IT is not often we encounter a dye in the wool card carrying Presbyterian give praise to The Book of Common Prayer, but a few years ago this happened when the Academic Dean and Professor of Historical Theology and Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia Carl Trueman was interviewed by an Anglican priest from the Diocese of Sydney and acknowledged that the The Book of Common Prayer, was one of the crown jewels of Anglicanism, (the others being the Homilies and the Thirty-nine Articles).
But it seems to me in some Anglican circles the crown jewels have been gathering dust for a very long time. I love the Book of Common Prayer (often referred to as the BCP), yet it is rarely used and it appears to be easy to forget that the front page of A Prayer Book for Australia and An Australian Prayer Book both state their purpose:
For use together with The Book of Common Prayer (1662)
My view is that the Book of Common Prayer is anything but common.
But first, a bit of historical context:
Imagine that you had come here to church because you had a heavy heart, and you wanted to hear something from the Word of God. You walk into your nearest church and find a building adorned with pictures and statues of dead Christians. And then you discover a rather macabre display case with physical remains (known as relics) of these dead Christians; a tooth of St So and So, teeth of St So and So. In the case there were also splinters from Christ’s cross at Calvalry, hair from 13 out of 12 apostles, breast milk from the Virgin Mary and enough nails from the cross to shoe every horse for Melbourne cup day. And by simply looking at these sacred relics or touching them, you can win favour with God or at least reduce the time that you spend in that man made Roman Catholic invention known as Purgatory.
Imagine that when the service begins, the minister does not speak in English (even though you do and everyone else does also) but speaks in Latin. The priest is elaborately attired in vestments of various colours and spends most of the service conducting a ritual at the altar. And now and them, he and everybody else, falls down to worship or pray to what is on the altar. There is no sermon. (As if there is a need or want of a sermon!) For the reason everyone has come is to see what is done by the priest and to adore and worship the bread and win that is on the altar.
Imagine that you lived in England 500 years ago and attended a service, that is exactly what you would have experienced.
What is going on?!?
What is going on is what is not going on. And what is not going on is reading the Bible. You see, the Bible was shut! And furthermore, because it was shut, there was no discernment, people could not tell the difference between what was true and what was false. There was superstition and ignorance of the things of God and that was with the clergy. Crazy as it seems to us in the 21 century, but in the 15th century, to read or even own a part of the Bible in English was punishable by death. Only the clergy and the educated (the rich) spoke Latin, so for most people who came to church it was all ‘hocus pocus’ (and by the way that term is a slang word that came from people hearing the priest say ‘Hoc est corpus’ at Eucharist, which means this is my body) and today ‘Hocus Pocus’ means something that is nonsense).
But slowly at the beginning of the 16th century, things began to change and over the course of a few decades, a revolution took place.
The Bible was opened.
People began to hear the Word of God in their own language, this revolution reformed the church, and history knows this movement as The Reformation. God raised up men who read the Bible, and their eyes were opened to the errors that had riddled the church. It happened in Europe first, with people like Martin Luther, and then it came to England.
During this time, there was a new era of technology, the Printing Press had been invented. Until this time books were rare and expensive. Now books could be published on mass, cheaply, quickly which meant that Bibles could be produced. And God raised up one man, who in God’s providence was placed in a position and a role where he could work for change in England, even though he was risking his life to do so. That man was the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, and his name was Thomas Cranmer, who was born on the 2nd of July, 1489.
You may have never heard of Thomas Cranmer. Many people have not and perhaps many Anglican Christians have not either. He lived such a long time ago, but the battles he fought are still being fought today. The errors in which he stood against are still with us in Australia in the 21st century as they were in England in the 16th century.
Thomas Cranmer was born in a small village in Nottinghamshire. Following a tough education he studied at Cambridge University at 14 years of age. He went on to become ordained and obtained the Doctor of Divinity and lectured in Divinity at the University. At Uni he heard about what was happening in Europe, especially in Germany. He started reading books by Martin Luther.
In 1529 Cranmer came to the attention of King Henry VIII. The King did not like the Pope very much and because the Pope would not grant him a divorce, it was enough to make Henry reject the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time King Henry was impressed by Cranmer, and in 1533 Cranmer became the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was the last thing that Cranmer wanted. However he was now in the ideal position to work for Reform in the Church of England. Some people think that this is how the Church of England started, but in actual fact, it was the centuries old Church of England that was being reformed to see it return to genuine, biblical Christianity.
There are three blessings of the Reformation that God gave us through Cranmer.
- The Bible in English – Cranmer clearly understood that the key to wiping away great ignorance of the things of God, and false doctrine was for the Bible to be available in the language of the people – English. It was only when the teaching of the church could be discerned, or openly tested against the Word of God that truth could be seen. And so in 1534, Cranmer began to work with others for the translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, William Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake under the orders of Henry for translating the Bible into English. His last words as the flames engulfed him were “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. That prayer was later answered. Cranmer pushed on and in 1539, the King approved the English translation of the Bible and every parish in England was given a year to buy one. It was to be chained in the church so that it couldn’t be removed and so that everyone come and read it, or hear it read.
- Rediscovery of justification by faith alone – As Cranmer and others read the Bible for themselves, they rediscovered a doctrine that had been lost for hundreds of years, and that was justification by faith alone (known as Sola Fidé).What does this doctrine mean? It means that because of my sinful nature I can never be good enough to stand in the presence of a holy and righteous God. As it says in Isaiah 64:6 that our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Only by the mercy and grace of God can we ever be accounted as righteous before him, and God has chosen to do that on the basis of Jesus atoning sacrificial death on the cross. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of all those who trust in him once for all. When a person trusts in Jesus as Lord and as Saviour, God looks at that person as if they have no sin, as they were paid for by Jesus. That is what Justification By Faith Alone Means – We are made with God solely on the basis of what Jesus has done for us.Or another way of putting it, we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, by God’s grace alone.
- The Prayer Book – From the Middle Ages, many churches were teaching that the way to be right with God was through good works, in other words we need to earn enough credit to deserve to be saved and to go to heaven when we die. And the very centre of these good works was ‘The Mass’. The Mass was understood to be a way of earning favour with God. It was seen as the best good work that anyone could do. And in the 16th century the reason people came to church was so that they could witness the miracle of the Mass – where you were told that the bread and wine actually transformed into the literal body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. And by offering up that real flesh and blood as a continuing sacrifice to God, you could earn the forgiveness of your sins. So the Holy Communion was thought to be an actual offering up of Christ’s body and blood again to God, someone repeating the sacrifice that Jesus made at the cross. And because people believed that the Lord Jesus was physically present in the place of the bread and wine, they would fall down and worship him and pray to him there on the altar. Thomas Cranmer rightly saw that to be the The way he dealt with it was to have the Bible in English, to have sermons in Church, so for the first time in centuries you would be able to go to church and understand what was being said. And thirdly, he taught the people of England through what they were to pray. He is the man behind The Book of Common Prayer. It is for this work that Thomas Cranmer is best known and remembered. His first prayer book was published in 1549, his second in 1552 and the third in 1662.
The Anglican Church stands in the great Reformed tradition that is rooted in the primacy of the scriptures (sola Scriptura) and the doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus) to the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria), which is foundationally expressed in The Book of Common Prayer. Anglicanism rejects the Authority of the Roman Church and Pontiff, (Article XIX of the Church). Thomas Cranmer set out a pattern of liturgical worship that is very much in protest against the Roman Church. (I.E Confession is made to God through Christ, rather than to a priest; rather than forgive a person on behalf of Christ, an Anglican Presbyter announces God’s forgiveness. The Anglican Church rejects transubstantiation (the physical presence of Christ in the elements) (see Article XXVIII Of the Lord’s Supper).
Thomas Cranmer was able to bring Martin Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone into the heart of the Church of England. It has since spread around the world in Anglican and Episcopal Churches and is now the third largest Christian denomination with about 77 million members and it is largely due to The Book of Common Prayer.
What excites me about The Book of Common Prayer and what I have come to see all the more clearly is that (along with the other crown jewels of Anglicanism) it offers the historical anchoring that many evangelicals seek. It allows us to root our convictions in the riches of the tradition of Christian thought and prayer that faithful followers of Jesus Christ have passed down to us. We can discover an ancestry that goes back two thousand years – right back to the teaching of Jesus himself, with great theologians, liturgists and saints whose writings can help us to be the disciples that Jesus calls us to be. It also makes us more clearly part of the one, holy, catholic (i.e. universal) and apostolic Church.
The BCP also reminds me that the church and prayer is not about me and my emotions, that the worship of God is about God, that I am a participant with others who are gathered to meet with God in Word and Sacrament, that I am not a spectator and certainly not a consumer; that the worship of God involves all the senses and does not begin and end with the preacher. Finally it reminds me that the Christian Faith is over 40 years old and that it is not hip, trendy and cool and does not need to be in order for it to appeal to people today.
I believe that the Book of Common Prayer, and even more importantly, the theology of the Book of Common Prayer will give people what they seek. The Book of Common Prayer is one of the crown jewels of Anglicanism, and in my view is the Jewel in the crown. And it is my prayer that as the BCP is re-discovered (and there are very encouraging signs that this is happening) that those who read it will discover what I discovered some years ago, that the Book of Common Prayer is anything but common.