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Book of Common Prayer 1549

What is Common Prayer?

Book of Common Prayer 1549

I want to think more about a comment by Rev. John Rawlinson that makes me relook at my presuppositions about the meaning of the words “Common Prayer”:

Common prayer, as I understand it, means that those gathered in a particular moment, and place, and for a given common purpose, are guided through prayers, reflections, and music which binds them in common. It does NOT mean that what happens is the same every time. It does NOT mean that what happens in “Place A, at Time X” is the same thing which happens in “Place B, at time W.” Think of a birthday party in which people mingle, get food and drink, and talk at random. Then there is a moment in which somebody calls out and invited people to sing. At that point the random and disorganized group joins in “common singing” of “Happy Birthday to you….” Perhaps somebody will then say, “Now, it is time to open presents.” That focused the group’s attention on the “common” and shared factor of watching the packages being opened. There was chaos (uncommon) activity, followed by common activity. Likely, after those common events and activities, the group will abandon any semblance of common activity, and return to chaos. So, whenever the Prayer Book is used– including the use of the multiple options– it is used for the purpose of guiding all present in common experiences.

Those who are upset about the lack of “common” worship activities mean something quite specific. They mean that the current experience was not exactly the same thing as happened previously. It is not what they remembered when they were a younger age. It is not the wording they memorized. One fundamental Anglican perspective, enshrined in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (in the current American BCP, in the category of “Historic Documents”) is the idea that it is not necessary for the observances and activities (the traditions, rites, and language) of the Church to be the same in all times and places. Adaptation to the situation– including cultural and linguistic adaptation is expected in Anglican churches.

facebook reflection by John Rawlinson

Put this in dialogue with The Preface in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) – this preface became Concerning the Service of the Church in later editions of the Book of Common Prayer. There we read:

And whereas heretofore there hath been great diversity in saying and singing in Churches within this Realm; some following Salisbury Use, some Hereford Use, and some the Use of Bangor, some of York, some of Lincoln; now from henceforth all the whole Realm shall have but one Use.

Concerning the Service of the Church

Let’s call the second approach, with its commonality across individual celebrations, the BCP approach, and refer to the first perspective above as the local (or localised) understanding of common prayer.

I think, when I come across the term “Common Prayer”, I presume the BCP approach. As an example: when I pray the Daily Office by myself, or with another, or in a small community, I think of us inserting ourselves within the larger, universal church, doing what the church does, praying together in Christ. This doesn’t mean I think of all being clones of one ideal – far from it. Even prior to the period of Prayer Book revision (starting in the 1960s), common prayer was experienced quite differently in different contexts (Anglo-Catholic; Evangelical; Cathedral; home study;…).

I wonder if John’s local understanding repurposes the term “Common Prayer” so that the term doesn’t die, but the concept has essentially changed since the 1960s. For Anglicans, “Common Prayer” used to be all using the BCP, for Roman Catholics there was even the shared common Latin text all around the world.

John goes on to use the analogy that the Book of Common Prayer (by which he means the Prayer Book of The Episcopal Church – TEC- rather than the BCP I’m referring to, above) “is a a guide book, not a cookbook to be followed slavishly.”

Common Prayer, in this localised understanding, then, is actually simply prayer – or, if you prefer, worship. The “common”, in this localised understanding, appears to be adding nothing to the word prayer. “Common prayer”, in the localised understanding, is like saying “white alb” or “strategic plan”. All prayer, all worship, is “common” in this localised understanding, be it anything from a Pentecostal gathering to a Quaker meeting.

My wanting to re-think my understanding of “Common Prayer” is not a rhetorical question – it is a genuine attempt to think forward into our new context.

I may need to remind readers of the context here in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. In 1989, we did have a Prayer Book akin to TEC’s Prayer Book. There was variety here, yes, but also strong, clear limitations. At that stage I could write for my book, Celebrating Eucharist:

Services in The Book of Common Prayer have often been likened to “meals on wheels.” They were centrally prepared, and then warmed and dished up locally. One began at the beginning of the service, reading most of it until one reached the end of it. Services in A New Zealand Prayer Book are more like “frozen peas,” or maybe a basket of groceries and a recipe book. A core of essential material is provided with some further resources, other content is added locally. Many will be surprised that the obligatory material from any of the eucharistic liturgies (pages 404-510) takes only about six minutes to recite. Most of the rest of the service is locally chosen. The quality of the meal is now much more dependent on the local “cook”!

Celebrating Eucharist, Chapter 1 – Liturgy

I could no longer write that. Since 1989, our Church has authorised A Form for Ordering the Eucharist as a template for creating main, Sunday services, and also authorised An Alternative Form for Ordering the Eucharist an even more flexible template which can be used for creating main, Sunday services without any references to NZ resources or even responses. Furthermore, one can, in our Church, arrive at the main Easter Day service in a parish and find that it is not a Eucharist at all – simply a locally-designed service. This is now The Anglican Church of Or.

In other words, going back to John’s reflection, this is localised “Common Prayer”, but it is like the birthday party with no singing of Happy Birthday, no opening of presents, nothing that connects it to birthday parties beyond this particular gathering, or even last year’s birthday party celebrating the same person.

Another example: in our Church, a marriage service is supposed to use one of six options for vows – but the vows are so disparate that, yes, there is a localised common experience, but little commonality beyond that localised communal event, little that connects this to be within the historical stream of weddings.

I hope I have made clear the difference between the BCP approach to the concept of “Common Prayer” and the “local” understanding of “Common Prayer”. I would genuinely be interested in further discussion around your understanding of the term, “Common Prayer”, because we may be using the same words and meaning something quite significantly different.

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3 thoughts on “What is Common Prayer?”

  1. My understanding of what common prayer ideally should be aligns with your “BCP” understanding.

    I lament the localisation and fragmentation of prayer in our services of worship. I am strongly persuaded that the warning in 1 Corinthians 11:29 about “not discerning the body” includes not only the failure to discern the import of the elements, but also the failure to discern that the work of Christ shown in the sacraments has made of those gathered one body whose practices in their gathering should reflect that reality.

    It is necessary for churches at the local level to be taught to treasure that one-bodiness, and I believe it is equally necessary for us to be taught to treasure the one-bodiness of the Church worldwide and through the ages. I think that the BCP quietly did a work of that kind within Anglicanism, and alternative forms of worship and the multiplication of “ors” do nothing to replace it.


    1. Thanks, Trevor.

      That all around the world, in many languages, in many denominations, on Sunday we all read, reflect on, and pray about Jesus cleansing the Temple is a great joy to me and to many, many others. This is how I understood “common prayer” – as you clearly do – until the comment which made me think I was using the words “common prayer” and others were hearing this to mean something quite different.

      Clearly, there are those who do hear these same words differently. In this other understanding, a community, on Sunday, choosing to read, say, the parable of the Good Samaritan, would equally be common prayer – because they are in common, together reading that story. We may need to be more precise when we use some language.


  2. Bosco, I totally agree with your definition of common prayer.

    I feel that far too often prayer is put inside a box and is mistakenly taken to mean doing the same thing over and over again. Trevor, who left the first comment, was spot on when he mentioned that many are “not discerning the body”.

    Now more than ever it is important for the churches to come together in unity at all levels.

    Thanks for posting.


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