Prayer Book anniversary
Andrew Hawes looks ahead to the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and assesses its multi-faceted contribution to the Church of England
Next year will see the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The highlight of the celebrations will be a service of Evening Prayer on Wednesday 2 May at 5pm in St Paul’s Cathedral. In addition the Prayer Book Society has commissioned an exhibition which will be hosted by most cathedrals and will publish a booklet to celebrate the contribution of the Book of Common Prayer to our national life. Next year will be an opportunity for both individuals and parishes to think again about their attitude to and their use of the Prayer Book.
Treasury of prayer
This is an overdue exercise for many. In all the changes and chances of life in the Church of England the Prayer Book has remained ‘the deposited book’. It remains the touchstone of doctrine, liturgy and order: it is the source of and sets the limits to our ‘Anglican Patrimony.’ Despite the woeful ignorance of many clergy (the result of deliberate policy on the part of most training courses and colleges) still is the treasury of prayer and a lifelong companion to many laity.
There is the ‘Prayer Book Myth’ and it is not my intention to deny it. The ‘Prayer Book Myth’ tells the story of a universally accepted and much-loved book that bound the English nation together and was the bedrock of the one building that was church and society in English life. This was the lofty vision of the Prayer Book but despite all the legal measures in place that favoured uniformity the reality fell far short. Nevertheless, it was the Prayer Book that gave common prayer to a nation that had become fatally divided over religion.
The rejection of the Prayer Book as a source of common life has in no small part contributed to the present unhappy state of the Church of England. The Prayer Book also provided continuity, it gave voice to the praise and prayer of the English from ‘one generation to another’. The Prayer Book to ‘things eternal looked’ and made a deliberate effort to place political correctness outside the prayer and worship of the Church. It achieved this without any loss of conviction proclaimed in strong, clear credal statements.
There is no denying the essential contribution of the Prayer Book to Anglican spirituality and the insights and theological method which make up our ‘Anglican Patrimony’. I would suggest this contribution has six major themes. The first is a vision for unity. Arising out of the tragedy of the English Civil War and the repression of the Protectorate the Prayer Book looks to be a vehicle for community and communion and looks for this in the call to unity of Christ the Lord. The primacy of unity is the source of the ‘via media’; it is also the cause for the second ‘theme’ of the Prayer Book which is penitence.
Personal yet corporate
The prayers of the General Confessions in the Prayer Book are among the most beautiful in terms of language, but they have the genius of being at the same time profoundly personal and yet corporate. The Prayer Book liturgies are unique in their frequent expression of penitence. The Prayer Book leads a community in an ever-deepening need for God, a spiritual poverty which as the Beatitudes teach us is the key to the Kingdom. Related to penitence is the third theme of intercession. The Father of Catholic renewal John Keble often exhorted clergy and people not to forgo the prayers for state and church which have prominence in the Prayer Book offices. Here the vision and hope of a nation united in faith and bound by religious practice is taken up in a drumbeat of prayer every morning and evening and at every Eucharist. Add to this the Litany (the first liturgical text in English), and in the prayers and thanksgivings for all sorts and conditions of men, individuals and parishes were given tools for the task of intercession, a task which itself is a source of unity.
The fourth theme of the Prayer Book is praise. The most striking example of the note of praise that resounds in the Prayer Book is the Te Deum which becomes part of the daily prayer of the church (not just reserved for Sundays or Feasts).
Centrality of Scripture
The fifth theme is the centrality of Holy Scripture. The lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer deliberately liberates the Bible from all liturgical constraints. It is given whole and without dilution. The Prayer Book creates a liturgical setting where the Word stands over and under all things. Finally, the Book of Common Prayer is Eucharistic. The Eucharist stands at the heart of the Prayer Book and the hope was that it would stand at the heart of every English community.
There are some clergy who have been taught that the Prayer Book rite is ‘deficient’ and even ‘not a Eucharist’. Space does not allow for a thorough destruction of these particular claims but my own view is ‘if it was good enough for Keble, Pusey and Edward King, it’s good enough for me!’ I am sure many ND readers will join with me in wishing the anniversary God’s speed and hoping and praying that next year will mark a new beginning for the Prayer Book in our common life. ND