Prayer Book heritage A recent issue of the New Yorker includes an article about the Prayer Book, “God Talk: The Book of Common Prayer at three hundred and fifty,” by James Wood. A little arithmetic shows that the anniversary mentioned is not of the first Prayer Book 1549 but of the current Prayer Book 1662. Not much used in England these days, what with supplements like the current one called Common Worship, this Prayer Book, three and a half centuries old, still remains the official source for public worship in the realm. The article is quite good, even with its scattering of factual errors. The article set me thinking about the treasure we have in the Prayer Book tradition. From its beginning in 1549, the Book has been a book for the people first and for the clergy second. One of the first English publications used throughout the land, it also helped stabilize the language and gave it the character we now recognize. It had from its inception the impetus for an ongoing reform. Even that abrupt halt in its development in 1662 remains the anomaly in this legacy. Outside England—first in Scotland, then the United States, and eventually throughout the rest of the Anglican world, the Churches have often tweaked and sometimes completely reworked the Prayer Book. Insights from theology and historical liturgy have contributed to this ongoing work, but so have desires for more accessible language and closer adaptations to fit a particular locale. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Preface to the first Prayer Book in 1549 is a brilliant little essay that draws a blueprint for the reform he undertook and also for the reforms that would ensue in the centuries afterward. The Preface, for those interested, is included among the Historical Documents in our own Prayer Book 1979, pages 866-67. Let me summarize some key points from the Preface:
• What is old is valuable to us. What is very old—scripture and the early church—is especially valuable in helping Christians order our acts of worship. • The pathways toward what is old may require believers to do something entirely new. Herein lies a paradox. Doing the same thing we have been doing, Cranmer argued, may have more to do with inertia and habit than with the ancient treasures. Custom may be full of accretions that obscure the great wealth available from days of old. Sometimes the most traditional response requires setting aside what has become merely customary. • Simplicity and directness in language are good. Rubrics and lectionaries must be easy to use and not at all esoteric. Vernacular is also the norm, but Cranmer excelled in showing that plain-speaking can be both resonant and beautiful. • Reform of the liturgy is to be expected. And Cranmer drew on a multiplicity of sources to this end—those local to England, rites from the Orthodox East, learning from the ongoing Continental reform. So the American heritage of Prayer Books has seen new editions in the following years: 1549, 1552, 1559, 1662, 1786 (Communion Service), 1789, 1892, 1928, and 1979. The work continues in the Enriching Our Worship series of supplemental rites, begun in 1997 and ongoing. Tweaks and complete overhauls have been our ways, and the work continues in almost every Province of the Anglican World, in manners of wild diversity. This is what it has meant for Anglicans to have a Prayer Book.
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