The Book of Common Prayer

We were backstage at a massive event a few years ago. I was about to lead worship for around 3,500 people in the room, and another 100,000 (!) people watching online. In-demand preachers were slated to preach. We were going through the program beforehand, getting on the same page regarding all of the cues, transitions, and last-minute details. The producer of the event asked me what I planned to do for the opening worship set.

I don’t remember exactly how it went, but I remember suggesting we do a few familiar songs, a hymn, and one specific song to setup the first sermon. That was all fine and good. 

But then I said, “What if I end with a reading, or a collect, from The Book of Common Prayer?” I was thinking it could be a wise move, since so many people who’d be participating in the event were from all around the world and all across the denominational spectrum, so it could be a nice bridge for many of them towards something, well, common. 

I never expected such a strong reaction: “Uh, no… Why would we do that? Let’s just stick with scripture.”

Never mind the fact that the point of The Book of Common Prayer from its inception was to help people “stick with scripture,” I was shocked that my suggestion was seen as such an obviously bad choice. 

Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, now over 450 years old, has shaped more culture than he ever could’ve expected. Many of his lines are as famous as Shakespeare—who, incidentally, borrowed lines from Cranmer on occasion. You can find Cranmer’s influence in Handel’s Messiah, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the late David Bowie’s Dust to Dust. If you’ve been to a wedding, you’ve likely heard Cranmer’s timeless vows: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” If you’ve been to a funeral, you’ve likely heard his “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

From John Stott to J.I. Packer, it’s easy to find Evangelical leaders who treasure this book, but it does have its own checkered past. Too radical. Too conservative. Too catholic. Too protestant. It underwent several revisions over the years—I have several different versions right here in my library. But in case you think it an ephemeral trend, its roots are more extensive—and subversive—than you might think.

In a culture where Catholicism and the Latin Mass had long reigned, Cranmer wrote The Book of Common Prayer as a Protestant liturgy that afforded worshipers a chance to hear the Scriptures, and the entire worship service, in their own language. 

In an incendiary climate of disputes and disagreements over the Eucharist, Cranmer revised the liturgy to be more expressly Protestant. 

In a milieu of saint worship, Cranmer highlighted saints as exemplary role models for us,  worthy of honor, but not worship. 

In a barely literate society, Cranmer wanted those who could read to read the Bible thoroughly and faithfully, and he wanted those who couldn’t read it to hear it every day (hence the instructions for certain texts to be read “in a loud voice”). 

Historically, the Catholic church was more about the priesthood than the people. (Pope Francis seems to have very deliberately set a course to change this.) In this regard, The Book of Common Prayer sets itself against hierarchical structure from the outset because, as The New Yorker called it, it’s a “handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood.” In an organization that was more about the priest than the parishioner, Cranmer put worship back into the hands of ordinary people.

Cranmer wanted people to be able to go into any church in England on any given day and participate in the same worship service with the same words. There’s something really powerful about that. But we’re not in England anymore, and we’re not living in the 16th Century. Do we need to pray, at the end of the day, “By thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night”? 

It may be hard for us to remember the anxiety that nighttime would create in a world without abundant electrical light. We may feel too far removed from some of this. But that also has something really powerful to it: praying these words is an invitation to go back in time to another world and recognize there’s something beautiful about praying the same words that our predecessors in the faith have prayed. Maybe it’s not just sentimental; maybe it’s significant.

Some may object to using formal prayers out of fear that it become staid traditionalism.

Of course it could become rote formalism.

Of course it could quench your freedom.

Of course there will be some who disdain all set forms and prayers. The poet, John Milton, not only rejected all liturgy, he didn’t even believe Christians should be encouraged to pray the Lord’s Prayer. (He saw it merely as a template that we ought to adapt for the prayers of our own hearts.)

But after having led worship for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that a lot of what is called “spontaneous” today is just as rote as any Vespers liturgy from the 16th Century. A lot of contemporary worship’s “freedom” today is just as shackled and bound to conventions and formula as any Matins prayer. Just follow the band around for a few nights. So many of those “new songs” are actually quite tired.

So I was shocked at that event a few years ago. What were they so afraid of?

I guess it’s natural to be afraid of what you don’t know. That’s probably a lot of what’s behind most tribalism, sectarianism, & conservatism, after all. Some people will recoil at anything that triggers old wounds from growing up in a Catholic tradition. But others (like myself) have no baggage when it comes to a more liturgical expression of worship. I actually crave something with deeper roots than the pastor’s career, or my particular church’s existence. 

I need things like the Book of Common Prayer because I need to be reminded that I’m not a pioneer. I need to be a part of a tradition, a history, and a community that’s larger than myself. I don’t care if you call the “minister” a “priest” or that “table” an “altar.” I like the incense, I love the candles—I light one every day, and I’m not the least bit worried that I’ll sink into a fog of superstition. But that’s just me.

Last year I was leading for a church that has a prayer and worship service every Wednesday evening, and last February I suggested we offer an Ash Wednesday service on that particular night. “Absolutely not,” I was told. “That is the height of Pharisaism!” 

Again, I was surprised. But I have to remember, I may personally have no wounds from the past regarding Catholicism. (My wounds have more to do with Baptist legalism and strident Calvinism.) So Catholicism doesn’t take me back or trigger Pharisaism. But my church may have people who’ve come out of Catholicism, and have no desire to go back! So wisdom would demand a sensitivity to that reality. 

I ended up leading the evening with the same spirit and penitent tone as an Ash Wednesday service, but without any of the explicitly Catholic vestiges (like ashes or the sign of the cross). 

One of the challenges I give to worship leaders is this: If you can only lead worship for people just like you, you’re not much of a worship leader. Stepping into a new church context has been a great discipline for me, and this tool (originally from Dr. Richard Pratt, given to me by my RTS friends Josh and Bruce) has been very helpful for me. I’ve tried to put some new language on it to further expound as well: 

Immature leaders will only lead out of their personal journey, without any sensitivity to the context of the people in the current community they're leading. 

Insecure leaders will only accommodate to their context without ever challenging it. 

Well-meaning but ill-informed leaders may link their personal journey with God to their current community and context, but fail to incorporate the broader history of that community’s tradition. 

But ideal leaders will bring the treasures of their own walk with God into a new context with wise sensitivity and an informed understanding of historical tradition, and ultimately with an ever-increasing depth in all three of these areas. Any one of these over-emphasized will lead you error.

So to those who’ve never used The Book of Common Prayer in their personal walk with God, I’d encourage you to try it out. I think you’ll find it to be a helpful tool in your corporate ministry as well. And those who worry about it for being too “catholic”, or not evangelical enough, as (Baylor Humanities professor) Alan Jacob said, “It’s saturated in scripture—what’s more evangelical than that?”