Review — How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer

A Guide To The Anglican Liturgy

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Overview

Synopsis Professors Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane explain how to use one of the most popular religious texts in the world.

Author Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane
Publisher InterVarsity Press
Genre Theology

Length 192 Pages

Release Date February 27, 2024

When I joined the Anglican tradition, it was the culmination of a years-long religious journey, wherein I was grappling with years of quiet dissatisfaction with my evangelical upbringing. I felt out of touch with my family’s megachurch roots and wanted a traditional church with hymnbooks and more comprehensive theology. After years of visiting churches, I found what I was looking for in the Anglican and Episcopal church. What most drew me most into those traditions was the Book of Common Prayer.

Originally published in 1549 by the Church of England, the Prayer Book marked the beginning of a rich prayer tradition of English spirituality that has continued to the modern day. The book condensed dozens of complex Roman Catholic missals and breviaries into a single simplified comprehensive text that was to be used both by the clergy and laity. Following a century of political conflict between Catholics and Calvinists, succession crises, executions, and civil wars, England would repeatedly amend the book and eventually adopt a new 1662 edition as the official text of the church.

The Book of Common Prayer (later referred to as BCP) is, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, “the masterpiece of Protestantism.” Its beautiful prose and disciplined approach to daily prayer make it highly appealing to Protestants who seek structure and beauty in their daily lives. That said, it is also an unwieldy and controversial text. Updated localized versions in 1979 and 2019 have created movements within the church to revert to prior editions. Additionally, it is a difficult text to approach for a novice, which often requires handholding and close attention to detail to accurately use.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: The book teaches how to use Anglican prayer books and the religious significance behind the various prayers and movements
Violence: None
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Effective and helpful explanations of the historical and symbolic background of the BCP

Review

In light of the growing demand for liturgical texts and the need for more catechizing resources for Anglicans, How To Use The Book of Common Prayer: A Guide To The Anglican Liturgy has thus emerged as a salve to the skill-curve issue that the prayer book tradition creates. What might have previously required sitting down with a priest for lessons on how to use the book is now ideally available in a short user’s guide.

The book comes from Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane, professors from Notre Dame and Georgia Southern University respectively, who previously collaborated on IVP’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition. With the recent surge in interest for liturgical texts, Bray and Keane have not only endeavored to rerelease one of Anglicanism’s most beloved texts but now have cornered the market by providing an accessible guide for its use.

a lineup of red books on a shelf
Previous editions of the BCP have made the Anglican tradition appealing.
Praying The Prayer Book

The appeal of liturgy, to those walking the “Canterbury Trail,” is its well-trodden wisdom. Its prayers are not “vain repetitions,” but are proven effective by repeated use. As the authors write, the language of the BCP “is meant to be thickened language, with more body and depth than everyday language.” There is nothing innately superior about the BCP, but its reverent approach to language makes it purposely different in our daily lives. It is further aided that roughly 80% of the core text is drawn directly from the Bible, giving it the coarseness and depths of the Scriptures.

“There is something paradoxical about this language. It is plain, not ornate. Yet it is also beautiful. It is emotionally restrained, yet deeply moving. It conveys intimacy as well as grandeur, human warmth, but also a note of reverence and awe, of transcendence.”

After introducing readers to a brief history of the prayer book and its appeal, the authors dig into the core text. They explain the movements and symbolism of Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Baptism/Confirmation liturgy, the Communion liturgy, the liturgical calendar, and how to use the lectionary, which appoints four Bible readings and multiple Psalms to be read each day. Depending on which edition of the BCP is used, the reader may read through the entire Bible in one to three years using the lectionary.

The casual reader will gain the most from the chapter on Morning and Evening Prayer, as these are the prayers most suited to individual use. Much of it is rather technical, explaining the structure of the liturgy while offering explanations for some of the archaic language of the prayer book to help readers meditate on their meaning.

Bray and Keane do some of their best work in this section, alongside the lectionary section, in providing context for each movement of the prayers, showing how each poem flows in sequence, and explaining why each movement is necessary in the daily life of the prayer book user that draws them deeper into communion with God.

Blue Book of Common Prayer on top of an open book
The recent 1662IV edition of the BCP is popular.
The Prayer Book Problem

At this point, it is worth digressing further into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition. The 1662IV has proven to be a runaway success, being one of the most popular devotional texts on Amazon. It is worth noting, though, that How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer is explicitly written to be paired with the 1662IV, which does open up the book to potential criticism. The Episcopal Church officially uses its 1979 Edition and the Anglican Church in North America uses its 2019 edition. Thus. there are no Anglican bishops, to my knowledge, that officially sanction the use of the 1662IV as anything more than a personal devotional text. As some of my liturgist colleagues have pointed out, it’s an edition of the Prayer Book that has not been officially created or supervised by any Anglican church, which cuts against the “Common Prayer” aspect of the prayer book as a form of shared, unified, and authorized corporate prayer.

There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but it is worth noting that the 1662 BCP (and older editions in general) is often something of a rhetorical fire-starter in Anglican circles, preferred by some traditionalists who view 20th-century innovations and alterations of the prayer book as too modernized or theologically questionable. Given that How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer was simultaneously released with IVP’s new Pew Editions of the 1662IV, one could certainly view the book as being mildly disruptive, as there are sporadic stories of the 1662IV being used by Anglican and Ordinariate (Roman Catholic) parishioners as a means of quiet protest over dissatisfaction with their available prayer books.

The interests of the 1662IV and How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer are thus somewhat conjoined. Bray and Keane even use their limited space in their new book to argue why the 1662IV is preferable, repeatedly noting its relative simplicity and applicability compared to later editions.

“For each canticle, you have two choices. Having choices is actually rare in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, later prayer books have a huge number of choices, making them more complicated to use. It’s easier to learn the 1662 version of Morning and Evening Prayer because pretty much the only choices you make are about the sentences and the canticles.”

In Praise of Bray and Keane

However, considering that the 1662 prayer book remains a valuable historical text for the tradition and the official prayer book of the Church of England, their decision to focus on it is certainly defensible. Most of How To Use the Book of Common Prayer is still broadly applicable to later editions.

Regardless of the stated concerns above, the Anglican world has generally embraced Bray and Keane’s work joyfully. Early testimonies suggest it’s already being widely embraced, with churches buying bulk orders of the book for their catechism classes. Their Twitter timeline is filled with people praising the book and proclaiming how helpful it has been.

Twitter user Richard Tarsitano writes “We just began handing this great book out to our guests on Sunday, along with a 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition and a guest read it on Monday and decided to join the church on Tuesday!” Similarly, Fr. Chris Findley of St. Patrick’s Anglican Church in Tennessee writes that the publishing of this highly anticipated book represents “one of the most important and exciting publications for Anglicans in years,” and serves as one of the most valuable liturgical resources currently available.

I agree, both the 1662IV and How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer are excellent works. The revised prayer book is a lovely and convenient devotional text, and one of the best ones currently available on the market. It is more simply laid out than some later editions. A user guide for how to use that book is, in itself, quite a useful resource. Bray and Keane have certainly rightly spotted a chasm in modern liturgical education, and they’ve filled it spectacularly with these two books.

Positives

+ Excellent Historical and Theological Background
+ Brisk Length and Easy to Understand
+ Solid Introduction to Challenging Theological Material

Negatives

- Authors Dedicate Time To Pushing their own Prayer Book Edition

The Bottom Line

How To Use The Book Of Common Prayer is a useful and simple guide to a challenging theological text that can help a reader gain a better grasp on Anglican liturgy.

 

Story/Plot 8

Writing 9

Editing 8

8.3

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comments

  1. Justin Snavely on April 19, 2024 at 3:34 pm

    Very interested in this book. As another former evangelical that’s now an Episcopalian, it’s nice to see liturgy and the BCP de-mystified for people. It really is for everyone and there is so much depth and beauty to be found within it.

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