianity from just about the start. Anglicanism’s signature statement—the Prayer Book tradition—contains this tension, too. Any celebration of the Prayer Book needs to hold this in mind.
Currently, there are many in the Episcopal Church who have been working for decades to break down the hegemony of the BCP. They often speak of a “loose-leaf prayer book.” This has largely been accomplished, through the miracle of computers and printers, in many places. In some parishes, liturgy is largely a local affair, with many idiosyncratic elements copied and pasted into worship booklets of varying quality and theological consistency—frequently assembled by the priest or a worship committee operating as a kind of local Council of the Church. However, it remains generally true that most Episcopalians seem committed to some form of Prayer Book worship. The Cranmerian project of having a portable, recognizable, and approved common pattern and content in public worship is a rare gift in our fragmented world, even if in many places that gift is pretty dog-eared by less than skilled local adaptation, doubtful theology, or careless handling in execution.
The Prayer Book’s core significance seems to revolve around a desire to hold unity in diversity and to keep the worship of the Church focused on the priorities of the Scriptures and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. This is both vitally important and deeply wise. The paradox is that its role in our tradition means the Prayer Book is never actually “done,” nor can it ever fully satisfy us. It points to what alone can satisfy our desire to pray rightly: communion in God. Each revision—even when it botches something, like the dubious and dated language of Eucharistic Prayer C in the current book—reaches out to God in faith and offers our incompleteness as a people to the God who alone completes our aspirations, our hopes, and our prayers. God will reveal what is lacking; faith seeks God's word and listens to it. It is just such a living faith that the Prayer Book is meant to nourish.
The Book of Common Prayer cannot become our idol. In spite of its enshrined status in our tradition, it is never an end in itself. It is a valuable tool, a “book of books” providing enormous assistance for the People of God rendering praise to our Creator. But, it is always the means to that end only. Future revisions must come—though this author dreads such a thing, given the results of many recent liturgical efforts in our part of the Church, with their wordy, sententious, and often just plain ugly character. Yet, faithful hearts know that God’s will must ultimately be done, and that when the time is ripe, a new version can and must be produced for the mission of the Church.
What we celebrate today is not “the Prayer Book” as a fixed publication, but as a way for ongoing growth in the knowledge and love of God by "all sorts and conditions," a participation in the eternal prayer of the Son to the Father in the presence and power of the Spirit by the whole Body. This is what all Christian worship must be about, and what The Book of Common Prayer—at its best—has encouraged for an ever-more-diverse body of Christians from 1549 on. Just as we must be honest about its failings, we need to celebrate its true purpose and potential, giving thanks for its benefits and the faithful, fruitful path of prayer it has blazed for successive generations of Anglicans (and others).
May the Prayer Book’s imperfections be removed, and may our worship be both more truly orthodox (giving right glory to God) and embrace more authentically the gifts of each era and people as we “magnify God’s holy Name” in every service, every prayer!
The Collect for the Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer
Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen