The BCP in Historical and Theological Perspective

The Book of Common Prayer
in Historical and Theological Perspective

By Robert D. Crouse

The remarkable success of the Book of Common Prayer is strikingly attested by the simple fact that it has survived as the official liturgy of the Church of England for more than four centuries, and remains, sometimes in translation and with some modest revisions, the official prayer book of almost all the twenty-six autonomous Churches of the Anglican Communion. More than any other factor, that common liturgy has served as a principle of cohesion, providing common standards of worship and teaching, among Churches in many ways diverse. Through radical changes in polity, through revolutionary movements in Church and in society in general, through frequent “theological shifts” of some sort and another, the relative stability of the Prayer Book tradition has provided a focus of unity, in which Anglicans could recognize their self-identity. Everything distinctively Anglican is embraced by, fostered by, and preserved by that tradition, so that the Prayer Book constitutes, in fact, the fullest expression of the consensus fidelium for Anglicans, Indeed, for these Anglican Churches, which have no distinctive confessions of faith, but only the creeds of Catholic Christendom, no Pope or Bishop with universal jurisdiction, and no Holy Office, and not even a universal synod or convocation with legislative authority, it is hard to see what principle of cohesion there could be except for the common liturgy.

The principle, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief) – sometimes so perversely misinterpreted nowadays – has been strikingly operative here: over and over again, through the course of Anglican history, the common liturgy has been the standard against which the ephemeral fancies and fads, the theological and devotional exaggerations and aberrations, have been measured. I think it is not too much to say, that the integrity of Anglicanism as a distinctive form of Christian life and witness has been sustained by, and really depends upon, the continuity of the Prayer Book tradition.

Nowadays – and certainly not for the first time in Anglican history – the continuity of that tradition is seriously endangered. The issue of radical revision of the Prayer Book is in the air, together with proposals for the substitution of a multiplicity of liturgical forms in place of the common liturgy of the Prayer Book. The issue is not altogether new: in the seventeenth century, for instance, the Puritans argued that the Prayer Book preserved too much of Popish superstition, and, during the brief period of the Commonwealth, actually succeeded in substituting for it their own Directory – a lengthy homiletic document, singularly unsuitable as a form of public worship. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries proposals for the abolition of the Prayer Book came mainly from Latitudinarians and Liberals, who were convinced that it represented a narrow and obscure religion, unsuited to the enlightened temper of the times.

The issue is not new, but it seems to have taken new and curiously paradoxical directions: while the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches is urging us towards a common statement of faith, apparently agreed to by representatives of all the major churches of Christendom, and has proposed a common liturgy as a common expression of that faith1, Anglicans seem to be busy preparing a plethora of different liturgies, expressing vaguely, various forms of faith, but excluding in particular those forms most characteristic of Western Patristic, Medieval and Reformation Christianity.

And the paradoxes do not end there: they mount up phenomenally, We are advised that the intention is not to “break”, but to “extend” the tradition2; yet there seems to be an explicit rejection of fifteen centuries of Latin and Anglican theological and liturgical development3. Then, we seem to be convinced that our liturgies must express the “world-view” of our own generation4, yet we choose as our models the liturgies of Hippolytus, the Apostolic Constitutions, and St. Basil of Caesarea5. Then, we claim that theology must not be imposed upon liturgy, because liturgy is a reflective process in which theology may be discovered6; yet we predicate liturgical revisions and alternatives very directly upon certain very questionable conclusions about the development of the theology of the Atonement7. And so on.

The paradoxes multiply as the Hydra’s heads, and all of them involve difficult questions, with far-reaching implications which must be considered with the utmost seriousness. Liturgy is not, after all, an innocent academic pastime, but a matter of the rational worship of Almighty God and the cure of immortal souls. It is not a matter for easy experimentation, or quick, or casual, or uninformed decisions. Frankly, it seems to me that the questions now involved in current and proposed liturgical revision are so vast and far-ranging that they cannot be responsibly settled without hard and devout labour over a very long period of time. And it may surely be doubted whether the General Synods of particular Provinces of the Anglican Communion, acting independently, are suitable bodies for authorizing radical departures from our common liturgical tradition.

We are told that a comparison of the present day with the Reformation era is important for an understanding of the contemporary liturgical scene8, but we are not told much about the theological and liturgical principles involved in what now seem to be called the “experiments” of the Reformation9; nor are we told very much explicitly about the theological principles of the current “moment” of Reformation. Perhaps the best place to begin a responsible consideration of the issues of liturgical revision is to think as clearly and critically as we can about the principles involved in the Anglican “experiment”, so-called, that is to say, the Book of Common Prayer.

This introductory paper must not pretend to treat of those principles in any detail, but only to suggest what some of them seem to be. Papers later in the conference will focus more clearly on some of the most important of them.

The first principle, I think, in the mind of our Reformers, was that liturgy must conform to the clear Word of God in Holy Scripture. As Archbishop Cranmer put it: “All doctrine…which is not grounded upon God’s word, is of no necessity, neither ought the people’s heads to be busied, or their consciences troubled with the same. So that things spoken and done by Christ, and written by the holy evangelists and St. Paul, ought to suffice the faith of Christian people, as touching the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and holy communion or sacrament of his body and blood.”10

The clear word of Holy Scripture was to be the criterion; and within that criterion, the Reformers strove for continuity and comprehensiveness. The continuity they sought and effectively maintained was a continuity with the developed and living tradition of their own Church; that is to say, the tradition of Latin Christendom as it existed in the English Church. Thus, the fundamental liturgical document underlying the Prayer Book liturgy is the Sarum Missal, and the theological standpoint might be described as basically Augustinian. But within that context, they drew inspiration from a wide variety of sources: contemporary continental, Roman Catholic and Protestant, as well as ancient and Eastern liturgies, of which they had a remarkably precise knowledge. Beyond the most essential points, the liturgy they provided was not a very precise theological document, but rather broad, flexible and comprehensive. The value of those qualities in the Prayer Book has been abundantly demonstrated in the subsequent centuries of Anglican history.

Thus there was continuity, with comprehensiveness and considerable flexibility; but all of it clearly governed by those fundamental Biblical and Reformation principles: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia; and it is those principles, as the English Reformers understood them, that we must understand if we would understand the Book of Common Prayer. Nowadays, for instance, Cranmer and the Prayer Book liturgy are criticized for a narrowly juridical doctrine of the Atonement, which the critics rather dubiously attribute to the Medieval Church11. But, in fact, whatever one may think of Medieval doctrines of the Atonement, court-room imagery is not emphasized either in the Prayer Book liturgy, nor in Cranmer’s theological works; one finds there not the images, the cadences of Cranmer’s “world-view”, but the images and doctrines of the Scriptures, and especially of St. Paul. The principle is sola scriptura.

But I must not dwell upon these theological principles, which will be discussed much more fully in later papers. Rather, I must attempt to say something introductory also about the principles of devotion or spirituality which inform the Prayer Book liturgy. In this regard, the word is dominated by a consideration of the corporate character of the Church, and of the liturgy as the work of the whole Church, both clergy and laity, both expressing and effecting the unity of Christ’s body12. This is strikingly apparent in the Eucharistic liturgy and in the Prayer Book generally, but perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the transformation of the traditional monastic choir offices. Nowhere else in Christendom was such a bold attempt ever made to turn the whole nation into a kind of monastery. The English Reformers took the traditional monastic offices, and sought to make them the work of the whole Christian people, the common prayer of the whole Church, in the form of Matins and evensong, to be said daily by priest and congregation, not only in cathedrals and colleges, but in every parish church.

And they cast the liturgy into a language which the people in general could understand. It was not exactly the common language of their own day; that is to say, the images are not those peculiar to, or characteristic of their own particular place and generation: they are fundamentally the images of Scripture, the language of divine revelation. It was a liturgical language, which, by its constant repetition, would shape the language, the imagination and the thought of its users. And it is, indeed, that liturgical language and devotional practice which have formed the tradition of spirituality which is one of the chief glories of Anglicanism. But I must leave these matters, too, for fuller treatment in other papers.

Just let me say, in conclusion, that I would not wish to be understood as speaking against revision of the Prayer Book. It is, I think, in the very nature of liturgy to grow and develop, and the history of the development of the Prayer Book tradition has been a salutary one. Our most recent Canadian revision, for instance, in the Prayer Book of 1962, was an excellent piece of work, which commended itself to Canadian Anglicans in general, and did much to bring us together in our liturgical life.

But I do think that we must now beware of radical revision and alternatives which divide us drastically, abandon the continuity of our tradition, and alienate us from our spiritual heritage. The history of the Prayer Book, and its many vicissitudes through the centuries, is such as to encourage our Christian confidence in the Providence of God, and I have a good hope that the same providence will bless our efforts to maintain what is holy and good in our life of common prayer.


1. Cf. “The eucharistic liturgy of Lima”, in M. Thurien, ed., Ecumenical Perspectives on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (Geneva, 1983), Appendix II, pp. 235-46.

2. The Book of Alternatives Services of the Anglican Church of Canada (Toronto, 1985), p. 13.

3. Cf. Ibid., p. 11: “…it reflects not a rejection of tradition but a return to a much older tradition which preceded the late medieval and Reformation periods”.

4. Cf. Ibid., p. 10: “It is consequently vital that its form wear the idiom, the cadence, the world-view, the imagery of the people…in every generation”.

5. Cf. Ibid., pp. 179-80.

6. Ibid., p. 10.

7. Ibid., pp. 178-79.

8. Ibid., pp. 8-9.

9. Ibid., p. 9: “The wonder is…that the experiments of the Reformation era appeared to be treated as definitive for nearly four centuries”.

10. Writings and Disputations of Thomas Cranmer relative to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, ed. J.E. Cox (Parker Society, Cambridge, 1844), p. 30.

11. Cf. BAS, pp. 178-79. The interpretation of medieval doctrine on this point as “juridical”, popularized by G. Aulen (Christus Victor) has been widely and soundly criticized in more recent times; e.g., by E.R. Fairweather, in his discussion of Anselm, in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Occam (London and Philadelphia, 1956), pp. 56-58.

12. Cf. Thomas Cranmer (op. cit., p. 42): “…as the bread and wine which we do eat be turned into our flesh and blood; even so be all faithful Christians spiritually turned into the body of Christ, and so be joined unto Christ, and also together among themselves, that they do make but one mystical body of Christ, as St. Paul saith: ‘We be one bread and one body, as many as be partaken of one bread and one cup’”.

The BCP in Historical and Theological Perspective