I grew up Baptist. And I currently attend a non-denominational megachurch. But as I have grown in my understanding of the broader Christian Church and its history, I have been intentionally trying to read more about theology and practice outside of my church community.
The Book of Common Prayer is one of those theological objects that I want to understand, but without a guide it is largely a mystery. Alan Jacobs revealed a part of the puzzle in The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. This is not a book on how to use the BCP, but a history of how it was developed, changed and how how attitudes toward it changed over time.
Alan Jacobs is an excellent writer and his history of the book is both of solid history and readable.
To me, what is most interesting about story of the BCP, is how it was intended as a tool of unity but from the very beginning that was thwarted. Cranmer, who compiled the BCP thought that a single prayer book with a single service was important both theologically and politically to the unity of the Church in England. This was not a simple expedient or politically motivated conscription of Christianity but a different world view on how church and state should relate.
But from the beginning the minutia of the BCP and its practice were used to factionalize the church. As one very small example, John Knox insisted that communion should be taken while sitting (instead of kneeling) because he wanted to distance the church from the Catholic view of transubstantiation. Others wanted kneeling to show honor and devotion during the Eucharist.
But as theological and cultural movements between high and low church Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and other groups, the prayer book became like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Unchanging not so much because it was perfect, but unchanging because no one can agree on how to change it. And now it is venerated in part because it was unchanged.
Outside the UK, most other Anglican churches have adapted their own Books of Common Prayer (and most have updated theirs several times), but in in the UK it is still the 1662 version that is the authorized one. So now there are a number of options for the Anglican world to choose their Books of Common Prayer.
This is a fascinating and important history. The Book of Common Prayer has molded English speaking Christianity in ways that most probably do not realize. The common marriage ceremony “Dearly Beloved” and funeral “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust” are part of the cultural language of the English speaking world, but also from the Book of Common Prayer.
I read the kindle version, but I have heard a number of comments about the beauty of the actual printed book.
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