Despite being supplanted in many churches by the Book of Alternative Services, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) remains the definitive prayer book for a great number of Canadian Anglicans.
Far from being a mere textual reference for prayer and liturgy, the BCP, according to Trinity College assistant divinity professor Dr. Jesse Billett, represents a “total system of Christian life”.
“If you treat it as a resource book for worship, you’ll find it very dissatisfying,” Billett said. “It requires you to go all-in.”
The scholar described the BCP as assuming a discipline of private prayer and meditation as well as participation in the daily office, Holy Communion on Sundays, major feast days, and life milestones such as baptism and marriage.
While language in the prayer book can be difficult for some 21st century readers, Billet believed that parishes that use the BCP as the basis for their community life provide compelling counter-examples.
“Just by using the prayer book as it’s meant to be used, you can enter right into it, and it ceases to be anything foreign,” Billett said.
“If you’re in a parish that uses the prayer book very naturally—where people know what page you’re on, or rather, don’t need to look at the page anymore—you can experience it as a natural, flowing, perfectly harmonious way of worshipping.”
A timeless work
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle, assistant curate at the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha in Toronto, concurred on the benefits of increasing familiarity with the BCP.
“The BCP is a bit like a pair of good leather boots,” Turtle said. “At first it can be uncomfortable and even cause you a measure of pain. But once broken in it becomes like a second skin and gives voice to prayers and petitions that one didn’t even know they had.”
He sees the BCP as being “more relevant than ever” in part due to its timeless, unchanging nature.
“Consider the prayer that comes at the end of Compline that asks for God’s presence and protection through the night, ‘so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness.’
“The world is changing and fleeting. The BCP isn’t, and is thus uniquely situated to address our weariness.”
For the Rev. Daniel Bowyer, rector of St. Paul’s Church in Stratford, Ont. in the Diocese of Huron, liturgies from the prayer book constitute his earliest memories of worship, connecting him with God at an early age and continuing to shape his Christian life and ministry today.
“The liturgies within the Book of Common Prayer,” Bowyer said, “have a timelessness in connecting Christians to the living God, Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected, deepening their faith and sending them into the world to carry out ministry in Christ’s name.”
Mother Melissa Frankland, an Anglican priest serving as associate pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Steinbach, Man., described the BCP as an important part of Anglican identity, noting that it contains the XXXIX Articles defining Anglican doctrine and practices, as well as the Catechism.
“The poetic prose, biblical content, and its monastic rhythm of daily prayer, I believe, contain the tools necessary to help us live as disciples of our Lord,” Frankland said. “It is very convenient that it is all in this one spot.”
She contends that the continuing importance of the BCP in daily worship flows from its “biblically solid” nature—the majority of the prayer book draws directly from Scripture—and the ageless qualities of the text itself.
“Unlike the more modern liturgies and Eucharistic prayers which, I believe for the most part, are created to satisfy a ‘trend,’ the language and poetic prose of the BCP, combined with a theology which is deeply rooted in Christian tradition, make it a worship tool that helps to draw us outside of ourselves, and points us to our Heavenly Father, the very one in whom we are created to worship and glorify.”
The prayer book retains a special appeal for many Indigenous Anglicans.
“The BCP has much relevance in First Nation communities,” Indigenous Ministries Coordinator Ginny Doctor said.
One of the churches in her own community of Six Nations, Ont. uses the BCP for Sunday worship, while the current Indigenous Catechist Training Manual contains the 1962 Catechist found in the BCP. Translations of the BCP exist in Mohawk and Oji-Cree—though each was translated prior to the 1962 edition authorized by the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Growing up in the Episcopal Church, Doctor used the 1928 version of the prayer book published by the church in the United States.
“I have good memories of that time and that BCP, which is similar to the 1962 BCP,” Doctor said. “I love the language, although that may seem strange since it is ‘old English’ and I am a Mohawk woman!”
“It’s the memories that make it meaningful to me,” she added, recalling one time when she was asked to provide overnight hospice care to an elder while working as a missionary in Alaska.
“He asked me if I would do morning prayer with him,” Doctor remembered. “The next night I went with my 1979 BCP in hand. When I started, he said, ‘No, not that one, the old one.’”
“I immediately knew what he meant and told him if he would be okay, I’d go and get the old one. I did and as I began reading, he began reciting with a big smile on his face.
“When we were done, he said, ‘I saw so many memories.’ And so did I.”
Using the prayer book
Today, Doctor uses both the 1928 and 1962 editions of the BCP in her morning devotions, carrying each version of the prayer book on her Kindle.
Dr. Paul Dyck, English professor at Canadian Mennonite University and a lay reader and preacher at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, begins each day with an abbreviated BCP morning prayer.
“These words of encounter set the conditions for the rest of the day,” said Dyck, who also finds himself drawn to the Coverdale psalter with its “strikingly tangible character” and “strangely concrete and dramatic” words.
Having become an Anglican through the Church of England, Billett uses the 1662 prayer book for his daily office. Like the BCP itself, the daily office was historically one of the unique hallmarks of Anglican identity.
“I would love to see more places use [the BCP] and rediscover it with its own integrity,” Billett said. “If a parish is interested in restoring the daily office, I hope they’d have a look at the prayer book and at least learn how to use that before deciding whether or not to use it moving further.”
“I think that seminaries like here at Trinity College are going to have a lot to do with that,” he added, noting that students at the college alternate every six weeks between the BCP and the Book of Alternative Services.
For his part, Turtle exclusively uses the BCP in his own devotional life, drawing strength from the daily office and psalter and praying variations of Compline with his two young daughters each night before bedtime.
Referring to the preface in the Canadian prayer book—which reads in part, “The Book of Common Prayer is a priceless possession of our church”—he noted, “We would do well to recover the sense of its pricelessness, that we may become more truly that which we already are, the People of God.”
Learn more about the historical roots of the Book of Common Prayer.
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