The Bishop of London recently gave us some wonderful words on the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer. A few of the brief remarks he gave were, to my mind, axiomatic for a good understanding of the Book of Common Prayer and its place in our little part of the Church:
It was an audacious attempt to re-shape the culture of England by collapsing the distinction between private personal devotion and public liturgical worship in order to create a godly community in which all and not just the clergy had access to the “pure milk of the gospel”.
The BCP was an attempt to make a heavily Benedictine influenced spirituality of prayer and Eucharist available to all people. I have heard it called “the monasticism of all believers,” but in the very least in was taking ascetical spiritual practices from the monastery and putting them right in the bedrooms, kitchens, and parish churches of lay people.
But one of the functions of a liturgy is to preserve words and the possibility of an approach to God which is hard or impossible to express in the language of the street.
It much of contemporary western Christianity, we have forgotten the place of “liturgical language.” We feel much more comfortable with t-shirts that proclaim, “Jesus is my homeboy,” than we do with fear and awe and reverence. The Book of Common Prayer was and is a healthy corrective to this leisurely and “Hey there buddy” approach to God which is so common these days, but would be difficult to find in the Holy Scriptures.
Cranmer distilled his liturgy from his studies of the Christian past and especially of the patristic period – the first five centuries; the springtime of the Church.
In the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer, of 1549, he appeals to the authority of the “auncient fathers” as a guide in liturgical matters. Queen Elizabeth I, in her letter to the Roman Catholic Princes of Europe, amplified the point “that there was no new faith propagated in England, no new religion set up but that which was commanded by Our Saviour, practised by the Primitive Church and approved by the Fathers of the best antiquity”.
Some might say that what Cranmer did was not so much “write” the BCP, but to compile, edit, and translate it. Cranmer was not trying to do anything new, per se. He was trying to make sure that Biblical, Patristic Christianity was meaningfully and vitally practiced throughout England.
This next paragraph was so striking that I couldn’t help but include it here:
In a book published in 1662, Simon Patrick comments on the rites and ceremonies of divine worship and approves “that virtuous mediocrity which our church observes between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid sluttery of fanatic conventicles.” Of course we would be too polite to say such things now but the Prayer Book offers a simple and moderate system for a whole life from baptism to last rites and seeks in its rubrics and ceremonies to embrace the whole person and not merely the cerebellum.
+London concludes with one of the finest single paragraphs about the BCP that I have ever read:
The Book of Common Prayer which immerses us in the whole symphony of scripture; which takes us through the Psalms every month; which makes available in a digestible but noble way the treasury of ancient Christian devotion has a beauty which is ancient but also fresh. If our civilisation is to have a future the roots must be irrigated and the texts which we choose to pass on to our children have the power to create a community which does not merely dwell in the flatlands of getting and spending but which sees visions with prophets, pursues wisdom with Solomon and lives with the generosity of the God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.