The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Using the Book of Common Prayer

1549 BCP page

A page from the first Book of Common Prayer
Prayer for ‘the whole state of Christ’s church and the world’

Historically, Anglican tradition has affirmed that the Book of Common Prayer is not for use just on Sunday but daily in the lives of the people of God. The 1979 revision of the prayer book makes this point clearly by providing short forms for daily prayer for individuals and families. (BCP, p. 136-140) These offices are flexible routines that encourage innovation and growth, a kind of starting point for deeper awareness over time of the practices of daily prayer in the Anglican tradition. Each office begins with a psalm of praise and continues with a reading from scripture, intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer and a concluding collect. There are four offices – morning, noon, evening and bedtime – each of them an opportunity for private prayer or worship with others. The practice of the hours of daily prayer is a means by which we make the time of our lives sacred in an outward and visible way signifying our inward, spiritual disposition to be in conscious relationship with God day in and day out, not just on Sunday. There are many way ways to do this; the Daily Office is but one way – and a good one.

The longer forms of the Daily Office require more time but are of enormous benefit. They may be said privately or in small groups, even large groups. Like the short offices, these services are flexible and may play host to a variety of practices for which the Daily Office provides a context – meditation, contemplative practice, lectio divina. They may be chanted, said aloud or prayed silently. It’s a matter of liturgical taste, but there’s nothing to keep Daily Office practitioners from using candles, bells, incense, prayer shawls, rosaries or any other prayer aid. The prayer book provides a detailed outline for the Daily Office, but it’s a service made for innovation and personal taste, especially as a springboard for personal prayer.

Regular use of the Daily Office may bring with it the Daily Office Lectionary, which even by itself is an excellent means by which to read through the entire content of scripture in bite-size pieces over a two-year period. The collects of the church year also may become part of regular personal use of the Daily Office, as well as the “Prayers and Thanksgivings” section of the prayer book. (BCP, p. 810-841) (Note about “reading prayers out of a book”: It makes just as much sense to read prayers out of a book as it does to read scripture for one’s self. The symbols on the page don’t make prayer said in this way meaningless; moreover, there is nothing in Anglican tradition that forbids our praying extemporaneously. The problem often raised against “reading prayers out of a book” is that it may lead to insincerity. Well, of course that’s true, but it’s just as possible to pray insincerely extemporaneously. The prayer texts of The Book of Common Prayer are sincere, traditional and often beautiful expressions of Christian faith. By using these prayer texts, we choose to make these prayers our own and, over time, they become part of our vocabulary for expressing our faith just as scripture does.)

The Book of Common Prayer is a means of spiritual formation, not just the book in the pew we use for Sunday worship. It is an expression of Christian faith and Anglican identity that comprehends the broad sweep of Christian tradition from the beginning as it encourages us to engage the contemporary world. It isn’t perfect, and because life doesn’t stand still, we Episcopalians revise ours about every 50 years. This seldom pleases everyone – some say revision goes too far; others, not far enough. (Sound familiar?) Somewhere, though, in the “middle way” of Anglican tradition there is a broad place for all of us to stand as we “agree to disagree” and then get on with the work of the church in worship, prayer and service to the world.

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