User’s guide to prayer book falls short of its promise

Published September 1, 2003

More than two generations after the adoption of the 728-page 1959 Canadian Book of Common Prayer (BCP), almost a full generation after the 1985 introduction of the 928-page Book of Alternative Services, a whole people have been raised up who know not the meaning of “common” prayer.[pullquote]The familiar liturgies of worship, once governed in England by parliamentary Acts of Uniformity, are now enacted in scores of different ways by congregations that may or may not understand how they are expressing their membership in the worldwide Anglican Communion. Yet it is of crucial importance because membership comes not from profession of belief, confession or adherence to creed but from baptism, and participation in (and enactment of) Christian worship according to the Anglican tradition. If ever there were a need for a simple user’s guide to the BCP surely that time is now. And if, as sociologist Reginald Bibby asserts, attendance and membership in Canadian churches is growing, then newcomers and oldtimers both would likely appreciate some basic guidance on what Anglican liturgy is all about. To serve this critical need comes Discovering the Book of Common Prayer; A Hands-On Approach by veteran journalist Sue Careless, jointly published by the Prayer Book Society of Canada and the Anglican Book Centre. The original concept was for a “simple user’s guide to the BCP” – a 30-page booklet. Unfortunately the concept was lost in the evident love and enthusiasm for the revered BCP. What has appeared is 280 pages on daily prayer that is only volume one of a larger work. If the second volume is like unto it, we’ll have 560 pages to explain 728 and “simple” isn’t the word for it. This is not a historical treatise. It does not, for instance, delve into the evolution of the Books of Common Prayer in other branches of the Anglican Communion. You will not explore Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s compromises that kept Puritans and ritualists together at the same table; you won’t read of such curiosities as Elizabeth I introducing her astrologer’s zodiac signs into the daily lectionary, or the timidity that led the framers of the 1959 BCP to omit such controversial verses as Psalm 137: 7-9 – nor why the editors of the Book of Alternative Services restored them. More’s the pity. In fact, one of the great curiosities of this book is the total omission of any mention whatsoever of the Book of Alternative Services which has, for many congregations, replaced the BCP almost entirely in their regular Sunday services. Were it titled Discovering Prayer, this bold attempt to promote the BCP as a useful and accessible tool for individuals seeking prayer guidance might find a much more ready audience. The first three chapters may be most helpful to inquirers who are not familiar with the Prayer Book specifically or prayer generally. There is, within chapter four, a 54-page guide to Morning Prayer. But readers may find it heavy slogging to get to the core. The final chapter “Just do it!” is a curious amalgam of loose advice on prayer generally, practical tips on such things as using a glue gun to attach five-ribbon bookmarks, and – surprisingly from a champion of the old language – excerpts from the BCP that have been rendered gender neutral with the deletion of male pronouns. Almost hidden is the jewel of advice to read the appointed psalms and Bible readings from the daily lectionary with the declaration “They are really the core and backbone of Morning and Evening Prayer.” There is a much too brief appendix on the history and origins of the BCP and another with definitions for a curious selection of words both current and archaic for a readership presumed ignorant of “common” vocabulary. For all its promise of revealing the treasures of the beloved BCP to novice and experienced users alike, this work falls short. Omissions are glaring. Digressions are legion. Focus is much missed. A simple 30-page guide is still a brilliant concept. Robin Lind, a former resident of the diocese of Niagara, is a writer and historiographer who now lives in the United States.


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