The first time I bought a copy for myself, I tucked it away at once, as if it were illegal, or a bit naughty. It didn’t look like much on the outside—a black cover, with a simple gold cross embossed on the front. I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to do with it, but just holding it made my heart race and my palms sweat. I headed home from the bookstore, queasy with the knowledge that a line had been crossed.
I was a Roman Catholic lay person, and I had just purchased my first Book of Common Prayer.
Little did I know how much my personal journey mirrored the trajectory of the English Reformation. The publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 was arguably of more significance for the English church than even the translation of the Bible into the vernacular. In those first decades of tumultuous change after the initial break with Rome, the content of the Prayer Book was a matter of the utmost import for the nation; it contained the only authorized forms of worship, so to deviate from its dictates was to rebel against both church and state.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Book of Common Prayer in the history of Christianity in England. Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, who was the primary author and editor of the book and its greatest champion, literally gave his life to the cause. In 1556 he was pulled from the pulpit and burned at the stake because he refused to return to the Catholicism required of him by Queen Mary, which would have meant rejecting the doctrinal changes embodied in the Prayer Book.
Episcopalians in the United States use a Book of Common Prayer that has its own history and yet retains much of the content and structure of Cranmer’s masterpiece. We still call the 1549 book “the first Prayer Book,” which might explain why we can keep a straight face while calling our current BCP “new”—it was adopted officially in 1979! Episcopal priests can face disciplinary action for violating Prayer Book rubrics. Touchingly, every Sunday Eucharist includes the Collect for Purity, modernized only slightly from Cranmer’s own words. Most Episcopalians can rattle it off by heart: “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid…”
Many Episcopal churches today use service bulletins that replicate the words of the liturgy in a handy, compact, easy-to-follow format. It is supposed to be friendly to newcomers, and I suppose it is. But those books lingering in the pew racks contain so much more than just an order of worship to be followed on any given Sunday. There are daily offices that can be led by laity or even said at home, services from baptism to burial (including a truly beautiful litany to be prayed at the time of death), and even a rite of reconciliation. There are prayers for all occasions and a calendar of saints, not to mention the entire Psalter.
That first day with my own first Prayer Book, I took it home to my bedroom and opened it in solitude. Rummaging hungrily through its contents, I found a line that has stayed with me. It referred to the Catechism—perhaps the most underutilized section of the BCP—as a “brief summary of the Church’s teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book.”
It felt like someone from ages past was reaching out to me, a frustrated, struggling, church-hurt woman looking for a place to call home. I was that inquiring stranger. Reading through the Book of Common Prayer was a like a self-guided tutorial in understanding Episcopal theology. I could read all four Eucharistic Prayers to learn what they believed about that sacrament. I could infer a great deal about the hierarchical structure of the church and the limits of clerical authority. It wasn’t a substitute for attending an Episcopal church, but it made the transition from one tradition to the other that much less daunting.
Since that day, my life has changed immeasurably; I became an Episcopalian, and then went through the discernment process and ultimately was ordained to the priesthood. I have held in my hands more copies of the BCP than I can count. The one I use every Sunday as I celebrate the Eucharist is slowly losing its luster; the edges of the leather cover are wearing smooth and the gold letters that spell out my name are beginning to fade. Inside, there is a smudge of wax from a recent Easter Vigil. The pages that contain the service of Holy Baptism are water-stained and puckered, marked as my own forever.
Today I cherish the Book of Common Prayer less for what I can learn from it privately and more for what it accomplishes corporately—it is a book of common prayer, after all. In large part its purpose is to shape a people, not just to form individuals. It amuses my children that I always include it when we play the “what five things would you want with you on a desert island” game. But it’s true. It has become as much a part of me as any book ever has, and now when I do read or pray from it alone, I feel that I am part of something larger, a great cloud of witnesses perhaps, stretching back to Cranmer himself (with whom I happen to share a birthday).