Christian Essentials 101: True Worship

Worship and Common Prayer

Worship plays an important role in most Christian Traditions. However, in the Anglican Tradition, of which the Episcopal Church is the American representative, it plays a central and crucial role. We are one of the few, if not the only tradition, which defines itself by its worship. The boundaries of our communion are defined by the activity of worship because we know we are a community primarily, not by our experience of shared belief – as in- we all believe the same truths defined in the same way, but through our experience of worshipping together. For Episcopalians, Jesus’ saying in Matthew 18:20 – For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them becomes that where two or three gather to worship in my name, there am I with them. Episcopalians have another adage: as we worship so we believe.

We know ourselves and recognize each other in community when we gather to worship God. The worship of God is our priority. It is important for us to understand why this is and where this approach to Christian community has come from.

  1. The roots of a worship-centered approach to religious identity are very ancient. At the time of the English Reformation the majority of English religious houses and monasteries followed in one form or another, the Rule of St Benedict. Benedict structured his religious communities around the centrality of worship. The Benedictine ethos has shaped our Anglican identity as a communion to a greater extent than is the case in any other Christian Tradition.
  2. The Elizabethan Settlement (a series of Acts of Parliament during the reign of Elizabeth I) resulted in English Christians, whatever their theological or political beliefs finding themselves compelled by Law to sit alongside one another in their parish churches. Although they did not share theology, nevertheless traditional catholics found themselves sharing pew space alongside neighbors who embraced the protestant reforms.
  3. Anglican identity did not emerge out of an agreed approach to belief based on a shared way of looking at God and the world. Anglican identity formed from having to tolerate difference within a national, Church of England.
  4. With agreement on belief impossible, a notion of right relationship became the crucial element in the formation of Anglican identity. Anglicanism emerged from a shared experience of right relationship, which over the generations became increasingly shaped into a communal identity by the worship and language of The Book of Common Prayer.
  5. This historical accident continues to shape our identity as a community. We are Christians who recognize one another through our willingness to worship together. We continue to be shaped by the words of The Book of Common Prayer, even though we may not share any common agreement as to what these forms and words might mean.

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP)

The Book of Common Prayer is unique. Other traditions have a book of services and prayers. No other tradition has anything approaching the contribution made by The Book of Common Prayer, which has single handedly shaped our community’s identity. On the landscape of American Christianity, it is the BCP that gives the Episcopal Church its unique characteristic as a community tolerant of considerable diversity, defined and held together by its shared approach to worship. Despitecover centuries there having been a number of revisions of the BCP, our current 1979 revision still carries the shape and linguistic stamp of Thomas Cranmer. Alas his soaring command of the English language, his poetic prose has to some extent been replaced by the use of contemporaneous English in the new Rite II service options. However, some semblance of Cranmarian English survives in the Rite I versions of Common Prayer and Eucharistic Services.

An Historical Overview of the BCP

In 1532, Thomas Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury during the last years of Henry VIII’s reign. In 1544 he published his first vernacular service. In 1549 he published the first Book of Common Prayer, based on an extensive reform of the English Catholic liturgy known as the Sarum (Salisbury) Rite. Cranmer was a master wordsmith and alongside the language of the later King James Bible, it is the cadenced prose of the Book of Common Prayer that has shaped the Anglican religious consciousness to the extent that Cranmarian English has become a term of linguistic classification. In 1552, under the more Protestant influences during the reign of Edward VI, Cranmer produced a first revision of the BCP of 1549. In 1559, the BCP was further revised in a more Catholic direction during Elizabeth’s reign. The prayer book of 1559 remained in effect until 1662. For the Church of England, the revision of 1662 remains the quintessential revision of The BCP, and remains the only Parliamentary approved version of the BCP despite more recent Church authorized liturgical revisions.

Cranmer’s intention was that the liturgy should be in the language spoken by the people. The hallmark of Cranmer’s approach lay in his insistence that the participation of the laity was as essential as the actions of the clergy. No longer could a priest alone, celebrate the Eucharist without the presence of at least one lay person, but the daily pattern of the Divine Office, hitherto prayed only by the clergy in private or in monastic choir now became simplified into morning and evening prayer or Mattins and Evensong. These became public services of the Church in which the laity were expected to take a full part. However, a subtle yet significant shift from the ancient Sarum Rite resulted from Cranmer’s creation of a tradition for worship and common prayer, not only accessible to ordinary people, but which celebrated the events of ordinary life in this world. This approach was in sharp contrast to the older liturgical emphasis on celebrating the life of Church and the Saints in heaven.

The BCP contained orders for Common Prayer, the Eucharist, and the liturgical celebration of life events in services of Rogation (blessing of the land and crops), birth (the Churching of Women), baptism, marriage, and death. It also contained The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion. These were a reformed interpretation, based on Cranmer’s return to Early Church and Biblical sources, of the historic belief and practice of the Church. The Thirty Nine Articles became the foundation for Anglican belief and practice. To complement the BCP Cranmer also compiled a two- year Lectionary of Scriptural readings for use in Church. He also wrote a separate collect prayer for every Sunday of the year as well as other major feasts and celebrations.

In 1789, following the Revolutionary War the newly established Episcopal Church authorized its own Book of Common Prayer. The first American BCP followed the English BCP concerning “the particular Forms of Divine Worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein”. The reason for a new book was the need to remove any political allegiance to the British Crown. The 1789 BCP followed the structure of the Eucharistic Prayer found in the BCP of the Scottish Episcopal Church rather than that of the English BCP. This was a condition imposed by the Scots in return for their bishops agreeing to ordain Samuel Seabury as the first American Bishop. The Episcopal Church revised the 1789 BCP in 1928 and then in 1979. The 1979 revision was needed to take into account the changes in liturgical practice resulting from the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgical revisions during and following the Second Vatican Council. The 1979 book remains the book in current use.

The Major Sections of the BCP

  1. Historical Ratification (1798) and Preface
  2. The Orders for Common Prayer – the collective daily pattern for the Divine Office or the prayer of the Church
  3. The Great Litany – a form of prayer used in Lent and at other times of national or communal crisis
  4. The Collects – opening prayers that pick up on seasonal and lectionary themes for a particular Sunday or feast days
  5. Proper Liturgies for seasonal or special celebration such as Christmas and Easter, etc
  6. Holy Baptism
  7. Orders for the Holy Eucharist
  8. Pastoral Offices – celebrations of significant life events such as marriage, ministration to the sick, death and burial of the dead, and the reconciliation of the penitent
  9. Episcopal Services – those only performed by a Bishop such as confirmation and ordination
  10. The Psalter of David
  11. Prayers and Thanksgivings
  12. An Outline of the Faith or Catechism
  13. Historical Documents of the Church including the Articles of Religion
  14. Tables for finding the date of Easter and other Holy Days
  15. The Lectionary

Link to useful resources

file://localhost/Users/marksutherland/Desktop/Education/EP101/BCP/Book of Common Prayer 350 years (2) | Liturgy.webarchive


Go online to and purchase your own copy of the Book of Common Prayer. It comes in a variety of formats: just the BCP, BCP and Hymnal combined, BCP, Lectionary and Daily Office combined.

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