The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is unquestionably a central part of our Anglican tradition. But why? It is worth looking at the three parts of the title of the book itself for some illumination: book, common, and prayer.
Back in 1549, when the first Book of Common Prayer was published, it was a technological revolution. Printed books themselves were still pretty novel, but the real innovation here was in this book as a collection of liturgies. Before that first BCP, to celebrate Sunday services, the priest would need a whole stack of volumes (probably hand copied). In the BCP, Thomas Cranmer and colleagues consolidated a host of material into one place. Because this was a printed book and not a manuscript, it was also relatively affordable.
That’s not all though. Now the people of the church had the same book as the priests of the church. Anyone who could read English could follow along and see all the prayers. Anyone who wanted to look up the readings of the prayers for a particular day could do so.
Putting the liturgies into a book was a big part of the English reformation, as now the scripture and the prayers of the church were open and accessible to all.
Before the first BCP, there were lots of different liturgies in use in England. With the BCP, the whole church began to use the same prayers. Thus the language of prayer became one of the ways the church was bound together. Even today, the English BCP is still the official prayer book of tens of millions of Anglicans all over the world. But even when people aren’t praying words of merry olde England, we Anglicans are offering our prayers in ways that are shared across cultures and nations. An Anglican visitor who showed up at your church in Ohio on a Sunday morning – even someone from Rwanda, Hong Kong, Scotland, or Argentina – would immediately recognize our worship, even if they didn’t know the particular prayers or even the language. Some years ago, I attended an Ash Wednesday service in Dar es Salaam, and I was able to worship with my whole heart even though I didn’t understand a word of the Swahili prayers.
“Common” also has another dimension. In the Episcopal Church, we all use the same prayers, no matter our church’s size or style. While there are lots of ways our common prayer allows us to be creative, there are also some limits. This keeps one priest from making a local church so idiosyncratic that its members would no longer feel at home in another congregation. This also means that local churches do not edit our prayers, possibly taking the church outside the boundaries of our shared Christian faith.
One last aspect of “common” is that the BCP binds us together across time as well. While many of our prayers were composed especially for our current (1979) book, many others are quite ancient. And the entire book is infused with scripture.
The Book of Common Prayer is not just for the professionals. It is a book for every Anglican, or any Christian who wants to conform her or his life to sacramental outlook of the prayer book. While our Sunday services are included in the prayer book, there is also much more. Starting on page 136, you can find wonderful one-page devotions for individuals and families, simple prayers that could bind a household together in prayer. Page 814 marks the beginning of a whole section of lovely prayers for many occasions, including those times when we want to talk to God, but we can’t quite figure out how to form the words. There are lots of other gems in the prayer book, so I encourage you to go exploring.
If you do not own a prayer book for your home, I invite you to get your own copy. You can get travel sizes or large print or whatever you need. You can certainly find the entire book online (www.bcponline.org), but there is something particularly satisfying about opening the pages of prayer book and searching for treasure. It won’t take you long to find wonderful prayers.
The Rev. Canon Scott Gunn serves as Executive Director for Forward Movement, and as one-half of the Supreme Executive Committee of Lent Madness. Contact Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re not familiar with Lent Madness, check it out at lentmadness.org.