The Book of Common Prayer:
The Book for a Resurrection People
by Gordon Neish
“What so ever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”
St. Matthew 21:22
“As the soul animates the body, so prayer sustains the life of the soul:
as the body cannot live without the soul,
so the soul without prayer is dead.” ~ St. John Chrysostom
“He knows how to live well, who knows how to pray well.” ~ St. Augustine
The subject of this address is the B.C.P.: the book for a Resurrection People.
In a way, this is to state the obvious is it not? After all, we are still celebrating Easter. Tomorrow is the second Sunday after Easter, and altogether there are five such Sundays. We have always known that every Sunday is resurrection day. The ancient Canons direct us not to fast on these days: not even in Lent. The Prayer of Consecration reminds us at every celebration of the Holy Communion of Christ’s “mighty resurrection.” The Baptism service speaks of His “glorious resurrection;” of how those “baptised into the death of Christ,” “may also be made partakers of His resurrection;” and because Christ “died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptised, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all evil desires and daily increasing in all virtue and Godliness of living.” These are just some of the explicit references to the resurrection of both Christ and ourselves. Do I really have to say that the Burial Office is just filled with the reality of the Resurrection? Can it seriously be said that there is no joy in the Burial Service? No faith, hope, charity?
I think that what is meant by ‘Joy’ is crucial to how we speak of what we are doing. I hesitate to say ‘understand,’ because so often we are not very clear about the words we use. There are certainly many levels of understanding, and in the end we must be made to understand. “To know God is to have eternal life,” Says our Lord, and faith itself, the beginning, is a form of knowledge. One of the greatest problems of the spiritual life is the slowness of the soul properly to know and love its own end: God Himself. In the words of Deut. 5:29- “Oh that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and their children for ever!” The divine correction is itself often slow, for as St. Stephen says [Acts 7:6-7]: “And God spoke in this wise, that his seed should sojourn in a strange land; and that they should bring them into bondage, and entreat them evil four hundred years. And the nation to whom they shall be in bondage will I judge, said God: and after that they shall come forth, and serve me in this place.” The Divine correction which precedes restoration, overcomes the wickedness of the human heart, and so St. Stephen, “Full of faith and power”, preaches the gospel in such a way that “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke.” (6:8:10).
However, we are slow to understand; and a deeper intimacy with God makes us aware of our limitations ever more. St. Paul, after a careful discussion bout the relation between the old and new Israel, is moved to burst out in praise: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his councillor? Or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again? For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:33-36).
I mentioned above that there is confusion over the meaning of the word ‘joy’. This is only one of many such words which are misunderstood, but it will be helpful to single it out.
It is often said that Prayer Book services lack joy; that Anglicans are so stiff, formal, and cold. The story was often told in this diocese, with I think excessive delight, of how a Verger in St. Paul’s Cathedral told someone in the congregation who was shouting “Amen!” whenever he agreed with a point in the sermon, to be quiet. The astonished person exclaimed: “But isn’t this a Christian Church?” To which the Verger replied: “Goodness no! This is the Church of England!” Needless to say the context in which this story is told is all important. If our minds are made up that Anglican services are dull, then this story becomes a weapon with which to discredit a whole way of doing things. If, on the other hand, we find our services to be very excellent forms of worship which are in so many ways peculiar and unique to us and also to the whole Christian Church, we will see the story for what it is – a belittling and disparagement of a way of worship beloved by those who appreciate it. Indeed many have been converted to Anglicanism primarily through the liturgy, and more precisely, today, there are those who, feeling the lack of serious minded liturgy elsewhere are attracted to the B.C.P. tradition.
It is difficult to get hold of our problem because our whole way of looking at things has changed. We have seen the collapse of our institutions (family, school, government(s), Church, law, etc.) As one of my children tries to say: “You’re not the boss of me.” The disorder of our fives cries out for a principle of reconciliation which is more than just letting everyone be themselves. The primacy of experience as what determines everything has made it all but impossible to talk meaningfully about anything. Why should your experience be any better than mine? Is the experience of communities better or wiser than that of individuals?
Which community? What kind of community? The increasing problems which arise out of this confusion within individuals and communal groups demands a resolution, and the temptation arises ever more and more to impose arbitrary and heavy-handed solutions. What are we to do?
In a truly remarkable little book entitled Spiritual Care, Bonhoeffer refers to the pastor’s tendency to use his experience as the criterion of his preaching and to justify it by referring it back to his theology. Against this often hidden and dangerous tendency, Bonhoeffer observes that “there is no way to convince him theologically that experience can never be decisive, and that faith depends on an objective base. The only help is to call a person to the simplest things of Scripture, prayer, confession, and to concrete experience in one definite matter. And to allow himself to be led forward step by step by Christ.” (p. 68) 
Surely this is what needs to be done where it isn’t being done. And do we not already possess the very means by which this can be done Common Prayer? The B.C.P. is a handbook of doctrine, worship, and discipline; an entire system of spirituality. It is the official standard of doctrine, and uniquely to our Church, is the authority in such matters. These matters have been treated with great care and consideration in the Theological Conference Reports, and the Prayer Book Society booklets, newsletters, etc.
The B.C.P. is not a manual, a resource book for worship services from which we can pick and choose. It is a Book of Common Prayer which uses the cadences and images of Scripture, and upon which its doctrine is derived. It is the teaching of the Bible put in the form of prayer so that the faithful soul is fed spiritally vith words that it does not fully understand until “at the last [it] comes to [its] eternal joy,” its consummation and bliss in the glorious Kingdom of Heaven. The process of understanding is lifelong, difficult, and mixed with contradictions: joy and sorrow in both their Godly and worldly forms, sin and grace, death and resurrection, ecstatic visions (glimpses) of God and the dark right of the soul.
At the very heart of the B.C.P. spirituality is the daily reading of the Bible arranged for us in The Table of Lessons. There are two orders here: one, the Sunday lessons and two, the daily readings. In addition, there are special lessons for Saints days and other occasions as need arises. And then there are The Collects, Epistles and Gospels for the Holy Communion. All three orders: Sunday (M.P. and E.P.), daily and Holy Communion, are carefully arranged to fit in with the season of the Church Year, and are all connected to one another, something which becomes clearer through the passage of time. The marvel is not how to fit them together, but rather that they so clearly do, and this is not accidental, but rests upon the realization that the Bible is a unified whole with a single moving principle: God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who reveals Himself to his Church. (It is noteworthy that Northrop Frye sees in the Bible a single / central imagination at work).
The Trinity is the author of Holy Scripture, our creator, preserver, redeemer, the means of grace, the hope of glory, and the sanctifier of faithful souls who know themselves to be justified by faith, and as such is the beginning and end of all Spiritual life. In order that we come to this saving faith / knowledge, our Reformers saw to it that the readig of the Bible and the Common Prayer should be a daily event not only for the clergy, but for their parishioners as well. As Hooker puts it: “The end of the word of God is to save, and therefore we term it the Word of Life. The way for all men to be saved is by the knowledge of that truth which the word has taught to this end the word of God no otherwise serveth than only in the nature of a doctrinal instrument. It saveth because it maketh wise to salvation” (V.21.3). 
The reading of the Bible by individuals at home; its public reading in Church can convert souls to God, and that is not the least reason why clergy and lay-readers should work vey hard at reading it properly. To read aloud the words of Scripture is to have God speaking, that is, the voice of God speaks through the reader– it is God speaking!
And so it is too with the sacraments. The soul, moved through the reading and hearing of Scripture, and exercised in the prayers of the liturgy, can come to the sacraments, which, as Hooker says, “are the powerful instruments of God to eternal life” (V.50.3). “That saving grace which Christ originally is or has for the general good of his whole Church, by sacraments he severally deriveth into every member thereof” (V.57.5).
Almost all Anglicans (at least in the older parts of the Communion) begin their regenerate lives as infants, in and through the sacrament of baptism. Grace is received, described in the Catechism (itself a form of saving preaching) as a “death unto sin…” (p. 551). Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual life which is intended to last for the rest of one’s earthly life. Crucial to this beginning, this grace received and which “doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our faith in Christ”, is the laborious discipline of educating the soul.
Indeed, the order of service for the baptism of children lays down the logical form or shape of Anglican spiritual development. Note the following words and phrases: “part and duty’, “taught”, “instructed”, diligence to see…virtuously brought up”, “teach him to pray, and bring him to take his part in public worship”, “Our profession which is to follow our savior Christ… so as to be made like unto Him.” In other words it is teaching and doing, and the cornerstone of this whole activity is that remarkable response made first by sponsors and parents, and secondly by those confirmed: “I will, the Lord being my helper.”
The admonition used at the end of the service (p. 530) and directed to both sponsors and parents spells out how we are made like Christ: “that as He died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptised, die from sin, and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all evil desires, and daily increasing in all virtue and godliness of living.” Is this not a resurrection people? Is this not the individual incorporated into Christ and therefore into His mystical Body the Church, the fellowship of the redeemed, the communion of Saints? Are not the parents, especially the father, the stewards of those great mysteries -to which the children are made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of Christ’s Kingdom? Do we not have here the Christian family, an organic whole constituted by individuals and bound together by love: the love Christ gives to the Church he loved by giving himself to it “that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish”? (Eph. 5:26-27).
I think we do and have always known it, but with the revolution in theology and philosophy that has overtaken the minds of so many teachers and pastors, we need to work out more clearly what we have so often taken for granted, and all of us, what we can all do, is to pray in spirit and in truth. Only a few have the gifts of deep theological and philosophical thinking – the kind most necessary for our task today – but all Anglicans who faithfully follow the order of Common Prayer in reading and hearing the Word of Life which saves because “it maketh wise to salvation” and who pray the prayers of the liturgy, both at home and in Church – day by day, year by year – are doing the same work. The best theologians and philosophers pray and all who pray in spirit and in truth are theologians and philosophers.
A theologian is one who knows God; a philosopher is one who loves wisdom or is a friend of wisdom. Remember that Christ is the wisdom and power of God. “Prayer”, as John Donne says, “is our whole service to God. Prayer in all its forms: confession, intercession, praise and thanksgiving, contemplation, etc. can be offered by everyone because it is a gift of grace which all Christians must have. “When ye pray, Say, Our Father, etc.” All must pray, and in so doing all are priests, who, “as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:5).
Whenever we pray in spirit and truth, in the name of Jesus Christ, we are in the Trinity and the Trinity is in us. All prayer is addressed to the Father though the Son in the Spirit. Or we can pray directly to Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but in so doing we pray to that one substantial nature: God in three Persons. And when we are thus praying, it is useful for Anglicans to keep in mind that our prayer can only be offered at all because of the High Priesthood of Christ who intercedes for us in Heaven and in whom and with whom our prayers are taken up and presented to the Father.
The whole order of prayer in the Prayer Book is this heavenly, Resurrection activity in which all who engage in it participate in the life of God, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) as St. Peter describes those who receive the promises; a participation which makes the Christian soul “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (1 Peter 1:8) Do not the Canticles, especially at Morning Prayer, express this? The General Thanksgiving, Intercession, especially the commemoration of the faithful departed and the saints who in life and death have glorified God, the Thanksgiving and Consecration, the Thanksgiving after Communion, and that stroke of liturgical genius – the placing of the Gloria after all have been united with Christ in the sacrament so that one is very conscious of being taken up in mind and heart into Heaven itself with Christ in His glory? One could go on and on.
Our trouble is partly that of the character of the age – its impatience and inability to practice sustained concentration. However, that could change sooner than we imagine. A recent newspaper article on the subject of marketing the [musical] classics points out that people in their thirties and forties are discovering an expansion of mind and attempting to persuade adherents of rock to become interested in serious music. It does not seem the right time for the Church to give up her serious liturgy when an aging rock generation may be looking for something substantial. Surely we must raise people up rather than empty what is good.
A more serious problem is that obstinance mentioned at the beginning of this address which refuses to give up its attachment to experience as the criterion of judgment. Yet, as Bonhoeffer points out, “We do not understand sin through our experience of life in this world, but rather through our knowledge of the cross of Christ. The most experienced observer of humanity knows less of the human heart than the Christian who lives at the foot of the cross of Christ … No psychology knows that people perish only through sin and are saved only through the cross of Christ.”
The inability to understand the Prayer Book is illustrated with this example. In Networks, V.1, No. 1, 1986, a writer with obvious reference to the penitential character of the Prayer Book describes the Book of Alternative Services as a book in which “we see ourselves not as sinners in need of redemption but as redeemed sinners, which allows more opportunity for us to rejoice in all of creation and offer thanksgiving and praise to our God. This feeling is strongly transmitted in the liturgy.”(p.8) One must wonder to what extent the writer used the B.C.P. So much for the criterion of usage. It seems to me quite clear that the B.C.P.– as a liturgy which compels the reading of Scripture and prays in its language [images]– is filled with joy and thanksgiving based on the liberating knowledge that man is nothing in his sinful state and that the ground of his freedom is not in himself but in the justifying and sanctifying work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Prayer Book’s clarity about justification by faith only and the complimentary necessity for sanctification gets rid of the whole system of man-made works so that everything we do is the fruit of the Spirit. (Art. X of the 39 Articles).
Surely there can be nothing more joyful and liberating than to be persuaded that the way out of our contemporary dilemmas and increasingly hopeless despair has its beginning and foundation in a substantial divine freedom which is stored up in the heavens for us and which is graciously give. to the faithful and penitent heart.
“Thus saith the high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity,
whose name is holy: I dwell in the high and holy place,
with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” (Isa. 57:15).
This article is an address originally given to the Annual General Meeting of the Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island Branch of the Society, May 1992.
- Spiritual Care, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Translated and with an introduction by Jay C. Rochelle. Fortress Press, 1985.
- The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye, Penguin Books, 1990. See the Introduction
- Richard Hooker, Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Vol. 2. London, J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd. (Everyman’s Library)
- D. Bonhoeffer, op.cit., p. 62.