The historic Book of Common Prayer is so basic to Anglican worship and thought and so beloved of most Anglicans that it would seem almost unnecessary to write anything about it, having been the subject of innumerable books and pamphlets. Nevertheless, it is often found that members of Anglican Churches are really familiar only with whatever service they usually attend; and moreover, that although they know the familiar prayers and phrases, they regularly overlook the rubrics. So it would seem that a few facts and comments are in order after all.
First, what are the sources of this Book, which is widely acclaimed as an incomparable order of worship and a glory of the English Language? It did not spring full-fledged from the brain of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer or any other person in 1549 or at any other time. Basically, it is a compendium of the liturgy which had grown up and existed in the Church of Rome over a period of centuries. Cranmer left out some things and also added some beautiful compositions of his own, such as the Prayer of Humble Access and the post-Communion Prayer of Thanksgiving. Most of the contents, however, are simply adopted or adapted from far earlier liturgies of the Church, e.g., the Te Deum Laudamus (fourth century), the Prayer of St. Chrysostom (from the fifth century Greek Liturgy), etc.
Only one Office in the 1928 Book is of strictly American origin, and that is the “Office of Institution of Ministers,” composed by the Rev. Dr. William Smith, Rector of St. Paul’s Church, Norwalk, Connecticut in 1799. The first post-Benediction Prayer in this Office is said by authorities to be one of the most beautiful prayers in the entire Book and is a composition by Dr. Smith.
The Book of Common Prayer provides for Anglicans worship that is majestic, beautiful, above the ordinary level of their lives, and orderly and dependable. It is Scripturally based, it has been developed by the Holy Catholic Church through the centuries and it is thoroughly beloved by Anglicans in all its similar forms everywhere.
Even so, it merits closer study. It is an integrated Book and if it is respected and loved, all parts should be respected and loved. Too many Anglican worshippers are not as familiar as they should be with the 57 opening pages of explanatory and informational material. These repay occasional review not least the Preface on pages v-vi; “Concerning the Service of the Church” on pages vii-viii, The Calendar, pages xlvi-xlix; and Tables and Rules for the Movable and Immovable Feasts, pages l-li. All parts of the Book are equally authoritative, equally valuable and equally beneficial.
That is true of Rubrics, also. The Rubrics are, of course, the rules and directions as to the conduct of the services; they are now usually printed in italics, but were formerly printed in red, hence the name, “Rubrics”. If the Book of Common Prayer is to serve one of its purposes, to standardize Anglican worship, the Rubrics ought to be carefully and uniformly observed. Substitution of personal judgment and preference for the official directions was one of the causes of the breakdown in the usage of the standard Book in the second half of this century and hence the adoption of a radically different version by the Episcopal Church in 1979. Yet through ignorance or carelessness, Rubrics are often ignored. A common and illustrative example is the corporate recital of the Prayer of Humble Access, whereas the Rubric clearly states, “Then shall the Priest, kneeling down at the Lord’s Table, say, in the name of all those who shall receive the Communion, this Prayer following”.
The Book of Common Prayer is not, of course, absolutely perfect beyond all improvement. It has never been so regarded and should never be so regarded. The Book of 1549 was followed by the Book of 1552, and that in turn by the long-lasting Book of 1662. The first American Book of Common Prayer of 1789 was clearly descended from the English Book of 1662, though also drawing heavily on the Scottish Anglican Book of 1764. The American Book was subsequently revised in 1892 and again in 1928. The most recent revision of 1979 was rejected by many American Anglicans as departing in substance from the foundations of all previous Books and as decidedly inferior in style and beauty. Nevertheless, at some point, the 1928 revision will also again be revised in some details.
Anglicans can be justly proud of their unrivalled Book of Common Prayer. It is not God, but it is an exemplary road to the understanding and worship of God.