“Furthermore, by this order the curates shall need none other books for their public service, but this book and the Bible…”
From the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549)
It was my privilege and delight last fall to teach an adult Sunday School class called “The Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.” The syllabus for the course was nothing more than the Table of Contents found in the BCP, and the stated goal was to explore the ways in which the Prayer Book puts the words of Scripture on our lips, plants the teachings of Scripture deep in our hearts, and conforms the rhythms of our lives to Scripture’s great story.
In sixteen weeks of forty-five minute sessions, we covered a rough history of both the Bible and the Prayer Book, traced the arc of the Calendar of the Church Year, reflected on the roots and resources of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, processed through the Great Litany, and prayerfully analyzed some of the Collects. We walked with Christ in Holy Week through the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and we considered the two dominical sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. We confessed with the penitent, prayed with the sick, rejoiced in marriage, and mourned at burials. We even took time to look at the ordination rites and pondered the promises made by bishops, priests, and deacons.
All of these treasures, from the rare and wondrous to the regular and rote, at our fingertips! And all of them, from the simplest said Morning Prayer to the grandest celebration of the Easter Vigil, positively overflowing with Scripture. As my Baptist father always notices whenever he attends an Episcopalian liturgy, the Prayer Book is suffused with Biblical language and ideas.
Looking over the daily, weekly, and yearly rhythms and considering the ways our services include and quote the Bible reminded me again and again of the original intentions of Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformers in developing the BCP in the first place. As the Preface to the first Prayer Book (quoted above, and found on page 866 of the 1979 American BCP) lays it out, the animating principles behind our Anglican liturgical tradition are a wonderful mixture of hopeful idealism and clear-eyed practicality, all focused on regular engagement with Scripture.
Cranmer envisioned a whole nation sanctified by daily encounter with God’s Word. He found inspiration in the traditions of the ancient fathers, who sought that “the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”
But Cranmer pursued this high-minded goal with a by means of a rigorous example of early modern reason and organization: “And for a readiness in this matter, here is drawn out a Kalendar for that purpose, which is plain and easy to be understood, wherein (so much as may be) the reading of holy Scripture is so set forth, that all things shall be done in order, without breaking one piece thereof from another.”
Intimacy with God’s written Word achieved through a sensible, achievable, liturgical pattern that is consistent with the most ancient traditions of the Church—what a marvelous expression of the reformed catholic ideal!
Subsequent editions of the BCP have modified and edited Cranmer’s original lectionary, of course. Many would argue (some quite convincingly) that those edits have not all been for the better. But the fact is that Anglican worship remains a dialogue between two books: the Bible which speaks in and through the services, and the Book of Common Prayer which organizes the reading of Scripture, quotes Scripture back to itself, and submerges worshipers in Scripture’s depths.
Reflecting on this great gift and heritage, I keep returning to a metaphor I used in the very first session of the Prayer Book class last fall: The Bible is a grocery bag, and the Book of Common Prayer is a cookbook.
The Bible is a big bag full of groceries. It has everything we need to be nourished spiritually. It includes lots of things that can be taken out and eaten raw–things that can feed us with little or no preparation. (In the first session of our class, I noted that the Psalms are like carrots. They’re essential as an ingredient chopped up and worked into recipes, but they’re also a great snack on their own.)
But the Bible also includes things that need some careful preparation before they’ll feed us. Some of the passages are like raw chicken: potentially the center of a delicious, healthful meal, but actually quite dangerous if not handled properly. At the end of the liturgical year and into the season of Advent, the Daily Office Lectionary took us through some of the great passages of Revelation. Much of that powerful book might fall into the raw chicken category. Certainly some of the Old Testament legal and prophetic texts fall into that category. There’s nourishment to be had in all of those things. But there’s also a great risk of spiritual sickness and profoundly unpleasant flavors if they’re not carefully prepared.
And that’s where the Book of Common Prayer comes in. The Prayer Book is our cookbook, taking from Scripture’s grocery bag both the good, simple things we always need (the Psalter, our salad course), and helping us to cook up healthy meals out of ingredients that would be dangerous out of the context of a well-made dish (i.e. the boneless, skinless chicken breast of Revelation, or the pork chop of Leviticus…ok, the metaphor may be breaking down here).
In the daily, weekly, seasonal, and yearly selection and combination of passages, the Prayer Book nourishes us out of Scripture’s abundance. By balancing the steady diet of daily reading with a seasonal return to the “big stories,” the Prayer Book shapes and forms our hearts and imaginations around Scripture’s rich feast. By seasoning even the most challenging passages with the sanctifying salt of the Psalms and the great Canticles, the Prayer Book protects us from interpreting any part of Scripture in a way contrary to God’s purpose and plan.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray each time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Thank God for Scripture’s bounty, a feast that leads us to hunger for and be filled with Jesus, the Bread of Life.
They say “you are what you eat”. So take out your Prayer Book, open your Bible, and get cooking!