Language, Scripture and Doctrine

Language, Scripture and Doctrine:
The Relevance of the Book of Common Prayer
in the 21st Century

(By Joel Reinhardt. This essay won the second prize in a competition organized by the PBSC Ottawa Branch in 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Canadian BCP and the 350th anniversary of the 1662 English BCP. It was published in the Michaelmas 2013 issue of the PBSC Newsletter.)

1. Introduction

It is popular among some commentators on the Book of Common Prayer to acknowledge its contribution to the tradition and history of the Church of England and its sister churches in communion around the world, while dismissing its current use and relevance beyond beautiful Choral Evensongs and the occasional Baptism or Holy Communion. The underlying assumption is often that the Book of Common Prayer will eventually be entirely relegated to the annals of history and its language expunged from the minds of Christian faithful. The 350th anniversary of the Church of England’s official 1662 Book of Common Prayer this year is an opportunity to re-examine this popular, often assumed, view. It is an opportunity to admit and celebrate not only the continued relevance of the Book of Common Prayer but its evident strengthening as a source of substantive unity among contemporary Anglicans and even between Anglicans and other Christian traditions. The strength of the Book of Common Prayer lies not in its expression of a particular point in the history of the Church but rather in its timeless expression of the catholic faith received through Holy Scripture, interpreted by the early Church, and handed down to us in the tradition of the Ecclesia Anglicana. Commentator Sue Careless identifies this strength by noting that the Book of Common Prayer is held in affection by Anglicans “not simply because of its beautiful language, but because it carefully reflects both Holy Scripture and the teaching of the early, undivided Christian Church”.[1] The timeless nature of the Prayer Book content means that “[p]rayers that have stood the test of time can still speak with an uncanny freshness today”.[2] Careless’s comments echo the reflections of noted Anglican scholar, the Reverend Peter Toon, who observes that “Anglicans committed to the authority of Scripture have used and continue to use the Book of Common Prayer because it allows them to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness and with spiritual understanding.”[3] For Toon, the content of the Book of Common Prayer forms a “well-tested way of praying Holy Scripture in public worship and in a disciplined manner for the whole Christian Year, from Advent to the end of the Trinity season”.[4] The Book of Common Prayer remains timeless and relevant because it does not seek to express religious novelty and unlimited variation, like many revised liturgies of the twentieth century, but remains rooted in the timeless practice and doctrine of the Christian Church. This is why recognition of its authority is vital for Anglicanism in the twenty-first century. In light of Careless’ and Toon’s perspectives the three sections following explore the continued relevance of the Book of Common Prayer and why it is a text to which a new generation of Anglicans is returning. The language, Scripture, and doctrine of the Book of Common Prayer are the three arteries that give life to its authority and to which Anglicanism across cultures is reorienting.

2. The Language and Practice of Positive Counterculture

The “uncanny freshness” of the prayers found in the Book of Common Prayer owe their inspiration to the nature of the Christian story. The Christian faith is never really at home in any particular human society, no matter how saturated in ‘Christian’ ways of life. From the time of the mark of the first covenant – circumcision – to fulfillment in the second Adam and beyond, the people of God have lived in tension with elements of their surrounding culture. And this is reflected in the writings of the Church. From St. Paul, Justin Martyr, and John Chrysostom we see the similar uncomfortable challenges to prevailing selfishness as William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa. The otherworldliness of the Christian message breathes faith, hope, and love into each culture and society, speaking to the deepest longings of humanity. In Christian worship this means that a kind of “other-worldliness” is proper to the expression of worship.[5] As it has been rightly argued,[6] the language found in the Book of Common Prayer bears a gravity and poetry appropriate for humanity addressing divinity. Even at the time of its editing and composition by Archbishop Cranmer, the English of the Book of Common Prayer was not the English of an average man on the street.[7]

Much ink has been spilt by accomplished scholars arguing for the appropriateness of the language of the Book of Common Prayer in the twenty-first century and yet some remain unconvinced. Therefore, perhaps an anecdote can shed light on what some view as an ‘irrelevant’ idiom. The scene is a church service organized and attended by the two main characters of the story who happen to be young English-speaking Westerners. Their preference for the church service is traditional Elizabethan English of the type claimed to be ‘irrelevant’ and ‘out-of-touch’ by our critics. The church service in ‘archaic’ language is also watched by many other young people who are essentially foreign to the classic English used and the traditional meaning it bears. However, rather than boring or baffling those in attendance, the church service and its meaning inspire them.

This scene is, of course, the 2011 Royal Wedding of William and Kate at Westminster Abbey. The Church of England 1928 revised Book of Common Prayer served as the form of solemnization with the same essential language as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. According to the BBC, over thirty-four million people watched the BBC live feed around the world.[8] According to the Toronto Star, about one third of Canadians watched the wedding along with an estimated two billion people worldwide.[9] These ratings are, of course, the result of the enduring popularity of the British Monarchy and not the draw of the Book of Common Prayer liturgy. However, the deeply traditional ceremony was well understood by those watching and the now almost forgotten language of the Prayer Book was once again heard around the world: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.”[10]

But the impact of the matrimonial liturgy was not simply felt nostalgically and aesthetically but also reflected in the contemporary conduct of the bride and groom in a countercultural way. According to the order of the Book of Common Prayer, while the groom places the ring on the finger of the bride he solemnly declares “With this ring I thee wed; with my body I thee honour; and all my worldly goods with thee I share; In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”[11] This solemnity expresses a truth of Christian marriage that has not always been promoted by the Anglican Church as it has moved away from the Book of Common Prayer: the truth that man and woman become one flesh without any intentional temporal or spiritual separations. Traditionally, this excluded prenuptial agreements which seek to contract out of the concept of “one flesh”. In the age of common sexual promiscuity and prenuptial agreements the bride and groom followed a countercultural path in refusing a prenuptial agreement that is assumed to be part of contemporary marriage. The story of this decision surprisingly exploded across news sources.[12] The relevance of the selfless devotion of a man and woman joined in Christian matrimony was self-evident to the world in a fresh way through the timeless tradition and language of the Book of Common Prayer.[13]

3. Praying Holy Scripture and the Shape of the Book of Common Prayer

Not only is the beautiful and countercultural language of the Book of Common Prayer relevant today, but the way in which it reflects Holy Scripture is at once refreshing and well-tested as noted by Careless and Toon. The tradition of lectio divina – praying Scripture – finds its source in the scriptures (e.g. Psalm 119) and the Church Fathers (especially Gregory the Great).[14] The classic Anglican expression of this spiritual practice comes from the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.[15]

In fulfillment of this Collect, it is the reading, singing, and praying of Scripture that give the Book of Common Prayer its orientation and shape.[16] In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the first element encountered is the lawful authority for the Prayer Book as well as directions for celebrating the Prayer Book services (the Act of Uniformity, the Preface, and Of Ceremonies). These preliminaries are followed first and foremost by the order for the reading of the Psalms and Scripture in the Daily Office of the Church (Mattins and Evensong). If followed, the Psalms in their entirety are digested monthly. In this way the primary approach to Christian worship in the Prayer Book is through the discipline of twice-daily lectio divina with the community of the faithful. This does not exclude the practice of private prayer, as the Homily on Common Prayer and Sacraments notes, but it does orient daily worship towards the gathered community.[17] The condition of the Daily Office in the Church of England to which the Homily was written sounds strangely familiar: “therefore it is much to be lamented that [common prayer] is no better esteemed among us, which we profess to be but one body in Christ.”[18] As then, so now, the Daily Office remains a deep well of spiritual nourishment for the faithful.

The scriptures that follow the Daily Office are the Epistles and Gospels for the celebration of Holy Communion throughout the Christian Year. These lections are the product of centuries of the well-tested use of the pre-Reformation Sarum Missal. The Reverend David Phillips notes that this imports into the heart of the common prayer tradition the teaching of the early Church and a particular way of reading the Scriptures, comprising approximately thirty percent of the Book of Common Prayer content.[19] The Christian Year, around which the Office and Communion lections revolve, provides an important source of praying the Scriptures with the “spiritual understanding” of which Toon speaks. For example, the Old Testament lesson for Evensong on Easter Sunday is Exodus 14, the Crossing of the Red Sea. The location of this lesson on Easter Sunday is important as it points to the allegorical connection between the resurrection of Christ and the crossing of the Red Sea in Israel’s final escape from slavery. The practice of reading Exodus 14 with this “spiritual understanding” at Easter is at least as old as St. Ambrose, as it appears in his lectures On the Sacraments. This well-spring of ancient interpretive wisdom is part of what gives the Book of Common Prayer its sweet freshness in the twenty-first century.

4. Whither Prayer, Whither Doctrine

As we pray the Scriptures back to God in lectio divina we begin to conform our minds to his revelation. In this way it is on the basis of Scriptural prayer with spiritual understanding that Christian doctrine is maintained. The intersection between Scripture, prayer, and doctrinal authority in Anglicanism is the Book of Common Prayer. In Anglicanism “the law of prayer is the law of belief”, as coined by the lay monk Prosper of Aquitaine in the classic Latin saying “lex orandi, lex credendi”.[20] This means that the content of Anglican prayer is the standard by which doctrine is measured. However, prayer, as we have seen in the previous section, is not simply a pouring out of human thoughts and emotions towards God. Nor it is an emptying of the mind and soul. It is a received practice of praying the Scriptures “with spiritual understanding”. Therefore, the law of prayer has, by definition, boundaries rooted in Scripture and the traditions of the early Church, outside of which it cannot stray. This guidance is what makes the Book of Common Prayer the most relevant Prayer Book in the twenty-first century. But the abandonment of this guide is what endangers the unity of Anglicanism. Taylor Stevenson predicted, over two decades ago, that the substantive flexibility in prayer created by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church would reflect and reinforce the flexibility in belief found in the pluralistic impulses of the Episcopal Church.[21] Likewise, from the perspective of some in the Church of England the future of liturgical ‘unity’ in Anglicanism will come from a “common approach to eucharistic celebration” rather than uniform texts like the Book of Common Prayer.[22] But if we pay heed to the truth of lex orandi, lex credendi, it should not surprise that as elements of the Anglican Communion move away from the use of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer doctrinal tensions will continue to emerge and multiply.[23]

However, in this time of uncertainty for the Anglican Communion it is more vital than ever for Anglicans to engage in serious ressourcement with their own tradition, especially the Book of Common Prayer. Stevenson points to this in his observation that “[t]he way forward for Anglican theology, then, if it is to be true to the evangelical charge to proclaim the gospel to all the world, is not through some revolutionary beginning but rather through a reappropriation of its lost vision of the centrality of lex orandi, lex credendi in the life and thought of the Church.”[24] Therefore, if we believe the wisdom of our own tradition we will recognize and celebrate the relevance of the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicanism in the twenty-first century as a beginning for our future.

5. The Book of Common Prayer in Anglicanism and Beyond

The Book of Common Prayer is no longer simply a gem of the Anglican Communion. Other Christian denominations have appropriated it and will continue to do so. For example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has already published a Book of Divine Worship containing the basic parallel rites of the Book of Common Prayer in mostly Elizabethan language. The finalization of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus for former Anglicans in the Roman Catholic Church will only strengthen Prayer Book use in that communion.[25] Even among Anabaptists there is a revival of liturgical worship with many turning to the Book of Common Prayer as a trusted guide.[26] The Book of Common Prayer will continue to meet the needs of Christians around the world in a unique way through its grounding in Scripture and the Christian tradition. Among a new generation of Anglican laity and clergy, represented by individuals like the Reverend Fredrik Arvidsson,[27] there is less reaction against traditions of the past and an appreciation for the elegant simplicity of the Book of Common Prayer and the spiritual vision it gives. Regardless of the outcome of current struggles in the Anglican Communion, Anglicans will maintain affection for the Book of Common Prayer for generations to come and some will turn to it as a source of well-tested prayer as advocated by Careless and Toon.

About the author

Joel Reinhardt is an upper-year law (J.D.) student at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. Before entering legal training he worked as a ministerial assistant in the federal government. Joel holds an undergraduate degree (B.A.) in philosophy along with certification in leadership and applied public affairs, studying at Augustine College, Trinity Western University, and the Laurentian Leadership Centre in Ottawa. Joel enjoys participating in the daily use of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer in his parish church.


[1] Sue Careless, Discovering the Book of Common Prayer, vol 1 (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 2011), p. 24.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Peter Toon, The Anglican Formularies and Holy Scriptures (Herefordshire: Edgeways Books, 2006), p. 26, online: (accessed July 1, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] This reality in Christian worship is traced throughout scripture and the tradition of the Eastern and Western churches in Edith M. Humphrey, Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011).

[6] Peter Toon and Louis R. Tarsitano, Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer and Public Worship (Herefordshire: Edgeway Books, 2003), online: (accessed July 1, 2012).

[7] Paul G. Stanwood, “The Prayer Book as Literature”, The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 140.

[8] “Royal wedding watched by 24.5 million on terrestrial TV”, BBC News (30 April 2011), online: (accessed July 1, 2012).

[9] Petti Fong, “12 million Canadians tuned in to royal wedding, figures show”, Toronto Star (1 May, 2011), online:–12-million-canadians-tuned-in-to-royal-wedding-figures-show (accessed July 1, 2012).

[10] The Proposed Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1928), online: (accessed July 1, 2012).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Richard Eden, “Royal wedding: loving Prince William rejects prenuptial agreement”, The Daily Telegraph (1 May 2011), online: (accessed 1 July, 2012); David Wilkes, “Why Kate and Wills did not sign a pre-nup agreement,” The Daily Mail (2 May 2011), online: (accessed 1 July, 2012); “No Royal Prenuptial Agreement For Prince William And Kate Middleton”, The Huffington Post (2 May 2011), online: (accessed 1 July, 2012).

[13] The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, notes the interesting generational divide in that the only lamentation in the media in response to the Book of Common Prayer use at the Royal Wedding was by three clergy (born in 1937, 1951, and 1960) in the Church Times: Prudence Dailey, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future (London: Continuum, 2011), p. 199.

[14] Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible: An Introduction to Lectio Divina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), p. 10.

[15] Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 272.

[16] The idea of the shape of the liturgy is borrowed from Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Dacre Press, 1964).

[17] “An Homily Wherein is Declared that Common Prayer and Sacraments ought to be Ministered in a Tongue that is Understanded of the Hearers”, Book of Homilies, John Griffiths, ed. (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2008), p. 353.

[18] Ibid, p. 354.

[19] David Phillips, “The Lectionaries in the Book of Common Prayer”, The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future (London: Continuum, 2011), p. 119.

[20] W. Taylor Stevenson, “Lex Orandi – Lex Credendi”, The Study of Anglicanism, Stephen Sykes and John Booty, eds. (London: SPCK, 1988), p. 187, n. 1.

[21] Ibid, p. 176.

[22] Clayton Morris, “The Prayer Book in Cyberspace,” The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 545.

[23] A recent debate among those who reject the normative teachings of the Book of Common Prayer is the practice of “open communion” for the unbaptized: Donald Schell, “Discerning Open Table in Community and Mission”, (2012) 94:2 Anglican Theological Review 245.

[24] W. Taylor Stevenson, supra, p. 183.

[25] Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009), online: (accessed July 1, 2012).

[26] David Widdicombe, “Embracing People of the Book (of Common Prayer)”, (2007) 11:6 Canadian Mennonite 4.

[27] Fredrik Arvidsson, “Inspiring Young People with the Book of Common Prayer”, The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future (London: Continuum, 2011), p. 185.

Language, Scripture and Doctrine