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Evangelicals and the Book of Common Prayer

Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University and former professor of English at Wheaton College, wrote a sweeping (yet not dense), elegant “biography” of the Book of Common Prayer. It is part of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series and is one of ny favorite recent reads. In an interview published by Christianity Today, Jacobs explains why the Anglican prayerbook has had such an impact. The whole interview– not too long to read in a few minutes– is well worth and read and can be found HERE.

Some of my favorite bits are excerpted below:

What makes the Book of Common Prayer a distinctively evangelical form of worship? Well, I’m not sure it is, at least in its liturgies. Cranmer strove to maintain as much continuity with traditional forms of worship as he could, given his commitments to the Reformation. So in the liturgies themselves there is little that a medieval Catholic Christian could find fault with—except that they are in English…

[The second difference– of two– between the Book of Common Prayer and existing Catholic liturgies of its day] and for Cranmer most important, is the strong emphasis on a lectionary that took people through the whole Bible—and, if people went to Morning and Evening Prayer, read through the whole of the books of Psalms each month. Cranmer wanted the literate to read the Bible thoroughly and faithfully, and for the illiterate to hear it read every day…Saturation in Scripture was Cranmer’s primary goal for the people of England, and I don’t think you can get more evangelical than that!

What about some of the problems that evangelicals have had with the BCP over the years? …[S]ome evangelicals have viewed the prayer book as a kind of rote formalism that quenches revival and the free movement of the Spirit. The more intractable protestors have always been those who prefer “free” (unscripted) worship, who disdain all set forms. One of the more hard-core in this group was the great poet John Milton, who not only rejected all liturgy but did not even believe that Christians were permitted to say the Lord’s Prayer (he saw it merely as a template which we should adapt for the needs of our own hearts). For people like Milton, the very existence of any kind of prayer book is offensive.

What would you say are the strengths of the historic prayer book tradition? More specifically, speaking as an evangelical Anglican yourself, what do you think evangelicals can learn from it? In making his prayer book, Thomas Cranmer wanted to make sure that the people of England were constantly exposed to Holy Scripture in a language they understood, working through the whole of the Bible regularly and the Psalms every month, while following a calendar that rehearsed in every church year the whole story of salvation starting with the Fall and culminating in Christ’s unique sacrifice of himself on the Cross and his glorious resurrection, the benefits of which we are not worthy to receive on any merits of ours—”we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table”—but only through the purest grace extended on the basis of Christ’s unique status as Lord and Savior.

How can you get any more evangelical than that?

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