The Book of Common Prayer

Dear People of God,

What is that red book in the pews, Reverend, and why do we use it?

During Lent we go back to the basic teachings of the church, and as we build toward Easter we are adding on to what we have learned before. This week we have been looking at our identity in Christ as we applied the Kingdom of God to our own lives in our Lord. Now we turn to how we live out those teachings in the Episcopal/Anglican church.

The Church has often lost her way as she has followed after her Lord, and during the fifteenth century she got lost enough that a series of Reformations began. She had become a worldly power that was corrupt. At the same time, the nation-states of Europe were really becoming entities with identities and power, and so they began to negotiate with Rome for both religious and political reasons. As what would become Germany and Switzerland became Lutheran and Reformed and expelled the Roman church, so France and Spain remained but worked out important compromises, some of which took a hundred years to develop settle.

England famously began its negotiation over Henry VIII’s first divorce, but really only began to find a real identity as a reforming church under his son and daughters. It was under Edward VI that the reformers were allowed to create the first Book of Common Prayer, a descendent of which is the red book in our pews. They took the various books of church life in the late medieval period and put them in English, bound them as a single condensed volume, and printed them cheaply enough that everyone could potentially own one. These various books include the Breviary and prayer books used for monastic hours and personal prayer, the sacramental books of the priesthood, the Bishop's service book, and the book of Psalms. Together these books represent the entire common life of the church, but they were kept strictly separate to the ranks of the people who could own them. 

This is how we got our Book of Common Prayer. Imagine going to church in 1530 and hearing the entire service in a language that was not part of your daily life, and being only allowed to own some small part of the whole church life, with much of it being reserved to the clergy. Then in 1550, going to church where the entire service is in your own language and printed in your own book, and you were expected to be a full participant; every member a full member of the body of Christ.

Today, this idea is old hat and pretty tattered. But it was revolutionary five hundred years ago, and I think it still is. It is the intent of the teachings of Jesus for you and us. We are the body of Christ, and we kept the tradition of how that had been done since the early church, but gave it back to the whole common church.

We still reform the Prayer Book from time to time, but always with the idea at least that we are reclaiming that basic practice of the early church and making it available to everyone.

There is more, of course, to what we mean when we talk about being an Episcopalian, but without this basic thing, the rest it fleeting and arguable. We are a people rooted in the idea of common prayer and the practice of every member in daily prayers and weekly Eucharist, the other sacraments of the church available but not required, reformed and still catholic, still rooted in the universal tradition of the early church.

Every member of the Episcopal church should understand this and have their own Book of Common Prayer, and we should use it with pride, understanding that it both ties us to the whole body of Christ across two millennia and marks a bold reclamation of our birthright in Christ our Lord.

If you do not own a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, I invite you to either take an old tattered copy from the pews or purchase one in the bookstore before or after service; if you do, be sure to have the Rector show you how to use this tool.

The Rev. Daniel P. Richards
Christ Church of the Ascension
Paradise Valley, Arizona