One of the modern tag-lines used to describe the Book of Common Prayer is that it is “The Bible arranged for worship.” Much can and has been said about the sheer bulk of its pages being that of Scriptures, verbatim or referenced, most particularly the full Psalter. What I thought I’d describe today is the range of ways in which this descriptor is proven true. We Anglicans boast, quite rightly I daresay, that ours is the most biblical of liturgies the Church has ever had – let’s take a moment here to defend that claim and explore the major ways in which this is so.
In brief, the Scriptures are (1) heard spoken aloud, (2) they are preached, and (3) they are paraphrased or synthesized in prayer.
The Scriptures are heard spoken aloud.
There are three primary ways in which the Scriptures are encountered audibly in our worship: there are lessons, sentences, and prayers.
The LESSONS are distinct times of Bible-reading during a worship service. All churches that retain a liturgical tradition have Bible readings, though many in the “free church” tradition have sadly lost this crucial staple of worship, relegating the reading of a sermon text to within the sermon. Modern Anglican liturgies most typically have three lessons at Holy Communion: an Old Testament text, an Epistle text, and a Gospel text. The classical Prayer Book tradition typically had two: an Epistle and a Gospel. The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer also have two: typically one Old Testament and one New Testament. Exceptions to these patterns exist, but at a typical worship service that is what you can expect. In almost every case, though, these lessons are introduced with a citation of which book of the Bible they come from, and frequently which chapter, and even verses.
Sometimes simply one SENTENCE of Scripture is read, and it may or may not be introduced with a citation. This may be an “opening sentence” at the start of Morning or Evening Prayer, an Offertory Sentence before the collection, a Communion Sentence right after everyone has received the consecrated bread and wine, or a sort of mini-lesson in Midday Prayer or Compline. These are moments of devotional impact, not typically to be expounded further or given additional context or explanation. These are simply moments that are ornamented with the Word of God for beauty, for gravity, and for meaning.
And, of course, there are many ways in which we experience the Scriptures as PRAYERS. When we hear part of a Psalm at the Communion service – be it a traditional introit or gradual, or a responsory psalm after the Old Testament Lesson – we are praying that text. In the Daily Offices, often multiple Psalms are prayed in full! These are readings, but not lessons; we don’t sit back and listen, but we sit up (or even stand) and make those words our own in prayer. There are many traditions of chanting or singing the Psalms, also emphasizing this posture of prayer rather than only listening. Besides the Psalms there are other psalm-like texts which are also prayed. These are usually called Canticles, and various forms of the liturgical tradition call for different specific examples. There are a few from Isaiah and Exodus, and a couple from Revelation, but the three most significant canticles are from the Gospel of Luke: the Song of Zechariah, the Song of Mary, and the Song of Simeon.
The Scriptures are preached.
This is hardly unique to the Anglican tradition; all Christian churches include preaching in some manner in their worship services. But something that is relatively unique to the Prayer Book tradition is its collection of “exhortations” found in various liturgies. The famous “Dearly beloved…” speech at the start of the marriage ceremony is perhaps the most well-known example, which references several parts of Scripture and sets out a summary of the biblical doctrine of marriage – it is basically a two-minute sermon! There are a handful of such exhortations in the Prayer Book: some calling people to participate in Holy Communion, some shorter ones calling people to confess their sins before God, some outlining the duties of a bishop, or priest, or deacon at a service of Ordination. These are brief moments in which the minister is speaking to the congregation and expounding the Scriptures on one topic or another, providing biblical teaching to help them participate in the worship that is to follow.
The Scriptures are paraphrased or synthesized in prayer.
Like the several Exhortations in the Prayer Book, our tradition also bears a great many prayers that bring together biblical material to celebrate or proclaim various truths from the Word of God.
One of the greatest examples of this is the wealth of COLLECTS in the Prayer Book. Although not unique to the Anglican tradition, our liturgies do emphasize the use of these stylized prayers more than most other churches do. A collect is made up of an address to God which usually identifies something about his character or works, a petition which we ask, and a purpose undergirding that petition, often tying it back to the relevant thing about God’s character or works. Many of these collects quote or paraphrase Scripture, and all of them reflect on some biblical truth.
Besides the collects, many other prayers in the Book of Common Prayer contain biblical quotes, references, paraphrases, and allusions that together express a coherent theology built upon the Bible. The Prayers of the People make reference to some New Testament teachings on how the church should pray, and draw from biblical language in so doing. The Communion prayers include the Words of Institution (the words of Christ at the Last Supper) amidst a host of other biblical references. Other prayers at baptism, marriage, funerals, for the penitent, for the sick, prayers of thanksgiving, also bring together biblical material.
This is a double benefit.
For evangelicals who grew up with a heavy emphasis on Bible Study, discovering the traditional liturgy can be a great joy as they find a truly endless stream of biblical material in the prayers of the Church. This is a part of my own story. And it works the other way, too: those who grow up hearing the Prayer Book liturgy but received less instruction in the Bible find great joy in discovering the language of the liturgy in the Scriptures. As a priest and pastor I have seen folks in both positions experiencing the same joy of connecting biblical familiarity and liturgical familiarity. It is a joy and passion of mine to help people connect those dots.
I call this a double benefit because, rightly used, the Bible and the Liturgy reinforce one another in the lives of the worshipers. As we read the Bible and learn its words and teachings, and as we participate in the liturgy and learn from its content as well, we find that they reinforce one another. When the Church’s worship (or liturgy) is truly biblical, then it can be celebrated and enjoyed with confidence and joy, knowing that knowledge and study of the Bible will confirm its value. It also reminds us that worship and prayer are not arbitrary, disconnected from theology and Bible study. Rather, the doctrine and discipline of the Church is intertwined, synthesized, a coherent and unified whole. There should not be any competition or strife between the two, they are ultimately one and the same: the proclamation of the God who makes us, loves us, redeems us.