BCP: a finished product or a work in progress?

Published December 1, 2006

These two books are different in content and purpose. One is a devotional commentary on the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which appeared in substantially finished form 450 years ago in the Church of England.

The other is a historical and theological overview of the evolution of Anglican worship from 1549 until the present day – from a local schism within western Christianity to a worldwide multiracial, multicultural Communion whose great defining document was the 1662 BCP.

One presents the BCP as a finished product; the other shows it as a work in progress. The two viewpoints highlight the main issue around Anglican worship in the 21st century.

Discovering the Book of Common Prayer is the second of two volumes published jointly by the Prayer Book Society and Anglican Book Centre Publishing. It focuses on key topics of corporate worship: the church, baptism, confirmation, and Holy Communion.

It is a well-written, attractively illustrated, and polemic-free presentation of Anglicanism and much of its commentary relates to matters not exclusive to the BCP. The section offering “souls and bodies,” for example, is an exposition of carrying faith into action in today’s world.

However, the book suffers from a kind of “prayer book fundamentalism,” best illustrated in its treatment of the directives restricting reception of Holy Communion to persons who have been confirmed. I searched in vain for any reference to the 1972 action of General Synod which opened sacramental sharing to any baptized person of any age. Surely the widespread acceptance of such a major change by the whole church deserves some acknowledgement.

[pullquote]The author writes of the “elegant and evocative language” of the BCP, words no one could dispute. It is also studded with translation of BCP words into language “understanded of the people.” That is one reason this book is excellent for its time, but that time was 50 years ago.

The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer portrays the BCP and Anglican public worship as very much works in progress.

But this, surely, is what it always was. The definitive 1662 BCP – what people know and love as “The Prayer Book” – was the fifth in a dispute-filled evolution over about 100 years starting in 1549. The present Canadian BCP is the result of two further reworkings, 1918 and 1962, making it seventh in the revisions.

It is difficult not to compare this new survey with the 1932 Liturgy and Worship (L&W), which served as a basic textbook for generations of theological students. It and the new Oxford book follow a similar pattern – essays by eminent liturgical scholars outlining Anglican worship as it was and is becoming. This new book appears a worthy successor to the venerable classic.

The first difference between the two is that while L&W was written by Church of England scholars, Oxford is the work of an international panel of world-class liturgists – including Canada’s Rev. Richard Leggett of the Vancouver School of Theology. Where L&W was mostly an analysis of the 1662 book, Oxford also analyzes prayer books today and outside of England, most written by local scholars.

The “hinge” section in Oxford comes in part four, entitled “From Uniformity to Family Resemblance: Prayer Books in the Twentieth Century,” which reflects the explosion in worship patterns throughout the Anglican world. Here, it should be noted, the term “prayer book” no longer refers only to clones of the 1662 BCP, but to all worship books developed by local churches. Whether called the Book of Common Prayer by the U.S. Episcopal Church, to Canada’s Book of Alternative Services or the Church of England’s Common Worship – all are prayer books.

Their greatest contrast with the 1662 BCP and its offspring is that while the former presents each rite as a non-variable package recited primarily by a priest, the new books offer a set of building blocks from which to assemble a liturgy geared to local needs, in which the congregation changes from passive spectators to active participants.

Today, liturgy may come in a booklet or overhead transparency, so worshippers may not find a “prayer book” in their pews.

Along with the bibliography at the end of the Oxford book, most of the 72 essays carry their own reading list. There is also a chron-ology of prayer book development and a useful glossary.

Defenders of the liturgical antiquities of the Church of England would do well to read the essay in Oxford Preserving the Classical Prayerbooks. It quotes the 1988 Lambeth Conference obituary of the 1662 Prayer Book: “If we do not dwell on its strengths today, it is because we judge its era is slipping irretrievably into the past.”

William Portman is a former book review editor of the Anglican Journal.


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