A Reflection from the President of the Prayer Book Society of the USA
Many Anglicans believe that The Book of Common Prayer was first published in 1549, reissued in 1552, and then, in succeeding editions (as authorized by English monarchs beginning with the reign of Elizabeth I) has been used continually in English churches. Regrettably this belief is not wholly accurate even though it is substantially true,
From 1559 through to 1645, in the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I, The Book of Common Prayer was used weekly, often daily, in the cathedrals, churches and chapels of England and Wales. Then from 1645 to 1660 under the Long Parliament and then of the Protectorate (Oliver Cromwell and his son) The Book of Common Prayer was a forbidden Liturgy. With the restoration of Charles II as King in 1660, The Book of Common Prayer was restored and thus the edition of the Prayer Book of 1662 became the standard edition that went all over the world with the British Empire and with those sent as missionaries by the various missionary societies of the Church.
Not all the clergy of the Church of England in place in 1660 were prepared to accept the use of the Prayer Book. Thus from 1660 to 1662 there was an exodus of nearly 2000 clergy, who, together with the laity who followed them and maintained them, formed what has been called Protestant Nonconformity and Dissent – Congregationalists, Baptists, and Presbyterians.
The point I am making here is that England in the middelof the seventeenth century provides an example of a Church that (a) rejects the classic Book of Common Prayer; for fifteen or so years, and (b) experiments with various kinds of Puritan forms of services, where there was little if any formal liturgy; and then (a) restores the very Book (in a slightly edited form) that it had used from 1559 to 1645.
And now I ask my reader to recall that from the seventeenth century through to the 1970s, the Anglican or Episcopal parishes of the USA used The Book of Common Prayer – first in the 1662 edition and then, after Independence, in the American revisions of 1789, 1892 and 1928 (while over the border at the north the Canadians also used the same 1662 BCP, as also did the West Indians south of Florida.)
Secondly, I ask my reader to recall that from from 1979 the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA, by the decision of its General Convention, ceased officially to use The Book of Common Prayer, as received in this Church and the Anglican Way. This Church replaced it with a book of the same name but of a very different content, structure and doctrine. The classic Book of Common Prayer (1662, 1789, 1892 & 1928 editions) was placed in the archives and a “Book of Varied Services” with varied doctrines was made the Prayer Book and Formulary of the Church. Interestingly, Books similar to the American Book were called “Alternative Service Book” and “Book of Alternative Services” in England and Canada, and in both places the classic Prayer Book was retained with its historic title.
This official absence of The Book of Common Prayer in The Episcopal Church has now lasted for nearly thirty years, nearly twice as long as the period it was absent from the Church of England. This is an immense tragedy for the Church and the nation. Happily it has been kept in continual use by a small number of churches both inside and outside The Episcopal Church, and Oxford University Press has kept it in print, while the Prayer Book Society of the USA has reprinted The Altar Edition, first issued by Oxford University Press.
It is true, I think, to claim that the majority in England in 1660-1662 wanted to see the recovery of the use of the classic Prayer Book in their parishes and cathedrals. Regrettably, and in contrast, only a minority in The Episcopal Church desire to see a recovery of the classic Prayer Book, even if only as a doctrinal Formulary which need not be used. The truth of the matter is that the majority of Episcopalians wish to keep the historic Prayer Book in the archives securely locked up because they have rejected the form of Christian Faith, Morality and Order that it represents.
However, that minority within the Episcopal Church represented by The Anglican Communion Network and related groups (e.g. The American Anglican Council) is showing signs (as part of its desire to be accepted by and acceptable to the majority of the member churches of the Anglican Communion) of a desire and readiness to recover the historic Formularies as its secondary standards of Faith, with Holy Scripture as the chief foundation. There is slow but increasing recognition that The Episcopal Church made a major mistake when it called its “Book of varied Services” by the title of “The Book of Common Prayer”, as if it were another edition of the one, classic Prayer Book of the Anglican Way.
The recovery of the classic Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal and the Articles of Religion (all found in the latest American edition of the real Prayer Book, 1928, as in all previous editions). together with a carefully prepared contemporary language version of them (maintaining the same structure, content and doctrine) are gradually being seen as what is needed to be both a sign of commitment to the true Anglican/Episcopal Way and of desire for internal unity in Rite and Doctrine. Such a standard of worship and doctrine and ministry would suffice for both traditionalists and modern evangelical and charismatic types, for it would be available in two forms (traditional and contemporary) but have one basic content and doctrine. The Anglican Mission in America, with the Prayer Book Society, are pioneering in this task of making available the historic Prayer Book in its classic form and also in a contemporary language form which preserves the doctrine and structure.
Let us be honest. The Anglican Way without its Formularies is not the Anglican Way but some other way!
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)