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The Book of Common Prayer (1979) is the latest, complete BCP used by the American branch of the Anglicans, the Episcopal church. There have been many books that have had the title 'Book of Common Prayer' since the first one appeared in 1549; it has been used continuously in one edition or another in the Anglican tradition since 1559; the 'main' edition remains the 1662 edition. The American church modified the Book of Common Prayer for its own use beginning shortly after the Revolutionary War -- this book is the successor of a long and worthy tradition.
A bishop in the Episcopal church once said to me, 'We don't have a theology that we have to believe -- what we have is the prayerbook.' Please forgive the absence of context for this phrase -- while he would say that this statement in isolation is an exaggeration, and I would agree, nonetheless his statement serves to highlight both the importance of and the strength of the Book of Common Prayer.
To be an Anglican (in the United States, read Episcopalian for the same in the context of this article), one does not have to subscribe to any particular systematic theological framework. One does not have to practice a particular brand of liturgical style. One does not have to have an approved politico-theological viewpoint. One can be a conservative, liberal or moderate; one can be high church, low church, or broad; one can be charismatic, evangelical, or mainline traditional -- one can be any number of things in a rich diversity of choices, and the Book of Common Prayer can still be the book upon which spirituality and worship is centred.
The Book of Common Prayer is not, in fact, a book that changed my life. It is a book that changes my life. Even though it is not the primary book of my own church, it continues to provide for spiritual insight and development; it continues to guide my worship and my theology. It continues to help me grow. The words are part of a liturgy now shared by Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian and other liturgical churches, in different combination and priority.
Gerry Janzen, an Anglican professor at my seminary, said to me recently as we were lunching and having a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation (in a unique way that only Gerry Janzen is capable of doing) that he strives for that kind of memory and understanding that is so complete that one forgets what one has learned. He recounted to me his experience of working with his book on Job -- he had done a lot of research, development of ideas, writing, and organisation, and then set it aside for a time. When he picked up the topic later, he decided to begin by writing, and then go back to the research, other notes and writings he had done earlier. He was surprised to see, in comparing the work, that he had in fact duplicated much of the material -- he had internalised the information, incorporated it so well into his thinking and being, that it came forward without effort. It is this kind of relationship I feel I have developed with the Book of Common Prayer.
To be sure, there are pages of information that I don't know. I haven't memorised the historical documents; I still consult the calendars; I haven't learned all of the collects by heart. But it has become a part of me. When was asked to put together a liturgy for a houseblessing for Episcopalian friends, there were rooms that called for collects that had not been written -- I wrote new collects and inserted them into the liturgy.
'Can you do that?' the householder asked, worried about the flow and the approval of the priest doing the blessing.
'I trust Kurt to write collects -- his probably belong in the BCP,' the priest said in response, and I appreciated her vote of confidence. That was perhaps the first confirmation to me of this sense of incorporation of the book into my life.
From his first edition, Cranmer distinguished in his terminology the words minister and priest, and the two should not be viewed as interchangeable. A priest is a minister, but a minister need not be a priest. This become part of the early development of the idea of all people being ministers to each other, which is also a concept that has varying acceptance and fulfillment in actual practice over the history of Anglicanism.
One of my favourite prayers derives from this book, part of the English prayer book from the very first one in 1549:
Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication unto thee, and hast promised through thy well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his name, thou wilt be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be best for us, granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come, life everlasting. Amen.
This prayer, like many things in the BCP, has moved to a new location from the first edition, but nonetheless the spirit of the BCP shows a circuitous but continuous development from this first English Prayer Book to the current varieties. Likewise, other denominations have gleaned insights, prayers and structures from this and other versions of the BCP.
The current Book of Common Prayer is not copyrighted material. The purpose for leaving the BCP out of copyright is to permit free and easy duplication and incorporation into worship materials; however, it also serves the purpose (deliberately intended) of permitting people, Anglicans or not, to use portions of the BCP as inspiration and material for their own worship. The Book of Common Prayer is an Anglican gift to the world.