What is the Book of Common Prayer?


Last summer the General Convention of the Episcopal Church voted to begin the process of revision of both the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal. One of the first questions revisers of the Prayer Book will face (besides that of whether there should be a physical book at all) is that of what should be included in the Prayer Book itself, and what should be relegated to a Book of Occasional Services or other book(s). This in turn begs the question of what the Prayer Book has been, and is; what it is intended to do, how it gets used, and how it might be used in future.

As the Preface to the First Prayer Book [bcp1979 866] suggested, the Church had never tried to contain its rites in a single volume. The earliest full liturgical texts we have were divided into books according to types of texts and the needs of various participants in the service: Pontificals, Sacramentaries, Collectars, Evangelaries, Epistolaries, Lectionaries, Psalters, Graduals, Antiphoners, Hymnals, Tropers, Legendaries, Homiliaries, and the Consuetudinaries, Ordines, or Directoria to guide their use. Later, the texts were reorganized so that a particular book would contain all, or most, of the texts needed for a particular service: Missals, Breviaries, Manuals or Rituals, and the like (though books for the schola might well still be divided from books for the celebrant or officiant).

The architects of the English Reformation, throwing up their hands, for theological, pastoral, practical, and financial reasons, at the complexity of this liturgical system, attempted to distill the sprawling Roman Rite into a single volume. We shall see that they did not succeed in the somewhat hastily prepared first Prayer Book, that the scope of the book has grown somewhat over time, and that materials for Anglican worship have never been entirely contained within that book. For the moment, though, let us look more closely at the contents of that one volume. It is well to begin with the original title:

The Book of Common Prayer,
and Administration of the Sacraments,
and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church

after the use of / in the Church of England.

From this we can see that the volume contains several things:

First, a book for the Daily Office, which was in 1549 called the ‘Common Prayer’ (that this is so may be seen from the rest of the title itself, as well as from the Preface, which deals almost entirely with the reform of the Office, undertaken in the hope that it would become more accessible and edifying);

Second, a book for the administration of the Sacraments, which category the Articles of Religion restrict to Baptism and the ‘Lord’s Supper’ (the bcp1979 Catechism similarly lists Baptism and the Holy Eucharist as the ‘two great Sacraments of the Gospel’);

Third, a book for the ‘other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church’. This may appear to be something of a catchall phrase, but I submit, looking at the actual contents of the book, that it is intended to refer specifically to the other items which the Articles demoted from the rank of Sacrament, and which the bcp1979 Catechism puts into the (nonrestrictive) category of ‘other sacramental rites’: namely, Confirmation, Holy Matrimony, Holy Orders, Reconciliation of a Penitent, and Unction (with which we may for our purposes group the Burial of the Dead). And indeed all of these but the conferral of Holy Orders have essentially always been included in Anglican Prayer Books, though ‘penance’, or ‘Reconciliation of a Penitent’ (notwithstanding the encouragement of confession in the Exhortation to Communion) was restricted to the context of Visitation of the Sick, and ‘unction’ also first (and quite Biblically) broadened in use from ‘last rites’ to the aforementioned Visitation of the Sick, and then abandoned from 1552.

The other ‘ex-sacrament’, Holy Orders, was represented in a rite which was not published until 1550, was not represented on the title page of a Prayer Book until bcp1662 –

The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of
Bishops, Priests, and Deacons

– and was also considered somewhat separate from the American Prayer Book, not appearing on any of its title pages and not always being included with the bcp (American Ordinals have also always included ‘The Form of Consecration of a Church or Chapel’ and ‘An Office of Institution of Ministers into Parishes or Churches’ – both essentially episcopal services – which decisively expanded their scope).

The Psalter, necessary for the recitation of the Daily Office and often bound with early Prayer Books, was purposely attached in bcp1662 –

together with the Psalter, or Psalms of David

– and has always been included in American books, with the wording still to be found on the title page of bcp1979.

A few other items have also always been included:

¶   a Catechism, which may be seen as an adjunct to Confirmation and indeed was printed as part of that rite (in bcp1928 a separate set of ‘Offices of Instruction’ was also included, in fulfillment of the rubric obliging the Minister of every Parish to instruct, and parents and ‘masters’ to bring their dependents to be instructed, in the Catechism before Confirmation; these Offices were also, presumably, to be used for the instruction of those ‘of riper years’ to be baptized, and thus in a way were a forerunner of today’s Catechumenate);

¶   The Churching of Women (‘purificacion of women’, later ‘Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth’, and known in bcp1979 as the Thanksgiving for a Child), which, at least in earlier times would often have been seen as a sort of corollary to Holy Baptism, given the custom of baptizing infants soon after birth;

¶   a ‘Commination’ service, specifically appointed in bcp1549 and again in bcp1662 to be used on the first Day of Lent (in bcp1928, ‘A Penitential Office for Ash Wednesday’), and which might be seen as an adjunct to the sacramental rite of penance or Reconciliation;

¶   The Litany, appointed in bcp1549 to be used before Mass (or, according to Frere, what was intended only to be Antecommunion) on Wednesdays and Fridays, in bcp1552 and bcp1559/1604 also thus on Sundays, in bcp1662 on those days after Morning Prayer; in bcp1928 and 1979 after Morning or Evening Prayer or before Holy Communion – and thus also a sort of corollary to either the Mass or the Daily Office, as well as being a part of ordinations throughout this whole history;

¶   listings and instructions for ordering the services: calendar and almanac, lectionaries for Office and Mass (including the Collects), and other general rubrics.

And some more variable auxiliary material has appeared: Forms of Prayer for certain situations and occasions (at sea, for visiting prisoners, on state occasions); tables of kindred and affinity for governing matrimony; the Articles of Religion. The first American Prayer Book added ‘Forms of Prayer [actually short Offices] to be used in Families’.

This sets the stage for the contents of bcp1979, which, though expanding the provisions in many areas, adds only a few truly new things to the foregoing, in particular, services for Palm Sunday and the Triduum, and the Form of Commitment to Christian Service. It should be noted that, with the adoption of the three-year Eucharistic lectionary, the actual lectionary texts, for the first time, have not been included in the Prayer Book.


Thus the Prayer Book, though bound as one volume, is not really one book, but a library. Nor have the Anglican Churches in practice ever quite been able to subsist on even this collection of books.

The somewhat ambiguous status of the Ordinal vis-à-vis the Prayer Book has already been remarked upon. This in a way points up the essentially parochial and ferial nature of the Prayer Book, which took not the pontifical celebration as the norm, but rather the presbyteral one, and it leads us to consider that the Prayer Book, like the Bible, was at first largely a book for ownership by the parish, for use in church: the title of the 1611 ‘King James’ Bible notes that it is ‘appointed to be read in Churches’, and the annexed Psalms finally listed on the title page of bcp1662 are ‘pointed as they are to be sung or said in Churches’. Even with the advent of printing, relatively few people in the mid-sixteenth century could have afforded such books, and not many more could have read them; for those who could, private or domestic use was better catered for by the several English-language Primers (Books of Hours) issued throughout the sixteenth century with varying measures of authority. (It was probably not until the eighteenth century that private ownership of Prayer Books was relatively common.)

Furthermore, as no Anglican Prayer Book has ever included musical notation – another sign, perhaps, of the haste with which it was prepared, given Archbishop Cranmer’s support for simpler forms of chant in a 1544 letter to Henry VIII accompanying a proposed Processional – music for singing the services has until relatively recently relied on local, ad hoc resources, or un- or semi-official publications. The Booke of Common Praier Noted [1550] was an early but abortive attempt. Cathedrals and colleges devised their own collections of chant and composed music for singing especially the Office, and some such collections were published along the way. Metrical Psalters for parochial use were often bound with Prayer Books in earlier ages; when hymns re-entered the stream of Anglican worship in the nineteenth century, hymnals became common adjuncts to the Prayer Book.

Unlike the Church of England, which has never produced nor adopted an official hymnal, the Episcopal Church itself undertook the preparation of an authorized Hymnal, at first with text only (still the only part of the Hymnal legislated by General Convention), later with musical notation, and from 1940 combined with provisions for ‘service music’ previously issued separately. Church Publishing has also since 1979 issued several Hymnal supplements (of perhaps questionable authority), Psalters set to both Gregorian and Anglican chant, two series of (Gregorian) Gradual Psalms for the Eucharist, and a text-only metrical Psalter of its own.

We will not deal here with the various very much unofficial, but occasionally tolerated, adaptations of Roman books that appeared in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, but in the twentieth century the Episcopal Church, as the catholic revival increasingly made itself known, issued a Book of Offices [1914, 1949], the forerunners to today’s Book of Occasional Services [bos]; later an expanded Sanctorale, eventually known as Lesser Feasts and Fasts [lff], also appeared, and the series of Enriching Our Worship [eow] rites for trial use is now also well established in some places. It is worth noting that the Church of England’s Common Worship series now runs to several volumes with a bewildering array of options.


With that conspectus having brought us to the present, we return to the question for the future: what should be included in the Prayer Book, and what relegated to other supplementary volumes? How far can the idea of a single-volume library be pushed? For whom and for what occasions is the book intended?

Is the Prayer Book intended to be a sort of Anglican Liber Usualis, a compendium of the services most often used in parishes, as, in a way, the first Prayer Books arguably were? In many places today this would amount to a book for Holy Baptism (and Confirmation, if that increasingly commonly deprecated rite should survive the next revision), the Holy Eucharist, Holy Matrimony, and the Burial of the Dead, such is the disuse of the Daily Office.

Or ought the book to follow the implications of its historical title pages and provide for a more complete and even ideal view of the life and belief of the Church: the Office, the two dominical Sacraments, and ‘other sacramental rites’? If so, then there is relatively little that could be omitted from today’s book and probably several things that want adding – and yet the book probably cannot practicably be extended much beyond its current thousand pages.

It could be argued, especially given the historical precedent for the separate life of the Ordinal, that the pontifical liturgies of Ordination, Dedication of a Church, and Celebration of a New Ministry could or should once again be separated from the Prayer Book. The last of these, hopefully a somewhat infrequently observed occasion, might be relegable to the bos, where it could live beside the ‘Service for the Ending of a Pastoral Relationship and Leave-taking from a Congregation’. Ordinations of deacons and priests are more frequent in some places, but I suggest that frequency of use is not the issue here, or rather that in these cases their infrequency bespeaks their importance (just as the liturgies of Holy Week are used only once a year). The ordination of a bishop is a rather infrequent occurrence, yet here in many ways is the liturgy found in its fullest form, with the full set of lessons, the deacon’s duties, the pontifical blessing, and other elements all specified. Similarly, the liturgy for the Dedication of a Church has many things to say about theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental ministry, however blandly they may be phrased in the current rite – and the importance of such an event in the life of a parish and of the Church is borne out by the traditional rank of the Anniversary of the Dedication as a major feast (there are currently Propers for Office and Mass, including a Preface, as well as the Litany of Thanksgiving for a Church, which may be used on such an occasion) and the echoes of it in the dedications of furnishings provided for in the bos. Like the liturgies of the Triduum, these services, by virtue of the completeness with which they show forth the Church’s life, merit a place in the Prayer Book.

What else might be omitted? Doubtless many will suggest that traditional-language versions of the rites need not be included in future books, and perhaps they are right – though one hopes that the permission for such versions will stand, and that perhaps a resource not unlike the Anglican Service Book might find official sanction. On the other hand, I might suggest that the Psalter need not necessarily be included: it is technically not part of the Prayer Book; without musical notation of some sort it is of limited usefulness; and in bcp1979 it runs to some 225 pages. If a Psalter were to be included in a much reconsidered Hymnal, it could be removed from the Prayer Book.

The two-page Form of Commitment to Christian Service might seem something of an anomaly, but rather than remove it, I suggest that it be joined (or replaced) by a related, fuller, service currently found in bos: the Commissioning of Lay Ministers. (One might wish, too, that the need for the rite of Setting Apart for a Special Vocation would be so great as to be obvious.) Similarly, another complex of rites that has largely lain languishing in bos, the Catechumenate, would be a very welcome addition: both bear directly upon the ‘baptismal ecclesiology’ of the Episcopal Church that has been brought so much to the fore in recent years (or was until the advocates of the administration of communion to unbaptized persons gained such a strong voice). A more robust use of the Catechumenate and Commissionings would do much to point up both the sacrament of Baptism and the ‘ministry of all the baptized’. The Baptismal Vigils found in bos (one of these, the Vigil of Pentecost, being outlined with the bcp Collects for that feast) would be welcome companions to the Easter Vigil and the Catechumenal rites in the bcp.

The bos Public Service of Healing has become a much more popular rite than any of the foregoing; as a primary opportunity to offer the gift of unction, it appropriately falls under the ‘rites and ceremonies of the Church’ and seemingly ought to appear in the Prayer Book.

Finally, some, but by no means all, of the eow materials relating to death and mourning – rites cruelly curtailed in the bcp tradition as compared to the richness of their medieval forebears – will likely also find a welcome place in the bcp, especially given the precedent of other Anglican prayer-books published since bcp1979.


Addendum, 2018

Though interpretations of what exactly happened at the 2018 General Convention vary, it seems that the Episcopal Church has backed away from undertaking a full-scale Prayer Book revision at this time, and that the adjustments being called for are relatively minor. The question of what the Prayer Book is and comprehends remains relevant.