Welcome to Saturday Book Review time! On most of the Saturdays this year we’re going to look at a liturgy-related book noting (as applicable) its accessibility, devotional usefulness, and reference value. Or, how easy it is to read, the prayer life it engenders, and how much it can teach you.
We’re starting with the 1662 Common Prayer Book, a very good place to start. As I have mentioned before, this is my “second” prayer book in terms of the order and extent that I got to know a prayer book. It was preceded by three: those of 1549 (under King Henry VIII), 1552 (under King Edward), and 1559 (under Queen Elizabeth). The 1662 is most like the 1559, for the most part being a re-issue of the Elizabethan Prayer Book after its temporary suppression by the Puritan government which deemed the book not sufficiently reformed and “purified” from Papist influence. For the modern reader and pray-er accustomed to variety and choice, the 1662 Prayer Book is frustratingly short on options. On the other hand this makes it one of the thinnest and simplest Prayer Books of them all.
Some of the distinctions that mark this Prayer Book from its successors include prayers for the monarch royal family, and a cultural expectation that weekly Communion will not be received by the people, or even celebrated by the priests.
As an English book, and the Church of England being a state church, the Prayer Book quite naturally appoints quite a few collects and prayers for the reigning monarch, the royal family, and the welfare of the country at large. Outside of the British Commonwealth this has to be “translated” into more generic prayers for the state or government leaders. And, apart from rewriting those specific words, there is also the question of mentality – what is the more subtle influence in a Prayer Book of a national church, and how should prayers for the state be approached where the government is not a patron of the Church?
The practical pastoral issues surround the frequency of Holy Communion also marks the 17th century from the 21st. The Communion service begins with the following rubric:
So many as intend to be partakers of the holy Communion shall signify their names to the Curate, at least some time the day before.
Imagine having to register with the clergy every week! Clearly times and expectations have changed. Also, in the middle of the Communion service stand three lengthy Exhortations: one announcing the celebration of Communion on an upcoming Sunday or Holy Day, one for when he sees people are negligent about coming to the Communion table, and one for the day the Communion is actually being celebrated. Only the last of these has survived into modern prayer books – the expectation of a weekly Eucharist and the peoples’ participation therein is a surprisingly recent achievement in Anglican practice.
Comparing the lengths of liturgies between the 1662 and the common modern rites can also be jarring. This book has shorter Communion prayers but longer prayers of the people. Its Baptism and Confirmation services are brief affairs, but its Daily Office is robust, especially with the use of the Athanasian Creed 13 times a year and the Litany 3 times a week.
The ratings in short:
I’m not sure if a 5/5 Prayer Book exists; they all have some sort of learning curve. But the lack of options and variations go a long way to making this book as usable as it is. The typeface and blocky filling of space is also strange to the modern eye, as prayer books today tend to have a lot of blank space between sections. Necessary page-flipping is minimal, and the rubrics are usually very specific about what you’re supposed to do next.
Devotional Usefulness: 4/5
The biggest winner in this book is the Daily Office. The original lectionary covers more of the Bible than pretty much any of its successors. The prayers and canticles and collects, creeds and litany, really make Morning and Evening Prayer the heartbeat of the life of worship in this volume. If you’re of a high church sort, you may find the Communion prayers a bit frustrating. Some have observed a lack of evangelistic or missional emphasis in the older prayer books such as this one. And the 17th century English can be a bit of a stumbling block to those not used to it.
Reference Value: 4/5
This is kind of tricky. On one hand, early prayer books like the 1662 didn’t go out of their way to pepper their pages with scriptural citations. It’s constantly quoting and paraphrasing the Bible but you don’t always get to see where it’s coming from. It simply is what it is, and if you don’t notice where it comes from then you’ll just have to ask someone else. On the other hand, this is, historically, the quintessential prayer book; others are measured according to this one. So the 1662 BCP is of reference value simply on its own merits; you can compare liturgies and prayers from other books to this one, knowing this is the “standard” most Anglican provinces recognize as the common baseline.
All in all, this is a significant book. I wouldn’t say that every Anglican ought to have and study it, but anyone who cares about Anglican tradition and history definitely should. And that, by definition, should include all members of the clergy!