Is "The Book of Common Prayer"(1662) out of date and unsuitable for use in
public worship in the new millennium?
In a variety of ways it appears to be out of date. Here are some examples:
It reflects social conditions of the 16th & 17th centuries.
It reflects political conditions of the 16th & 17th centuries.
It reflects religious ideas of the 16th & 17th centuries.
It reflects biblical exegesis and interpretation of the16th & 17th centuries.
It has an English idiom, grammar and syntax created in the sixteenth century.
It is not influenced by the great modernising power of the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
It does not contain any signs of the doctrine of rights that are central to modern life - natural rights, human rights, civil rights and so on.
It has no conception of modern democracy and of multi-culturalism and the like.
Thus in the Prayers for the monarch & parliament, in the delineation of human duties and responsibilities in society as a Christian, in the evaluation of Jewish and Muslim religion, in terms of marriage and family relations and in other areas, it is as if there had been no reforms in British society since the reign of the Charles II.
Certainly, editions of The Book of Common Prayer since 1662 in places like the USA and Canada do contain some acknowledgement of changing times and conditions but only minimally.
So the question remains: In a modern society, be it in Canada, the USA or Great Britain, how can a congregation, which is seeking to serve God in the modern [or post-modern] world, use a form of worship and prayer that is so obviously from a different social, political and economic context and truly in so doing be engaged in genuine worship?
Before we begin to answer this question, it may be helpful to note that even when the Bible is translated into the most contemporary forms of English it still is a Book whose contents were written millennia ago and thus reflect vastly different social, political and economic situations than we know today in the West. Yet the Church finds the Word of God in and through the Bible despite the ancient cultural context from which it comes.
So a congregation in using the public liturgies - Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany & the Order for Holy Communion - can find in these texts/rites an appropriate, even an excellent, form of words and arrangement of biblically-based themes which have the effect of making worship of Almighty God spiritually and moral meaningful. This happens when there is a disposition and readiness to try out these services in sincerity and when the meaning of the text through familiarity with it rings true in the experience of those so doing. Thus worship in spirit and in truth is possible and is found to be more efficiently attained than with services which reflect their 20th or 21st century origins. (It is after all more appropriate to approach God as a humbled sinner seeking pardon than as a free person insisting on his rights before man and God!)
In this situation, the older idiom of English and the clarity of the presentation of the character of God, the identity and saving work of the Lord Jesus, human sin and redemption all contribute to the sense of awe and reverence before God as well as of spiritual reality and true doctrine. And where occasionally the received form of words reflects a political and social order that no longer exists (e.g., in references to the monarch and the high court of parliament), the congregation simply imagines that which has succeeded to it and prays accordingly.
In fact, through constant use of these familiar texts/rites, the congregation is able to approach God freed from the pressing culture of modernity and post-modernity and finds that texts wherein there is no doctrine of human rights makes one more aware of human responsibility and gratitude before God for his mercies. This reflects a state of being in the world but not of the world; a state of seeking to be holy as God is holy.
And it should be added that fine music from organ and choir and sound, clear speaking by the Ministers can add a dimension of credibility to the liturgical experience so that it is as if one is in another world for the duration of the service!
For most people, the acceptance that an older liturgy has the power to lead them to the Holy Trinity in faith, hope and love can only be achieved through tasting and seeing and experiencing. Merely reading the text is not usually sufficient, but listening to a CD can usually help.
In contrast to public liturgies, the use of occasional liturgies and services - e.g., Matrimony - even with fine music do raise particular problems in terms of their immediately applicability to modern conditions. Parts of the marriage service obviously reflect marriage law and customs of the 17th century and earlier, and need to be explained to most people in order to make full sense. Yet it is possible for people to say to
themselves: "if this is what it meant then in those conditions, I can see what it means now in different conditions" and it can serve as a worthy and memorable means for those who wish to have a truly Christian marriage to begin in the right way.
Of course, liturgies in contemporary forms of English and containing sound doctrine are also means used by God to edify us and glorify his own Name. This is what those whose primary liturgies are in Latin and Greek seek to provide via their translations. Here the problem faced by modern liturgists is that in the putting of this traditional exercise of worship into a modern idiom (where the tradition has been a classical language or older English) there is a great temptation to include within the rendering also some of the ethos of modern self-centered human experience. But that is another story..
June 12, 2002
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