The Half-Life of the Book of Common Prayer – The Rev’d David Fletcher

We in the Anglican Church of Canada are in the curious position of being bi — bi-ritual to be precise. Part of the heritage that we claim as Anglican is bound in that which we call The Book of Common Prayer. This is not simply a directory of worship (we experimented with that in 1645), nor is it a compilation of every service in the church’s repertoire (that would include volumes such as The Book of Occasional Offices). The Book of Common Prayer is the authorized book of worship for the Anglican Church of Canada, containing not only the services of public worship, but the catechism (ie. the teaching of the faith), and historic documents (the Athanasian Creed, the historic prefaces to earlier Books of Common Prayer, the Solemn Declaration, and the Thirty Nine Articles).

It is this compilation of documents which may, in fact, define what exactly a Book of Common Prayer might be. In 1979, the Episcopal Church of the United States published a Book of Common Prayer which contained all these elements; in New Zealand, the Book of Common Prayer includes the rites for public worship, and a catechism.

But in Canada, as in England and Australia, parallel books of worship have been authorized without supplanting the Book of Common Prayer. And this leaves us in a curious position.

The anachronisms in the Book of Common Prayer (for instance, a marriage vow that binds an unequal pairing such as “man” and “wife” or the vow whereby the woman can only pledge her “constant faith and abiding love” whereas the man pledges his property and worth), or the edited Psalter (not publishing certain offensive pieces), or the satisfaction-based atonement and Christology of the Eucharistic Prayer, do not speak well to many of our contemporary situations or understandings of our faith.

But our Book of Alternative Services is subject to many limitations as well. There is no teaching of the faith outside the liturgy itself and the occasional rubric; language usage –  especially in relation to the divine – has changed even since 1985; evangelicals have expressed concerns about Eucharistic prayers with the overt bidding of the Spirit on the gifts.
And so this summer, we will reap the benefits of the Liturgy Task Force, who will be presenting their work to General Synod, including revised offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, Eucharistic prayers, new collects and a pointed (ie. indications for chanting) Psalter, as well as language usage more representative of current practice. But as of this point, I have heard of no plans to authorize a Book of Common Prayer for the 21st century, and so we are going to be living with directories of worship, license to use other expressions of our faith (depending on the diocese), and the vestiges of the 16th century in the Book of Common Prayer, whose half-life is yet to be determined.

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  1. Beth Nelson
    Beth Nelson says:

    And the BCP was published in 1962 with the BAS coming along in 1985 – 23 years. We are now 31 years along from the publishing of the book I still hear referred to as “the new book”!


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