Some may be aware that Anglicans make a show of their refinement and superiority on account of the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, some Anglicans are shameless when other evangelicals express the view that Anglican worship is elitist, prickly, and overly English.
The trouble is that it isn't true. The Book of Common Prayer is not overly English because it comes straight from the finest tradition of European Reformers including John Calvin, Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli who were of French, German, Italian and Swiss extraction. Neither is it elitist or prickly because the overriding purpose of the Book of Common Prayer was to make worship both true to Scripture and comfortable to the average Englishman. Written by Thomas Cranmer in 1552, the Prayer Book follows patterns well known to non-English Reformers.
The main difference between the English Reformed Church and other Reformed churches is not episcopal vs. presbyterian polity, but that Cranmer advanced the cause of Reformed liturgy (which he called "Common Prayer") farther than they did. His argument was that Englishmen would be greatly advantaged by having, learning and following a pattern of worship that is provably Biblical, whereby Englishmen would also unlearn the idolatrous worship of their ancestors. It was all very practical and common sense.
The Book of Common Prayer may seem to some modern Christians as a foreign language, something out of date and to be avoided. But this is not the case when it is used according to its design, a condition rarely found even among Anglicans. The central point of this essay is that the Book of Common Prayer, as designed by Cranmer, works in a modern Christian context provided it is used DAILY and not on Sunday only. When it is misused in that way, men will dislike it as they would anything that does not conform to their worldly expectations.
The idea that made Cranmer famous was very simple, Christian worship can be boiled down into three steps, and that's how he wrote the Book of Common Prayer. The 1552/1662 (and 1928) BCP describes three steps of Christian worship, which are as follows:
- Contemplation of sin
- Reading God's Word
- Psalm reading
- Old Testament lesson
- New Testament lesson
- Reply to God's Word.
- Creed (choice of three creeds)
- Sermon (if there is a preacher)
- Litany and Prayers (some fixed and others flexible)
- Holy Communion (optional)
Contemplation of Sin
Although other Christian traditions may begin with a glib "call to worship" or a happy hymn, Anglicans are supposed to begin always from an assumption that they have no right to be in God's presence other than by God's mercy. Therefore, the first step in Anglican worship is considering the demands of the Law and how far short the Christian comes from salvation if left to his own devices, then to confess his sins such that God might hear him and know that he is penitent, so that the Lord will forgive and remit his sin according to His promise in Jesus Christ. Having considered his sin, repented from it, and been absolved, the liturgy instructs the Christian to give thanks and proceed to the next step.
Now of course there are Anglicans that skip step #1, but they do so in opposition to their own tradition and they proceed with the rest of worship at their own peril.
Reading God's Word
Step #2 is the readings or "lessons" of Scripture. Depending somewhat on the Lectionary used, readings are organized with consistent themes from morning to evening, from day to day and/or from season to season. As such, Cranmer makes it clear that the liturgy can be used as a daily devotional without a minister present. In fact, that is its principle purpose.
Since there are many good lectionaries (and translations) available, an Anglican ought not feel constrained to use a particular one. The only requirement of anglican liturgy is to have one Psalm reading, one OT lesson and one NT lesson. If an Anglican uses this pattern every day in his personal devotion, then he will find the pattern easy when he worships on Sunday.
Following each reading of Scripture, the liturgy suggests a number of responses and canticles, and they can be used as written, or a different text can be used, or perhaps a hymn. There is plenty of flexibility in anglican liturgy but also considerable guidance in how the Christian should respond initially to the readings.
Reply to God's Word
Step #3 is threefold. First, we declare to God what we believe concerning the Word we have just heard. We do this by reciting one of the Creeds, of which there are three authorized for this purpose; Apostles, Nicene and Athanasian. Although it is not customary, an Anglican might also properly reply to the read Word by reciting part of one of the confessions honored by Anglicans during the Reformation era; the 39 Articles, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Irish Articles or the Canons of Dort.
Second, a sermon is preached. An anglican expects a sermon if there is a preacher, and he expects the sermon to be an exegesis of the Scripture that was read.
Third, we pray. Here we have wide flexibility. Although the Lord's Prayer, the "Collect of the day" and two additional collect prayers are mandatory, the erastian prayers can be skipped, and other prayers (even informal ones) can be inserted. Anglicans have a huge library of formal prayers for all sorts of occasions. Many (but not all) of them are excellent. Anglican tradition does NOT demand the use of formal prayers but it does offer plenty of assistance and suggest patterns of prayer for us to follow. For example, one might use the Lord's Prayer as a pattern, or the "Prayer for all conditions of men" and the "General Thanksgiving" found in the 1928 BCP, or the petition/response dialog from the 1662 BCP where there is a plea for mercy, submission to God's sovereignty, and petitions for righteousness and peace in the Church.
Fourth, we celebrate and remember what the Lord has done in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Communion service follows the same pattern as Morning and Evening Prayer. As such, it may be used either as a separate service, in which case there are different prayers and readings, or it can pick up at the end of Morning/Evening Prayer with the "prayer for the whole state of Christ's Church (militant)." Either way, it's the same pattern and does not present itself as something totally new and strange to those that use the liturgy in their daily devotion.
The Book of Common Prayer was made for the reform of the Church of England in the 16th century, but if given a chance it is suited to the reform of any church in any age . Some will complain that anglican liturgy feels "blocky", uncomfortable, and strange to the uninitiated The answer to the complaint is NOT to change the liturgy but rather to reinforce it with daily use.