The Book of Common Prayer Deserves a Fresh Consideration
By the Revd Dr Chris Moore
If you were to visit an old Church of England church building you would find a curious mix of the permanent and the temporary. You might look around and see centuries-old columns dusted with age standing between lines of pews. The windows might contain Victorian stained glass, and the monuments which dot the walls speak of those long dead. Look to the shelves which stand near the door and all is less permanent. Service booklets, often torn with rusty staples, are piled up and you might also find a booklet which has been printed specifically for the Sunday past. Long past are the days where a shelf would contain Books of Common Prayer lined up and standing to attention. The 1960s saw three new ‘Series’ of services, before the brick-like Alternative Service Book arrived in 1980. The new millennium saw that book swept away in the face of the new Common Worship library of resources, and so each parish now creates its own liturgy. Hence the rust-stapled booklets.
But I wonder if that is to miss the point.
There’s an old Latin phrase – lex orandi, lex credendi – which might be translated as “the law of what is prayed is the law of what is believed”. The point of liturgy is that it forms you over time and gives you a framework for your faith. Prayers which are said often seep into the memory, and help us to understand the God to whom we pray. Liturgy is not entertainment but education. You believe what you pray. The great loss of recent decades, with its succession of services, is that we no longer have that memory. The result of so much liturgical choice in Common Worship is a church which no longer has a shared mind about its theology. There is no common core to bind us together.
At its heart, the much-maligned Book of Common Prayer serves that purpose. It shapes us in our faith and gives us a common voice with which to worship God. It granted uniformity to a nationwide church, and ensured that all – all – within the church might hear the gospel proclaimed as they attended services in their churches. Those who attended a Communion service would hear the Ten Commandments read and pray for the monarch. They would say the creed and pray for the church and state. They would confess their sins and ask for both forgiveness and strengthening. Above all they would hear proclaimed the gospel of the death of Christ and its “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”.
All this would be heard, even if the sermon was rubbish! The gospel would be proclaimed, regardless of the beliefs of the local vicar. It is telling that the Creed was placed before the sermon, almost as if it was the standard by which the preacher was to be judged.
As those people heard those same words through the years, they would seep down into their consciousness and start to form a truly Reformed theology. They would be treasures ready to be plucked from the mental shelf at times of stress. Familiar phrases would kindle longer prayers, or simply stand by themselves if the mental cogs turned slowly. People’s own prayer books were manuals of devotion, aiding them to pray at times of pandemic or personal sickness.
Now all this might sound like misty-eyed nonsense but if that old Latin phrase is correct, if we truly end up believing what we pray, then ask yourself this: what is your liturgical diet of prayer? Is it solid and sustaining, or is it ever-changing and forgettable. Does your liturgy give you a solid foundation, or does it shift like the sands? Perhaps the old Book of Common Prayer still has something to teach us.
The Revd Dr Chris Moore is a Regional Director for Church Society.