The Book of Common Prayer it turns out, is not so common. Ask people what it is, many will scratch their heads. Look for one and you will be hard pressed to find a copy. It is becoming scarce, at the same time I am thinking it should be preserved. As something distinctly made for the English-Speaking peoples, it dwindles in an age of multiculturalism where a multiplicity of beliefs compete.
The Book of Common Prayer was meant to lay out a useful form of religious observance for daily life. We call this a liturgy, words that are to be repeated, about beliefs held in common. A liturgy is useful because it codifies central truths for future generations.
I have a quaint and beautiful copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It is a hardcover with gold leaf lettering, and a picture on the front that shows the Virgin with child, surrounded by an angel army marching beneath the standard of a cross. It comes complete with a sewn-in tassel to mark where you have left off reading. It is an inviting tome that catches your attention on the shelf. Its pleasant appearance belies its turbulent history.
The original Book of Common Prayer was compiled and edited by Archbishop of Cantebury Thomas Cranmer in 1552 to reconcile the worship of Protestants after the English Reformation. It covered the basic strokes of an average day – morning prayer, evening prayer, requests and supplications, holy communion and also occasional services over a lifetime like christening, confirmation, marriage, prayers for the sick, and for the dead.
The book of Common Prayer gave Thomas Cranmer power and authority in his lifetime, and condemnation at his death. He was martyred by Mary Tudor, daughter of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Known as Bloody Mary, she vainly tried to roll back the English Reformation and re-establish Catholicism as the state religion of England.
Thomas Cranmer was twice forced to recant his protestant book of worship so as to re-estabish himself as a good Catholic and save his life. But Bloody Mary wanted him gone. When finally burned at the stake, he recanted his recanting, and more than that, he offered up his guilty right hand by which had signed both forced confessions as first to burn in the fire. He died a prisoner of conscience, celebrated in John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.
Liturgical language is more musical to the ear than everyday discourse. It is language of celebration and veneration. Sacred language emphasizes a divide between the sacred and the mundane, designed to make you think more carefully about life. We need language which takes us past the low hanging fruit, to things more wonderful.
Some like the comfort of repeating established prayers, and others do not want words put into their mouths. Should we pray the liturgy? Should we read it together? You will have to judge for yourself. I would describe its contents as an attempt to take the most common yearnings of the heart, and put them to the most beautiful words. Rituals are an observance that gives nod to what is important in your life. The rituals themselves will have unexpected benefits over a lifetime. Those small observances that frame your day, form the man. Saying prayers will fine tune the supplicant as much as the one prayed for.
1 Corinthians 10:12 states, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” We stand, on words, or we fall, on belief in those same words. Words that stand at the core of our lives are ones we should think about deeply. For example, the Apostle’s Creed is one of the first writings in this little book. As a core of belief, it is a search for careful words.
“I believe in God the father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only son, or Lord. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into Hell. On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father Almighty; from there he will come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholick Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
As a handbook of the reformation, the use of the word “Catholic(k)” here is ironic. The word refers not to the seat of Rome under the Pope, but to the worldwide Church under Christ who according to the book of Colossians is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
We have become accustomed to ending a prayers with the word “amen”. Is an emphatic expression of Hebrew etymology, which means, “Let it be so!” Reading the Book of Common prayer makes you consider that some words should be repeated more often, and in community.
So let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing to you oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer. All together now...
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