The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

I’m not going to offer a full review of Alan Jacobs’ fine little book on the BCP. It’s well-written, engaging, and informative. He directed my attention to people and research of which I was unaware, or barely aware. Most importantly, he doesn’t get bogged down in detail which to me is the great bane of every liturgical scholar. It’s a book I’ll recommend to a certain kind of inquirer, someone interested in liturgy, history, and spirituality, and curious about how we got where we are.

Instead, I’d like to point to several points Jacobs makes that I find especially interesting. For one thing, he stresses the importance of scripture to the Book of Common Prayer:

Indeed, one could argue that Cranmer’s chief reason for implementing standard liturgies was to provide a venue in which the Bible could be more widely and more thoroughly known (p. 27)

The important role of scripture in Anglican liturgy should be obvious to anyone who has attended a service conducted according to the BCP rubrics. Whether hearing so much scripture actually contributes to wider and more thorough knowledge of the Bible is another question, especially when the primary opportunity to explain what people have heard, the sermon, is often an exercise in avoidance of scripture.

In his “biography,” Jacobs reminds us of the early battles over the prayer book, its relative insignificance for much of England’s population during the 18th century (and before). It may have been popular among the elite, and Jacob cites Jane Austen in support of that notion, but given what we know about literacy and church attendance in the 18th century, it couldn’t have been widely familiar to everyone. It reached the height of its influence in the nineteenth century, the Victorian Age, even as cultural change was promising to bring that influence to an end. But what was its influence in that age? At the end of his discussion of Anglo-Catholicism, Jacobs writes:

[the Ritualists]… transformed Cranmer’s words into a kind of ambient music, often heard without acknowledgment, received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding (p. 147)

Jacobs concludes with an idea he takes from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn. In that books can be adapted to very different cultural contexts and to readers unimagined by the authors, books, Jacobs says, can learn too. He continues:

But a religious book is limited in its ability to learn because it is concerned to teach; and a prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unles we say its words in our voices. It can learn with us, but only if we consent to learn from it. There are relatively few, now, who give that consent to the Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal–now as in 1549–is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith (p. 194)

As I was reading, I was reminded again of the role the Book of Common Prayer has played in my own spiritual journey. It was the means of my conversion to Anglicanism and it continues to shape my spirituality and my religious experience. Its language and prayers have become my own. In other words, if Cranmer’s goal in 1549 was to make the Book of Common Prayer “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith,” it still holds that power. I see that same power in those among who I minister as well. I sometimes think that liturgical reformers and those who would do away with the BCP altogether lack faith in its transformational power and lack faith too, in the power of people to re-appropriate its language and imagery to meet their particular needs and contexts.

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