Common Prayer: An Interview

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition. Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, eds.,
(Westmont, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2021), 832 pages, $28.00 (Hardcover).

NOTE: this piece was first published in the Winter 2020 print edition of Ad Fontes

Ad Fontes is pleased to publish this interview with Samuel L. Bray and Drew N. Keane, conducted by editor-in-chief Onsi A. Kamel. Bray and Keane are the editors of a new edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer forthcoming from Intervarsity Press. The interview has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

  • First, let me just say that it’s a pleasure to be able to do this interview with you. I’d like to start by asking about your goals in this project. You’ve written at length about the problem of fragmentation in Anglican liturgical practice. How many USA Anglican congregations are now using a version of the 1662 BCP, and do you hope this Book of Common Prayer will help retrieve truly common prayer?

DNK: Thank you, Onsi. We’re happy to be able to tell readers of Ad Fontes more about this edition of the classic Book of Common Prayer. Within the US Episcopal Church, I know of at least one church, the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham, that uses the 1662 BCP for their Communion liturgy. But I also know of many US Episcopal churches that use it for choral Evensongs (at least some of the time). These churches may have other Books of Common Prayer in their pews, but the choir is singing settings of the 1662 service. Beyond congregations, I know a great many individuals who have adopted the 1662 BCP for their personal devotional use.

SLB: A few parishes in the Anglican Church in North America use it as well. But my sense of the pattern is the same as Drew’s – in the United States, the 1662 BCP tends to be used more by individuals than by parishes. Among individuals, it seems to be enjoying a resurgence during the pandemic, as people find comfort in its language and theology. Most of the use of the 1662 BCP is in other parts of the world, especially in Anglican churches in what is sometimes called the Global South.

DNK: The 1662 BCP continues to be an instrument of unity for Anglicans around the world, and it expresses what the Anglican way offers to Christians more broadly. Sadly, today Anglicans are in danger of becoming more characterized by their fierce disagreements than by their shared form of prayer. My hope is that this edition of the 1662 will push in the other direction, that it will promote unity.

  • Of course, the 1662 Book of Common prayer holds pride of place among Anglican prayer books. By contrast, modern prayer books come and go, and even widely adopted prayer books (like the 1979 BCP) become outdated after a few decades. What are the distinctive, lasting virtues of 1662? What does it offer that prior or successive Books of Common Prayer don’t?

DNK: The first advantage of the 1662 BCP is its clarity about the gospel. Some commentators, including J. I. Packer and Gavin Dunbar, have noted that the 1662 services are marked by a triad of guilt, grace, and gratitude (or repentance, faith, and charity). It is unequivocal: we cannot save ourselves, “there is no health in us.” We are saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, “by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” Therefore, as the Lord has opened our lips, we show forth his praise, “not only with our lips but in our lives.”

Rather than simply being presented once, this gospel is reiterated again and again, in the structure of the services and in the words of the prayers. That’s the second lasting virtue of the 1662 BCP: its repetitions and reiterations, which plant the gospel deep in the memory. This quality is one that the 1662 BCP preserves from Cranmer’s work more than a century earlier. It reflects the orality of mid-sixteenth century written English. This is also why people notice its strong cadences. It was written for the ear. That’s a great usability advantage because it increases memorability.

Later revisions to the prayer book tend to cut back on the reiteration. They tend to rearrange material without respect to the guilt, grace, and gratitude triad, and to add content that disrupts patterns and connections, thus obscuring the crystal clarity. And the newer prayer books have lots and lots of options – that also makes them less user-friendly. The more options there are, the more people need to look at the book (or a service leaflet), the more often they need to flip pages back and forth, and the less likely they are to know what is going to happen next.

Now you asked about the advantages of the 1662 BCP not just over subsequent books, but also over prior ones. (There were five before it: Cranmer’s first edition in 1549, his second in 1552, the prayer book of Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, that of King James in 1604, and the 1637 BCP that King Charles unsuccessfully tried to impose on the Church of Scotland.) There are some useful additions in the 1662 BCP that weren’t there before. For example, one of the most treasured prayers, the general thanksgiving, is first introduced in 1662.

But more than that, it’s the 1662 BCP that has had the greatest global impact. Most of the churches that make up the Anglican Communion have used it at some point in their history (including the Episcopal Churches of Scotland and America). Even in the nineteenth century, when theological and ceremonial differences began to widen, both E. B. Pusey and J. C. Ryle could agree on following the 1662 BCP without alteration or addition. It has served as an instrument of unity and an expression of shared identity, and it can continue to be such an instrument.

SLB: Drew has put it brilliantly. I have nothing to add.

  • Why produce this new edition of the 1662 prayer book rather than, say, urge the use of the original 1662 prayer book? What were the major modifications you made to The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition from the standard English rite of 1662?

SLB: There are other good editions of the 1662 BCP available now, including ones from Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. And other good editions are meant for study, perhaps in a literature class, and aren’t designed for prayer.

But if someone today picks up one of the 1662 editions designed for prayer, there are three obstacles. First, there are prayers for civil authorities, called state prayers, that are tied to the English monarchy. If you’re outside of England, and in a republic, those don’t work as well. Second, there are some obscure expressions, as you would expect in a text that is 350 years old. Third, the reader might miss some much-loved prayers introduced in later Anglican prayer books.

Our goal was to remove these three obstacles, but otherwise not to change the text. That’s critical to understanding our edition and its essential modesty. So what you will find in our edition is the 1662 BCP, but with state prayers from other places in the world. There are some very modest updates to the language. And one of the appendices has additional prayers that are mostly taken from later prayer books.

  • In your Afterword, you indicate that you had to pay special attention to the Coverdale Psalter. What changes did you make, and what did you try to preserve as you made them?

SLB: The Psalter is one of the glories of the prayer book. It was translated by Miles Coverdale early in the English Reformation, as part of the Great Bible of 1539, and ever since it has been cherished by those who use the Book of Common Prayer. When the revision of the prayer book was made in 1662, almost all of the passages of Scripture were updated to use the King James Version, but not the Psalms – the people in the pews loved the Coverdale Psalter too much.

DNK: The English in the Psalter is the oldest in the whole book, so it included the highest concentration of obscure words of any part of the book. For example, one word in the Psalter is leasing; it means “lying, deceiving,” not “renting.” So we had to make some revisions. But again, we aimed for modesty, and we tried not to disrupt Coverdale’s idiom – in other words, we aimed to say things he could have said. We made sure our vocabulary and syntax were consistent with what you might find in the Geneva Bible, the Douay-Rheims, or the King James Version. Our other concern was rhythmic. Because Coverdale’s language is so finely crafted and so well-suited to singing, we strove to make the fewest rhythmic changes possible, both in number of syllables and in the placement of accents. In a mere handful of places, we also made a revision where Biblical scholarship has advanced, and Coverdale’s version could not be justified with reference to the Hebrew, Greek, or Latin – again, with care not to disrupt the idiom or rhythms.

  • Prof. Bray penned an essay for Ad Fontes last year entitled “The Shape Fallacy.” In it, he argued that the BCP tradition is relatively light on prescribed ritual and heavy on text. Given the intense interest in liturgical ritual over the past decade and the saturation of our culture in images, what are the particular goods of textual worship, and why are they important for us?

SLB: Your question about the goods of textual worship is important, but I think there are some threshold questions that have to be addressed before we get there. One is that for a Christian, God has chosen to present himself, even as incarnate in Jesus Christ, as the Word (e.g., Genesis 1; John 1). This is part of why words – whether read from a book, or read from memory, or spoken – are central to Christian worship. There are various intermediate steps in that argument, but that will have to suffice.

And latent in your question are several different contrasts we could pull apart. One is between the spoken text and the instructions (the rubrics, which can be likened to stage directions). Another is between word and image – there’s always been a sense of hesitation about images in the churches of the Reformation, especially the ones that, like the Church of England, were more Reformed than Lutheran. There has been a concern for idolatry, about the risk of turning away from divine transcendence to things made with hands. This reluctance might be summed up in a couple phrases from Eliot – “fancy lights, / Risking enchantment.” Another is the contrast between word as spoken and word as written. And yet another is between mind and body, and especially the fad right now of pitching liturgical worship to evangelicals as “embodied” – as if anyone who ever stubbed a toe on a door or got the flu could forget that we have bodies.

So there are many possible angles on this, and the 1662 BCP cuts across each of them. It has spoken text and instructions, but for worshippers, the text predominates. It reflects a deep commitment to the word and the Word, so much so that Morning and Evening Prayer can be described as means to immerse yourself in Scripture. It is a written text, with the stability and other virtues of a written text, and yet like other great written texts from early modern England – including Shakespeare and the English Bible – it shows an extraordinary sensitivity to the sound of words and the rhythms of speech. There are a few things for bodies to do, such as kneeling for prayer and standing for the reading of the gospel, but it is mostly about what we are to say and believe, and out of that what we are to do. That internal focus could be summed up with the words of the prophet Joel that appear at the beginning of Morning and Evening Prayer: “Rend your heart, not your garments.”

DNK: I think the prayer book’s approach to text and to ceremonial is fundamentally the same. The words and actions should set forth the Word of God, arrest the attention, and be clearly intelligible or comprehensible (1 Corinthians 14:4). Much of the complex medieval ceremonial was neither visible to the assembly nor intelligible, and explanations of different ceremonies differed from place to place. Like the Apostle Paul says of praying in an unknown tongue, it does not edify the church. The prayer book cuts back drastically on ceremonial, not because it is anti-ceremonial, but so that the ceremonies that remain arrest the attention, communicate clearly, and set forth the Word.

Consider a few examples. In Morning Prayer, the person who reads the lessons is instructed to “so stand and turn himself as to be best heard by those who are present.” This gestural (therefore visual) instruction increases audibility and communicates through body language that what is being read involves the laity. Turning towards them signals that their attention is desired.

In the Communion, the ceremonial during the prayer of consecration is designed to align with the words, and the placement of the minister vis-à-vis the table allows the people to see what he is doing there. When the priest reads the words “he brake it,” the rubric instructs him to break the bread. Immediately after the words of institution are read, which include the dominical instructions “take, eat,” and “drink,” those instructions are followed. The rubrics even require the people to take the bread and the cup “into their hands.” This bit of ceremonial – the act of taking in order to eat and drink – is assigned to the laity.

In baptism, Mark 10:13–16 is read, which includes the phrase “when he had taken them up in his arms.” This is then enacted in the ceremonial – “Then the priest shall take the child into his hands.” In the prayer book’s approach, these ceremonies stand out. They arrest attention, align with the words, and are intelligible.

But these actions are there to support the words. The words have pride of place because God has spoken to us (Hebrews 1:1–4). The gospel consists principally in what Jesus did; yet, as Matthew’s gospel reiterates throughout, his actions were such “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” The words and the actions aligned, conveying one message, one gospel.

“Faith cometh by hearing,” Paul wrote, “and hearing by the word of God.” This is what the prayer book aims to facilitate. Its preface presents it as a framework for hearing the Word of God. The prayer book provides for this in continuous reading through all of scripture in the daily Morning and Evening Prayer. The words of the liturgical script – its exhortations, hymns, and prayers – are all saturated with Scripture. In the office of Communion, the Ten Commandments are heard to invite repentance; and the Word is set forth in a pair of readings (epistle and gospel) that are thematically or doctrinally focused; in the scriptural exposition of the sermon; and most of all in the Lord’s Supper, in which Christ’s words are heard and followed, and his body and blood are truly received by the faithful.

The bottom line is that the ceremonies in the prayer book, which are relatively few but striking, are all there to illustrate, support, and lend an affective emphasis to the encounter with the Divine Word.

  • One of the major arguments of the seminal Anglican Divine Richard Hooker with regard to worship is that particular national churches are free, within bounds, to adapt their worship for their own people. But this BCP bills itself as an “international” edition. Do you see any tensions there?

DNK: Of course, this argument isn’t unique to Hooker; he’s arguing for the position staked out in Article 34. This understanding is taught in the formularies. But a kind of tension appears as soon as what we now call the Anglican Communion began to emerge. When, for example, the United States of America was formed, those former colonists who had been members of the Church of England were free to form their own national church or disperse into the other kinds of churches that had been planted in the colonies. In the preface to the 1789 BCP, the first prayer book authorized by the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, the revisers asserted this right as a national church to pursue a different approach concerning “things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable.” But at the same time, they insisted that they were “far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship; or further than local circumstances require.” From the beginning, then, the Episcopal Church has been both an autonomous sister church and a daughter wishing to follow her mother.

This tension remains to the present in the Anglican Communion, which is a family of autonomous churches. In the recent controversies that have threatened to break up that family of churches, the significance of the 1662 BCP to the shared or common “Anglican” identity has consistently been emphasized, not least in documents that have tried to articulate ways for us to continue to walk together in unity and charity.

SLB: I do see the tension, and I would even go so far as to say this is a legitimate ground for critique of our edition. Article 34 allows divergence, and that’s been understood to allow each province (roughly speaking, the Anglican church in each country) to make revisions to the prayer book. For a long time, these revisions were fairly modest. There was family resemblance, but more than that, there was a very high degree of interoperability across all the national editions of the Book of Common Prayer. But that’s no longer true, and the divergence has grown enormously in the last half century. So we live in a world where you can either have the virtues of a fairly consistent and stable prayer book (as with the 1662 International Edition), or the virtues of national adaptation, but the position where you can have both has been hollowed out.

DNK: I don’t have any data for this, but anecdotally, I’ve seen an increasing interest in the 1662 BCP among young Anglicans. It seems to me, in the midst of fierce disagreements, that a movement has emerged that longs to rediscover our shared roots, an ad fontes movement. That was certainly true for me personally. In the Episcopal Church, of which I’m a member, the opportunity for this rediscovery to take place at the congregational level has been supported by Resolution A068 of the 2018 General Convention, which invited Bishops to “engage worshiping communities in experimentation and the creation of alternative texts” – that is, alternatives to the 1979 prayer book – opening the door to the rediscovery of old liturgies as much as to the development of new ones.

SLB: Also anecdotal, but I am finding a similar interest in going upstream in the tradition. Among younger Anglicans there is interest – to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable twenty or thirty years ago – in the 1662 BCP, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the homilies, and this rich Anglican tradition that was there for centuries before the Oxford Movement or the Liturgical Renewal Movement.

  • I know you’ve incorporated Collects from a variety of provinces in the Anglican Communion. How did you select these, and why did you think it was important to include them?

DNK: These are in our appendix of additional prayers. Some of these are prayers that had “caught on” and become a part of the common prayer tradition. They would be keenly missed by those making this book their primary devotional text. So we gathered together some of the most treasured prayers from post-1662 Anglican prayer books, and even some from before the 1662 BCP. In addition, we recognized that in twentieth-century revisions there were more prayers for particular occasions. So we added some of those to the appendix of prayers, again trying to remove an obstacle for anyone who wanted to use the 1662 BCP. In our selection, we have been wide-ranging, including prayers from the subsequent prayer books of many churches of the Communion, not just from, say, the US revisions. We also used the 1662 BCP as our touchstone, so we did not include any prayers that expressed doctrines that the 1662 BCP itself does not express. In other words, we did not aim to weigh in on doctrinal disagreements. We just wanted to provide a supplement of additional prayers that are consistent with the 1662 BCP.

SLB: No one has to use the appendix of additional prayers. But we hope that it will make it easier for someone to use this book, because you can have the solidity, majesty, and homely comfort of the 1662 services as well as having prayers for a wider set of occasions. Allow me, if you don’t mind, to conclude with one of these prayers from our appendix. It is part of a considerably longer prayer written by Jane Austen, and we hope it will be widely used and loved – especially by readers and reviewers of our work:

“Incline us, O God, to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves. Grant this most merciful Father, for the sake of our blessed Saviour, who hast set us an example of such a temper of forbearance and patience, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”

Onsi A. Kamel is editor-in-chief of the Davenant Press and senior editor of Ad Fontes. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children.


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