Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (14) Common Prayer

When Thomas Cranmer set about preparing the Book of Common Prayer, one of his goals was that prayer and the regular reading of Scripture should be exercises in which the whole people of England were engaged. This he sought to accomplish by five means: the rendering of the services into plain English; the reduction of the number of daily services from seven to two; the streamlining of the lectionary; the simplification of the services themselves; and the placing of the straightforward reading of the Bible as the centerpiece of each.

Much of the rationale for this is explained in a document that can be found in the back of our Prayer Book and deserves a full reading: the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549). Another statement worthy of study, no longer in the Episcopal Prayer Book but still found in the Canadian book of 1962, is “Of Ceremonies: why some be abolished and some retained”.

Here Cranmer explains the abuses which had gradually been allowed to encrust the ancient services, to the point where they had become filled with legendary and virtually impossible to follow. In place of these Cranmer offered services which gave pride of place to the clear and straightforward reading of Scripture and which were themselves biblically based.

So here you have an order for prayer, and for the reading of the holy Scripture, much agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old Fathers, and a great deal more profitable and commodious, than that which of late was used … and nothing is ordained to be read, but the very pure word of God, the holy Scriptures, or that which is agreeable to the same; and that in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding both of the readers and hearers.

Not only did Cranmer give central place to the reading of Scripture, he made certain that the services themselves were scriptural. The result is that our services of Morning and Evening Prayer are a carefully arranged catena of direct quotations from the Bible and of material based directly upon biblical imagery and teaching. For this reason the Book of Common Prayer has more than once been described (not inaccurately) as “the Bible arranged for public worship”.

The services of Morning and Evening Prayer begin with the reading of one of more sentences of Scripture. Originally these focused on the topic of repentance and forgiveness and were intended to lead directly to confession. Nowadays there is a broader range, and the opening sentences, if carefully used, can help to set forth the theme of the service from its outset. The sentences are followed by the Exhortation, which offers at its center a marvelous picture of what Christian worship involves: penitence, thanksgiving, praise, the reading of Scripture and prayer—

… humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; … to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

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