350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

In 1660 the monarchy was restored in England, ending the decade or so rule under Cromwell’s ‘commonwealth’.  That decade witnessed the rise of Puritan and Presbyterian influence.   But in 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed and accompanied by the Book of Common Prayer in that year.

This meant a reintroduction of the uniform use in churches of services that originated with Archbishop Cranmer’s 1552 services.  The 1662 services made only slight changes to the century old 1552 Prayer Book.

However, many ‘non-conforming’ clergy were not conscientiously able to fall in with the Book of Common Prayer and about a thousand were forced out of the Church of England.

Thus 1662 was a momentous year in Christian England.  It represented the beginning of the subsequent division between the Church of England and other churches.

The three-legged Stool

1662 gave us a three-legged stool – the BCP, the Ordinal and the 39 articles of Religion.

The BCP was the public face of Christianity with liturgies for Sunday and liturgies for the ‘occasions’ of life – birth, marriage, death.

The Ordinal set out the beliefs and practices to be followed by Bishops, priests and Deacons.

The 39 Articles of Religion specified the doctrines of the church.

Three Realities

First:            The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘catholic’.

This word means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’.  A complete account of Christian truth, based on the canonical scriptures.

In the early centuries ‘catholic’ defined those committed to the great creeds: - belief about the incarnation of the Son of God, his bodily resurrection and his revelation of the divine trinity.

In contrast to the ‘catholic’ were those who were deemed ‘heretic’ or schismatic’.

The BCP expresses ‘catholic’ Christianity as defined in the early centuries.

Second: The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘reformed’.

The medieval church had become corrupt in theology and practice.

Jesus commanded 2 sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – the Roman church introduced 5 others.

The gospel teaches that sinners are saved by grace; the medieval church taught that sinners were saved by works.

Jesus taught that divine authority is found in the Bible; the medieval church taught that authority was located in the Pope.

Cranmer provided for extensive church reading of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Psalms.

Reading of the Bible is the central part of the services of the BCP.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed.

We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I believe…’ That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’.

Cranmer made the Bible central in BCP services.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed. We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I (or we) believe…’

That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’. We believe based on what the Bible teaches.

Cranmer was influenced by the teaching of the Apostle Paul in chapter 14 of First Corinthians.

The written word is authoritative over what others speak (v.37).

Church services must be intelligible to the mind.

Church services need to be orderly for the sake of edification.

Third:            The BCP expresses a faith that is defended liturgically

Liturgy is not for aesthetics but employed to defend truth.

•By regular confession of sins expressing the need for forgiveness.

•By sustained reading of the Bible followed by the Creeds.

•By a church calendar for the great festivals and their doctrines:

-Incarnation at Christmas and the atonement and hope at Easter.

-The call to repentance in Lent.

-The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

-The Ascension of the Lord on ascension day

-The Second Coming at Advent.

Each needs to be emphasized throughout the year. But the Calendar gives opportunity to highlight these.

The calendar provides ministers opportunity to preach doctrinally.

The ‘collects’ are prayers that ‘collect’ doctrines.

The Future of the BCP?

 The BCP has survived non-conformist splits.

The BCP has nurtured leaders like C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott.

The BCP has struggled in the past century or so.

The Oxford Movement of the 1800s moved Church of England in a Roman Catholic direction.  It was Catholicism minus the Pope.

The first Anglo-Catholics were theologically conservative and creedal. Today  many Anglo-Catholics are theologically liberal. For them church is about aesthetics, a mystical experience. The items in the creeds are metaphors.


Another more recent struggle is: evangelical individualism. Post-modernism puts emphasis on the individual and evangelicals tend to be robust individuals. Many depart from the principle of commonality and uniformity and design their own services away from BCP.  There is one Bible reading (or even none); there is no creed (or just occasionally); there is no calendar and no collects.

For them preaching the preacher is the all-important thing.  The loss of liturgy means that the voice of the congregation is substantially silenced. Leaving only a single voice of the leader or preacher.

The preacher has replaced the liturgy as the defender of true doctrine.


Personal Opinion

I am committed to the centrality of teaching the Word of God.  This is the God-ordained way for us to come faith and grow. But the BCP – in modern language – is a great context to do that.

The preaching occurs in a great context of


-hearing God’s word

-saying, ‘I believe…’

-being focused on specific doctrines in the calendar and collects

-sharing in prayer for external – and not merely parochial – matters

Liturgy is also very efficient.

In my experience in other churches there is much trivia and no Bible reading and no Creed and somehow it all takes a long time.  I have often not been able to mount the pulpit under an hour of lightweight stuff.

In a well run BCP service we can confess or sins and be absolved, have two Bible readings and a Psalm, the Creed, expansive prayers, four hymns, a twenty minute sermon and be finished in an hour.

J.I. Packer said this: ‘Anglicanism embodies the richest, truest, wisest heritage in Christendom’.  Of course, Packer is not saying it is the only basis for church life, as vibrant non-anglican biblical based churches testify.

In 2000 years this is the best that Christians have come up with.  We anglicans would be wise to stick with it.

Even the best liturgy, however, is not infallible.  It is only useful to churches when it conforms to the authority of the Bible.   That, indeed, is the true anglican position as stated in article 6 of the 39 articles.  Unbiblical liturgy is clearly dangerous.