Thinking of Prayer Books and Liturgies and the Spiritual Life

Thinking of Prayer Books and Liturgies and the Spiritual Life August 24, 2023

1662 Book of Common Prayer

As it happens, today, the 24th of August, back in 1662, the English Parliament enacted an Act of Uniformity, enshrining the then current edition of the Book of Common Prayer as the only appropriate prayer manual within the churches of the kingdom.

As a practical consequence the church became a bit less comprehensive than it had been, with an ejection of those clerics who refused to conform. But it also established what happened to be one of the true masterworks of the English language. After the King James Bible, and I would say ahead of the writings of Shakespeare, it is central to the tropes and images of what we call English.

For instance some of the more obvious examples that I found listed in the Wikipedia article on the BCP:

“Speak now or forever hold your peace” from the marriage liturgy.
“Till death us do part”, from the marriage liturgy.[e]
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service.
“From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil” from the litany.
“Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” from the collect for the second Sunday of Advent.
“Evil liver” from the rubrics for Holy Communion.
“All sorts and conditions of men” from the Order for Morning Prayer.
“Peace in our time” from Morning Prayer, Versicles.

It has had an incalculable influence on the rites of English language religion. We find its influence not only within Anglicanism, but extending to the Methodist churches and their descendants, Western Rite Orthodoxy, and even the odd strand of Unitarianism.

Speaking of Unitarianism and the Book of Common Prayer, I’ve only been to King’s Chapel in Boston twice.

They are a delightful anachronism. Arguably the oldest Episcopal church in the United States, King’s Chapel became Unitarian in the years following the Revolution. They’ve kept a version of the Book of Common Prayer which is the basis of their corporate and individual worship.

The Reverend Carl Scovel, once minister of the church writes “King’s Chapel is an active institutional member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, but remains a church defined not by its polity, theology, or denominational affiliation, but by its liturgy. The preface to the 1986 revision states this clearly: ‘In an age of liturgical change and experiment, we at King’s Chapel are sometimes asked why we keep the Prayer Book. In fact, it is the Prayer Book that has kept us.'”

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about that line, how the Prayer Book has kept us.

And with that I consider how ceremonial life, liturgy, are really important things.

In this time where everything is falling apart and as the poet reminds us it is hard to see the center holding, I find I turn to the mysteries of human imagination and the rites of our tribes.

I suspect within that Prayer Book or one of its descendants there may be hints of what might guide us through the dark night.

A mind bubble on a Thursday morning…

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