The Book of Common Prayer as an Example of Christian Worship
by The Rev’d Dr. Paul S. Russell, Dean, Joseph of Arimathea Theological Conference, Anglican Province of Christ the King
The history of Christian worship is an area of theological scholarship that has made great advances over the last several centuries. We know the history of all language traditions in the Church much more fully than we did before. This allows us to better understand what the Christian past can tell us about its nature and about what we can reasonably expect to result from the things that we choose to do.
To begin with, the Christian liturgical tradition is multi-form as far back as we can see. Though, logically, Christian worship must have begun, at least as far as the Eucharist is concerned, with the group centered around the 11 surviving disciples in the period right after Easter Sunday, we have no record of actual Christian worship practice before the church had already begun to perform its liturgy in multiple languages. The scholarly search for a pristine example of unadulterated Christian worship failed due to a lack of data to examine. Every indication leads us to the conclusion that it was not until several generations after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire that the Church began to write its worship services down. As a matter of fact, we have every reason to think that full worship services were not written down until some centuries after that process began.
What this means is that, by the time we have worship services to examine, we are looking at the product of centuries of development within distinct language traditions. There is no such thing as “Christian” worship that survives for us to examine. There is only Greek or Syriac or Latin or Ethiopian or Coptic or Armenian worship (to call the role of the earliest traditions). These traditions all have certain central elements in common but they also have characteristics that are, as far as our information shows, original and distinct. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that the Church lives in distinct cultures in ways that make sense to the Christians who belong to those cultures. There is no way to abstract the Church from its varied natural habitats and there is no way to abstract something that can be called “pure Christian liturgy” from the practical, varied history of the Church.
What does this mean, as far as The Book of Common Prayer is concerned? Before the decision was made in England to translate the Church’s liturgy into English, the Crown had already commanded in 1543 that worship in England be regularized and standardized on the basis of the Sarum Rite, that is, the liturgy in use in the Cathedral of Salisbury (Sarum). This was also the period, of course, in which the Roman Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), did much to flatten out the existing variety of worship in the churches over which the Pope held sway and in which the Protestant churches, as they moved their liturgies into local languages, reshaped and, sometimes, wrote from scratch their new worship texts. The Book of Common Prayer, when seen against the backdrop of the period in which it was produced, firmly straddles the two poles of Latin Christendom in the sixteenth century. It is based largely on a pre-existing liturgy, as the Roman Catholics were doing on their side, and it moves into the language spoken by the people, as the Protestant traditions were doing on their side. The Book of Common Prayer is firmly within the Latin Christian stream in all of this. So, is The Book of Common Prayer traditional or is it innovative? What can it show us about the nature of the nascent English language Anglican tradition?
The most characteristic aspect of Latin Christian liturgy, the larger tradition in the midst of which The Book of Common Prayer arises, is the Collect. No other Christian liturgical tradition has collects. There are Latin collects that survive from the 300s, close to the time at which the Church in Rome began to celebrate its main service in Latin. (This fell during the 380s, much later than people usually realize.) Because many of the collects in The Book of Common Prayer are direct translations of these very early and characteristic Christian prayers, I consider The Book of Common Prayer, itself, to be deeply rooted in the Latin liturgical tradition. The collect for Easter day, for example, is translated into English from the Sarum Missal:
Almighty God, who through thine only-begotten
Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened
unto us the gate of everlasting life; We humbly beseech
thee that, as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost
put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help
we may bring the same to good effect; through the same
Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and
the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
On the other hand, some of these collects were written directly by Archbishop Cranmer. An example is the collect for Ash Wednesday:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing
that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all
those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and
contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and
acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the
God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The shape of these two prayers (the address to God, the description of Him based on certain of His characteristics, the petition to Him based on those characteristics and the closing formula) are closely parallel and are both good representatives of the classical form of the Latin collect. If we take these two prayers as a focused example of the nature of The Book of Common Prayer and its place in the Tradition, I think we can draw certain conclusions.
In the parts of Latin liturgy that are the most characteristic, the collects, The Book of Common Prayer is very traditionally “Latin.” Cranmer’s translation of the Sarum Rite rooted The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy in traditional Latin soil but, like all of the liturgies remade during the Reformation period, including the Roman Catholic Tridentine Mass, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer also gained new material. It is a very important point that not all of the “new” material in The Book of Common Prayer was new in form. The new collect for the season of Lent, with its emphasis on penitence rather than fasting, reflects very well the reformed theological sensibilities of Archbishop Cranmer, but the shape and expression of the prayer that he wrote are entirely traditional.
Because of the particular character of the liturgical changes that many Western churches underwent in the 1960s and 70s, almost all Western Christians assume that “change” means innovation. There is no logical reason for this to be true. All of the parts of Latin Christianity underwent great liturgical change in the sixteenth century but not all of these changes were innovative. In the same way, many Christian bodies in North America during the twentieth century underwent great liturgical change (the number of Eastern Orthodox bodies moving their worship into English, which had never been done before, is a very good example), but not all of those changes were innovative, either. If we focus just on the question of the collects in The Book of Common Prayer, choosing them because collects are uniquely characteristic of Latin Christianity, we can see that it is possible to view The Book of Common Prayer, even at the time of its creation, as a very traditional expression of the Latin Christian liturgical tradition designed to meet new circumstances and new theological emphases.
Certainly, we cannot properly understand The Book of Common Prayer unless we realize what it preserves (and how) and what kind of changes it actually embodies. If we are to come to an intelligent conclusion about how best to protect and proclaim The Book of Common Prayer in the present and in the future, we must, first, understand its own nature properly. Some parts of The Book of Common Prayer are immensely old. Some of the newer things in it are immensely old in form but more recent in content. Does this make them traditional or non-traditional? Now, we have begun to think about the right questions!
Paul Russell is currently researching a book on the early Christian group called the Novatianists and how they survived for so long. He has authored various books on Christian theology and spirituality.
P 23 in Gordon Jeanes, “Cranmer and Common Prayer,” 21-38 in Charles Hefling, Cynthia Shattuck (ed.), The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, (New York: Oxford University Press 2006).
 cf. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr., The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, (New York: Oxford University Press 1950,) 124.