The Book of Common Prayer , in subservience to the authority of Holy Scripture, provides teaching and services for the whole of the Church Year and for the major moments and aspects of our lives as pilgrims and sojourners on earth. So it is not surprising that it has services for the visitation of the sick and dying, for giving Communion to the sick and dying, and for Christian Burial.
The Book of Common Prayer (1662)
The most widely used edition of the Prayer Book is the English edition of 1662. This was used in America until the 1780s and it has been translated into over 150 languages.
Within the rubrics [= directions to the Minister] of its service entitled, "The Order for the Visitation of the Sick," we find this paragraph, immediately following the Exhortation and the Creed:
"Then shall the Minister examine whether he [the sick person] repent him truly of his sins, and be in charity with all the world; exhorting him to forgive, from the bottom of his heart, all persons that have offended him; and if he hath offended any other, to ask them forgiveness; and where he hath done injury or wrong to any man, that he make amends to the uttermost of his power. And if he hath not before disposed of his goods, let him then be admonished to make his Will, and to declare his Debts, what he oweth, and what is owing to him; for the better charging of his conscience and the quietness of his Executors."
And then there are added these two sentences:
"But men should often be put in remembrance to take order for the settling of their temporal estates, whilst they are in health." "The Minister should not omit earnestly to move such sick persons as are of ability to be liberal to the poor."
Here the Minister (Rector, Vicar, Curate) is not being asked to become the lawyer to draw up a will. What he is being asked to do is to make sure that right up to the end of his mortal life, the baptized believer fulfils his duty to love God and his neighbour and to provide for his family and for the needy.
Surely this word is as much required today in Christian congregations and in the visitation of the sick and dying as it was in the seventeenth century.
When someone dies without preparing to meet the Lord, then they die foolishly for their eternal salvation is in the balance. And when someone dies without making a will, they die selfishly, leaving burdens for others to carry and problems for others to solve.
It is of course the reality that many organizations, societies, schools, hospitals, churches and libraries would not exist, or would exist only minimally, without the provision of help through the disbursements of the last wills and testaments of well disposed people. The work of the kingdom in the providence of God is partly dependent upon the provisions of the last wills and testaments of the baptized.
The Book of Common Prayer (PECUSA, 1928)
For the last American edition of the BCP the Office of "The Order for the Visitation of the Sick" was extensively revised and this is rather different to the service in the BCP of 1662.
The rubrics read as follows:
"As occasion demands, the Minister shall address the sick person on the meaning and use of the time of sickness, and the opportunity it affords for spiritual profit. Here may the Minister enquire of the sick person as to his acceptance of the Christian Faith, and as to whether he repent him truly of his sins, and be in charity with all the world; exhorting him to forgive, from the bottom of his heart, all persons that have offended him; and if he hath offended any other, to ask them forgiveness; and where he had done injury or wrong to any man, that he make amends to the uttermost of his power."
There is no specific reference to the making of a will; but, the first rubric gives plenty of scope for the Minister to speak to the sick person on this important matter.
In the latest Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, USA, that of 1979 (which is erroneously called "The Book of Common Prayer" when it is a Book of Varied Services), there is no rubrical provision concerning repentance or making a will. The Minister is not given any advice or guidance at all, except in terms of the performance of the service.
The rubrics of the BCP of 1662 merit our consideration and, applied within the very different pastoral situation of how and where people die today, they will bring true increase in the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, Saviour of the world.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America