The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is a key text for understanding the Reformation in England. For centuries it formed the backbone of the spiritual diet of English-speaking peoples all over the world, alongside the King James Bible. With John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Matthew Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been one of the most formative influences in English piety and spirituality.
In essence, what Cranmer did in his prayer book was to concentrate Protestant theology (of the Reformed or Calvinist variety) into a useable liturgical form, so that every day in every parish, and every Sunday morning and evening, the English people (and soon the peoples of their far-flung empire) began to pray in a new way.
The new prayer book was in English, “understanded of the people,” as the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion put it, not the Latin of the medieval Mass. It took the best of Augustinian medieval piety, translated it, and fed it into the spiritual diet of ordinary parishioners, strengthened by the renewed emphases of the Reformers on salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.
The BCP is a prayer book, a service book, a book to aid us in our worship of the one true and living God. It’s a book to live, love, and die by’for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It’s a book designed to fill us with awe and reverence as we participate in its rituals and regularities. It’s not an evangelistic tract to be read out to a congregation every Sunday. It’s more than that. But it has a sharp mission edge. It’s carefully put together to teach the gospel and to reach people’s hearts with the message of salvation. Its much-praised eloquence is all in the service of an impassioned plea to trust, obey, and please the Lord Jesus who died for his family, the church. So it’s not a stuffy old book for stuffy old people. It’s a way to reach liturgical people with the good news of Jesus.
In the classic Anglican understanding of church as seen in the BCP, then, the church is not to be centered on any earthly mediator, whether a mediating priest, a worship band leader, or a celebrity pastor. For prayer-book Anglicans, church is about gathering to hear God speak through his Word, confessing our sins and our faith, and responding to the Spirit in prayer for each other and for the world.
The piety of the Book of Common Prayer is a Word-centered piety. In good times and bad, the prayer book encourages meditation on Scripture. Even in the prayers suggested for use by the bedside of a sick person, we find these words, “O merciful God, who hast written thy holy Word for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of thy holy Scriptures, might have hope.” Prayers were to be suffused with biblical truth, carefully and deliberately alluded to and quoted.
In the Communion Service we pray, “We are taught by thy holy Word, that the hearts of Kings are in thy rule” (cf. Prov. 21:1). We affirm that it is God “who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers’¦for all men” (1 Tim. 2). Thus the Bible is seen as God’s Word through which he teaches us even now, although the human authorship of the Scripture is acknowledged as well. It is also the inspiration and guide for our prayers.
In the justly famous words of the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, then, we pray that the Blessed Lord who caused the Scriptures to be written for our learning would help us “so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of his Holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life.” In all its prayers, the BCP focuses its users on the Bible as the source of all our illumination, encouragement, guidance, and hope in Christ.
In 1555, English reformers Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer all died as martyrs because they refused to submit to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Mass. The prayer book makes it clear that what is going on at the Lord’s Table is not a sacrifice on an altar made by a mediating priest on behalf of the people, which has to be repeated again and again each week to be effective. But what did they put in the place of the Mass? What was it that they taught Anglicans to pray and to remember as they gathered around the Lord’s Table? They taught that the Supper is a divine instrument of assurance. There we confess “our manifold sins and wickedness” to God, and we are then assured by the words of Scripture itself that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” and that “he is the propitiation for our sins.”
People came to the table (not an “altar”) praying, “not trusting in our own righteousness, but in God’s manifold and great mercies.” They came with nothing in their hands to receive God’s mercy. The movement of the action in the BCP liturgy is from God to us’God in his grace reaching down to us in our sinfulness. We simply take and eat, in remembrance of what Jesus has done. Read theologically, the BCP service shows us that, although we are more wicked than we ever thought, we are also loved by a merciful God more than we ever dreamed. It demonstrates that Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross for us was utterly, completely, and totally sufficient to pay for our sins: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, which of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ, to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
The result is that, pastorally speaking, our consciences are assured of God’s love toward us in Christ, even when we’ve been most searingly honest about our shortcomings and failures. So we can praise God that “by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his Passion.” The sufficiency of the cross for us and for our salvation could not be clearer in such prayers.
BCP prayers consistently emphasize Christ alone and grace alone as the hope for sinful men and women. As one of the collects (for the day called Sexagesima) says, “We put not our trust in any thing that we do.” According to the BCP, the Christian life is a life dependent on God’s grace. We see that clearly in some of the collects, or short set prayers for each week. So the Collect for Trinity 19 (that is, the nineteenth Sunday after Trinity Sunday) says, “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; mercifully grant, that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”
The Augustinian/Reformed emphasis on being unable to please God without God’s own help (cf. Rom. 8:8; Phil. 2:12) is noticeable in the Collect for Trinity 19. It’s also there in the Thirty-Nine Articles: “We have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God without the grace of Christ preventing us [going before us], that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will” (Article 10).
Original sin remains even in those who are regenerate according to the articles and according to the rest of the prayer book, too. In one of the Advent prayers, we confess that “through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us,” and so in turn pray that “thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us.” In other words: Help us run the race, by your grace.
The Collect for Innocents’ Day asks God to “mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives and constancy of our faith, even unto death, we may glorify thy holy name.” In other words: Kill our vices, by your grace.
As the collect for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany puts it, we “lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace.” Why? Because “the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall” (Trinity 15). The Christian life is about leaning on God’s grace to mortify our sins and live for others to God’s glory, praying for “Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics” to be fetched home to Christ and saved (Collect for Good Friday).
In the Communion Service, we recite the Ten Commandments, plead for mercy since we’ve broken them, and we ask God to incline our hearts to keep that law. But a collect also sums this up: “Because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed” (Trinity 1). In Trinity 11, we pray for “such a measure of thy grace that we, running the way of thy commandments, may obtain thy gracious promises.”
So we see throughout the Book of Common Prayer an emphasis on the Bible and on letting the Bible lead our prayers. We see an emphasis on the cross and the definite, sufficient, and gloriously unrepeatable atonement. We are reminded constantly that we must pray for God’s continual grace to live for him and be transformed into the likeness of his Son.