Book of Common Prayer

Anyone familiar with the Breviary and the Rule of St. Benedict has an advantage in understanding the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone who understands how English village life had been organized for centuries around the monastery, also has an advantage. Knowing these things helps enormously, because it prevents the mistake of seeing the Book of Common Prayer as no more than a book of public services. Prayer tradition that has grown out of the Rule (Regula) looks to an ideal life of seven offices with a Mass every day. The average person cannot live this way, but can live with a simplified Rule for one’s own life. That Rule of life is what the Book of Common Prayer gives to us.

Anyone who has a copy of the original 1611 Authorized Version (King James) of the Bible may notice that in the front of the book we find the schedule of daily Bible readings and the thirty-day cycle of Psalms, for daily Morning and Evening Prayer. Imagine, if you can, a Bible published in our time with the assumption that the reader is living by the Rule expected of him by his church. Imagine a Bible reader today taking care to make his reading conform to the Rule of his church.

The average working man or woman, or the average child in school or young person in college, can read daily Morning Prayer and daily Evening Prayer and at least keep up with the schedule of scripture reading. It is true that the Prayer Book contains services for the Church, sacramental rites for Baptism, for Confirmation, for marriage, and the Ordinal added in 1550. It contains a funeral rite. Yes, the book is the book for all public services. But, it is more than that. It is also a simplified Benedictine Rule for the common man, and this is the tradition of English prayer that has been made available to everyone through the Anglican Common Prayer tradition.


We have, in addition, a specific Anglican way of speaking. Among many High Church, Anglo-Catholic circles, so as not to be confused with Low churchmen, the phrase “the Mass” is used almost exclusively. But, is this really an indication of churchmanship? If so, it should not be. After all, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) called the service “The Supper of the Lorde and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Masse.” Either name is fine, and they are interchangeable. But, in later editions it came more and more to be called “Holy Communion,” with the use of the word “Mass” being less frequent (though always brought out for Christmas “Midnight Mass”).

The first BCP added the words “Supper” and “Holy Communion” to make a point. That point is that the Christian really ought be receiving the sacrament, not simply “hearing the Mass,” communing only very occasionally, as had been the practice of most people up until that time. In fact, it may interest readers to know that it was, at first, the practice of some of the more Protestant elements in the Church of England, including Archbishop Cranmer himself, to recommend and teach the virtue of frequent communion. I suggest that using the term “Holy Communion” a bit more often is a very Catholic idea, and more in keeping with the meaning of the sixth chapter of St. John, about our need to feed on Christ’s flesh and to drink his blood, the food and drink of eternal life.

Take a look, as well, at the words that surround the General Confession. I do not agree with the practice that I have witnessed among some who shorten the invitation (and exclude the intercession as well) by violating the rubric, and saying only, “let us pray for the whole State of Christ’s Church, beginning with the words of the General Confession.” Look, instead, at the powerful words that the priest is required to say by the BCP:

“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.”

In this invitation conditions are laid down for an honest confession coupled with sincere repentance. This invitation cannot fail to do good for the souls in a congregation if they listen and heed the words. Likewise, notice the conditional aspect of the Absolution that follows:

“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him; Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you from all your sins; confirm and strengthen you in all goodness; and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (“Hearty” would be the same as “sincere.”)

A more modern version lays down no condition of “hearty repentance and true faith.” Instead, we see only some magic wand of priest craft, and all is forgiven without the heart of the sinner turning to the Lord. Our Book of Common Prayer tradition is worth preserving and passing on because it was formed by men who believed in the serious business of saving souls.