Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928 BCP. I remember a few people at my former parishes in the South who did. There, I assumed it was partly an identity marker—Baptists always carried their bibles with them to church; so it would be natural for Episcopalians to distinguish themselves from other Christians by carrying their BCPs.

That got me thinking about the Book of Common Prayer as a book, and about the already much debated idea of “prayer book revision.” My primary experience of the Book of Common Prayer is no longer as a “book,” and I assume the same holds true for most Episcopalians. I use an app for the Daily Office; when I preside at worship, I either use the printed or electronic service bulletin, or an electronic book of common prayer on my ipad. My prayer book hymnal combination is used primarily as a hymnal, although I do take it with me on pastoral visits, I suspect largely because of its symbolic power both for myself and for the one I am visiting.

My copy was given me by the parish in which I became a Postulant for Holy Orders. It is well-worn, the binding is now ripped. I have worshiped with it nearly every Sunday for almost twenty years. I have prayed from it at bedsides and at gravesides. Its feel in my hands is etched in my memory. It is an old friend but also a frustrating annoyance. Liturgical forms that I use regularly but not included in the Book of Common Prayer are taped in the endpapers and constantly fall out. The post-its and tabs I’ve added to help me find my place go missing and I end up leafing through to find what I’m looking for. It is impossible for me to read the text or hymns in less than ideal lighting. For all of those reasons I have come to rely on digital versions for private devotion and presiding.

The Book of Common Prayer is a product of print culture. From the beginning, it was a particularly adaptation of the liturgy to print culture. Both in its use of the vernacular and in its emphasis on “common” prayer, i.e. that the same text was used by clergy and laity, and it was used throughout England, it helped to unify the English Church and shape Anglican piety.

The unifying power of the Book of Common Prayer both in fact and symbolically, may partially explain why prayer book revision has always been a challenging project. I wonder now whether, in the twenty-first century the call for prayer book revision holds symbolic power precisely because of the lingering appeal of the symbolic power of a Book of Common Prayer. Advocates for revision point to its lack of inclusive language, the dominance of the theology of substitutionary atonement, the need for a new marriage rite, among its many other shortcomings. I agree with all of this.

But to conceive of liturgical reform and renewal as “prayer book revision” seems to me to be remarkably shortsighted when we are in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be transforming the way human beings interact with each other, with authorities of all sorts (including textual authority) and with meaning-making.

Print culture establishes an authoritative text and tends toward uniformity and conformity. The Book of Common Prayer is appealing in part because of the appeal of a shared liturgy across space and time. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Tridentine Mass suppressed local traditions just as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer shaped the Church of England.

By their very nature, books, being bound, create distinctions between what is included and what is excluded. If a text exists primarily in electronic form, there is a sense in which it is ephemeral, it cannot be fixed or authoritative and it invites a more organic relationship between reader and text. It also creates a different kind of community—one that is not limited geographically.

In some ways, the internet makes possible a relationship between text and reader (or in the case of liturgy, text and participant) that is rather more like the relationship of text and reader in the age of manuscripts—when a copyist could include his own notes in the margin, or change the text entirely, and a later copyist might not know that those changes had occurred, and make changes of her own.

We make such liturgical changes already. We introduce inclusive language in responses or use forms from Enriching Our Worship that are less troublesome theologically. But what might it look like to invite creative engagement with liturgical forms in an age of smartphones and interconnectivity?

Envisioning liturgical reform in a digital age seems to me to invite innovation and engagement. It encourages us to rethink our relationship to liturgical texts, and to rethink the human relationships that are created and nurtured in worshiping communities.

My fear is that “prayer book revision” will focus entirely on getting the text right and not reimagining the ways communities and human beings are created and sustained through the liturgies enacted by the texts.

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The Book of Common Prayer

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.

From Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer, A Biography:

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)

 

I said this while reflecting on Jaobs’ book a couple of years ago:

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?

 

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.

“Full and Empty:”James Wood on the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

The 1662 edition, that is. But Wood’s focus is on the genius of Cranmer. He also discusses the lingering influence of the BCP on English writers, including Austen and Woolf:

For Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both Woolf and Beckett approach Cranmer’s words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

Other reflections on the anniversary and the significance of the BCP for culture, language, literature include James Fallows in The Atlantic and Daniel Swift on Huffington Post.

Revisionist History: The Anglican world marks 350 years of the Book of Common Prayer

Who wrote that headline? Sure, it’s the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but there were several others before it: 1549, 1552, 1559; and The Episcopal Church’s BCP is more dependent on that of the Scottish Episcopal Church than the 1662; which is why those documents that claim the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is shared by all Anglicans is just wrong.

The “genius” of the Book of Common Prayer is not in the 1662 edition, but in the work of Thomas Cranmer who was largely responsible for the 1549 and 1552 versions and in the 1559 book that tried to balance the more Protestant and Catholic tendencies of the two earlier ones.