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Why evangelicals ought to love the Book of Common Prayer

Why evangelicals ought to love the Book of Common Prayer

An American evangelical scholar looks at the Book of Common Prayer and likes what he reads.

Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University and former professor of English at Wheaton College, has written a history of the Book of Common Prayer as part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series.

Thomas Cranmer wanted one book and one liturgical “use” for one country. He wanted English folk to be able to go into any church in England on any given day and experience the same worship service in the same words. For a long time this desire of Cranmer’s was indeed realized—and more, it was possible to go into what came to be known as “Anglican” churches all over the world and hear the same beautiful cadences, which was something I doubt Cranmer ever expected. He was making a prayer book for his country, and expected that Christian worship in other countries would develop in varying ways according to those places’ liturgical requirements.

And indeed this is what happened. Every Anglican province in the world eventually decided that it needed its own prayer book—and as time went by and the English language altered and took various forms in various places, Anglicans felt that they needed to update those books. I don’t think that any of this would have surprised or even disappointed Cranmer—but it is a little sad nonetheless, because there is for many of us satisfaction in saying the same words that our predecessors in the Christian faith said. Any nostalgia I feel for that old prayer book is closely related to the way many Catholics feel about the old Latin Mass, or many Christians throughout the English-speaking world feel about the King James Bible.

Cranmer himself would, I’m sure, understand this nostalgia. But he would probably urge us to get over it.

Read it all here.

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Paul Woodrum

Ah, Mr. Johnson, do I detect an antiquarian's lack of appreciation for one of Cranmer's prime principles as set forth in the Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (much to be preferred to the more Calvinist 1662 revision), that "St Paul would have such language spoken to the people in the church, as they might understand and have profit by hearing the same?" In other words, contemporary language that people understand is to be used in the church. As our language evolves, so must our common prayer, at least according to Archbishop Cranmer's interpretation of St. Paul.

In addition to updating the language, the American 1979 Book of common Prayer also restored the ancient structure of the Eucharist, eliminating distortions inserted to thumb our Anglican nose at the Latin Rite Church.

If there is any 'wasteland' in the 1979 Book it is the inclusion of faux traditional rites and the failure to be gender inclusive.

All of this, of course, should be framed and imaged by complimentary contemporary architecture and vesture to reinforce the living presence and spirit of God's Word.

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Jonathan

Jacobs' biography is a lovely little book. It might be useful to point out that he is Anglican (though not Episcopalian).

Jonathan Grieser (added by editor)

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Gregory Orloff

The current Common Book of Prayer is hardly a "liturgical wasteland." There is much that is good, sound and inspiring in it, and many of its revisions draw us closer to our Christian roots before the Reformation.

As for Alan Jacobs, if "there is for many of us satisfaction in saying the same words that our predecessors in the Christian faith said," he had better start learning to pray in Aramaic and Greek. "Our predecessors in the Christian faith," for a good many centuries, didn't speak English, either in its faux Elizabethean or contemporary forms.

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Christopher Johnson

I don't think that Cranmer would urge us "to get over it" at all considering the fact that the current prayer book (which doesn't deserve the title of its illustrious predecessors) is a liturgical wasteland and that the 1928, as good as it is, falls fall short of Englands's 1662.

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