The forgotten Book of Common Prayer

Barry Shucksmith writes from a biblical and evangelical viewpoint of how a revival of the BCP could help to remedy the decline in the CofE

There is much present debate on the use of the Roman Rite, as against the use of Common Prayer (Archbishops Council 2000). According to Canon A3 of the Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 Rite is still foundational for Anglican worship and teaching. It is so fundamental, ‘the doctrine contained in the Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the Use of the Church of England is agreeable to the Word of God and the form of God’s worship contained in the said Book, forasmuch as it is not repugnant to the Word of God, may be used by all members of the Church of England with a good conscience.’

Enduring qualities

Sadly, it is not used as much as it might be and there are large areas of the country which can only be described as BCP-bereft. At least, it would be largely dishonest to describe the use as ‘Common’, despite the long and admirable efforts of the Prayer Book Society to revive the BCP to national prominence.

Hopefully, the 350th anniversary next year will give new perspective to its enduring qualities, as the 400th anniversary has done for the King James Version.

Almost 250 years ago, the Cambridge Evangelical leader, Charles Simeon wrote, with remarkable prophetic insight, ‘seek not to change even what you think faulty in the Prayer Book, because most changes would result in great evils than those you wish to remedy.’

Simeon was spiritually awakened, as a freshman, while attending a compulsory BCP Holy Communion Service. At the tender age of twenty-three he was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1836. Simeon is comparable to John Stott and, perhaps, in some ways, was even more influential.

No doubt, contemporary worshippers are both inspired and converted by modern liturgy but the Book of Common Prayer is singularly rich in biblical content. ‘Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God’ (Romans 10.17).

Biblical content

In these days of a declining beneficed clergy, a reverent and sensitive use of BCP Morning or Evening Prayer can still be a powerful tool in the hands of a godly and authorized layman. Since the ordination of women priests, I have found myself more involved with the growing independent evangelical churches. Some use of biblical liturgy could greatly enhance their worship too. Some argue for a liturgical rite which draws us closer to Rome. But do we not, first, need to draw closer to Almighty God and his glorious Gospel in our Lord Jesus Christ?

Rooted in Scripture

True worship is rooted in Scripture above all else. Whatever criticism some might wish to level against Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, chief architect of the BCP, few can equal his genius, or his knowledge of the Word of God. Furthermore, he was prepared to lay down his life for what he believed. One wonders how many martyrs contemporary liturgies will inspire!

It is clear, to all but the optimistically oblivious, the Church of England is in serious decline. The explanations why are complex and it is easy to be simplistic. But failure to implement clear biblical teaching must lie at the root of the problem, otherwise almighty God, who has promised to honour his Word (Isaiah 55.11) would be blessing us more than he is. The crisis in Christian giving, women priests, unbiblical sexual ethics, evangelism or lack of it, and the ‘black hole within the next decade’, speak of a Church which has lost its way and needs to repent and seek the Lord afresh. It is not Rome we need to be in fellowship with but the Living God. We have existed without Rome for five centuries. We cannot breathe without the blessing of almighty God for five seconds.

Spiritual injection

Nothing could give a greater spiritual injection to the life of the dying body than a return to the Book of Common Prayer. Why not? The Book of Common Prayer does not belong to the Church of England. It belongs to our Nation. Like the King James Version of the Holy Scriptures, it has shaped our character, invaded our national psyche, and will still be preferred by the majority, after the Roman Rite and Common Worship are both dead and buried.

For traditional readers of ND, there is a bonus. The BCP Form of Ordaining or Consecrating of an Archbishop or Bishop is as contemporary and clear as ever: ‘Most reverend Father in God, we present unto you this godly and well-learned man to be ordained and consecrated Bishop.’ The revisionists and innovators may succeed in ‘updating’ a relatively small Church of England in 2012, and ‘compound’ their heresy of a female presbyterate. I suspect they may find themselves in a bigger battle with the national psyche. They may even commit spiritual and ecclesiastical suicide.

Let us return to the Book of Common Prayer. Then the nation can see and experience where the truth lies, and what previous generations of English churchmen and women believed. After all, it is now fashionable to be fascinated by the past! ND

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