The Commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer is observed on “a weekday after Pentecost.” In our calendar this year, that means it is observed today (Monday was the Venerable Bede, yesterday, Augustine of Canterbury. The collect for this day reads:
Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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 Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be.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.
I’m struck by the last couple of sentences considering the rumblings going through the church right now about Prayer Book revision as well as the various resolutions the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music have submitted to General Convention (You can read incisive commentary on those revisions from Scott Gunn here). It seems to me that before undertaking such changes, whether tinkering around the edges or full-scale revision, we need to think carefully and creatively about the role of the Book of Common Prayer in our common life in the twenty-first century.
On the one hand, there’s a tendency to fetishize the BCP (whether the 1662, the 1928, or I suppose, even the 1979), to regard a particular version as normative for all time. On the other hand, there’s another tendency to want to revise it regularly. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that as the institutional church collapses, the things that bind it together may lose their power as well. That is true of the Book of Common Prayer. Can its language, disciplines, and rituals continue to shape people when they no longer experience it as a “book?” And what might its demise mean for Anglicanism as a living tradition within Christianity?