New Beginnings and Old Roots for The Book of Common Prayer

Added about 2 years ago by Kevin Carey

GUEST BLOG: With a new liturgical year just around the corner, we’re focusing on some of our liturgical resources as part of our November #ThemeOfTheMonth: New Beginnings. In this week’s blog Kevin Carey, author of Stir Up, O Lord: A Companion to the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels in the Book of Common Prayer, discusses his effort to marry current issues, concerns and events to the age old wisdom and beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer.Author Photo

After those Desert Island icons of the Bible and Shakespeare, the third place would almost certainly go to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) which was our pivotal liturgical text, in the form we know it now, from the reign of one Elizabeth to the other. Rendered all the more important because it was not only a prayer book per se, but also, particularly in its Collects and Eucharistic liturgy, the chief repository of Anglican theology, which came to be both its strength and its weakness. Its strength was that people could approximately grasp what their Church stood for without having to resort to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Its concomitant weakness, which it shared with the Articles, was that it became stuck in its time, concerned with the religio-political issues of the sixteenth century such as the nature of Eucharist and the nature of authority in a national church.

Harking back to the Desert Island, there are no doubt some people who have lived their whole lives with the BCP who would use it as a prayer book, but I suspect the majority would say their reason for wanting it is that its language is sublime. To that extent it has become its own worst enemy being hung onto, like the Authorised Version of the Bible, not for what it says but how it says it.

Some ten years ago I was being supervised by a priest who loved the BCP dearly but who recognised much of what I have said. He was frightened that his BCP Services would become liturgical museum pieces. After considering the issue, and accepting that it would be impossible to alter any of the prayers to reflect broader theological and ethical issues than its content encompasses, I looked for recent commentaries on the set texts but found that, not unnaturally, much energy was still being devoted to providing commentary material for the new Common Lectionary. I therefore decided to make a completely new beginning by writing a set of commentaries on the set Collects, Epistles and Gospels in the BCP for Sundays and Principal Feast days which allowed me, in approximately 1,000 words, to raise the kinds of topics which I would do in preaching on these same texts in a Common Worship Eucharist; I also added discussion points for house group leaders. The result was Stir Up, O Lord which, to my great joy, has so far stood the test of time for, although there are doubtless some people whose theological and ethical interests are as narrow as those in the BCP, I concluded from the congregations I knew that adherence to the beloved texts did not necessarily signify a lack of interest in contemporary issues.

If anything, in those ten years, the need for our Scriptures to be understood in the context of our current collective and personal crises has increased. It is interesting, for example, that references to pandemic are sparse in the BCP in spite of frequent outbreaks of plague and there is, naturally, no awareness of social justice outside the call for care for the poor, the proper treatment of women, the evils of slavery or the dangers of industrial capitalism, let alone any references to sex and gender, medical ethics or environmental issues. I have been gratified by the steady interest in the book, not least by students at colleges of theology and hope that it will provide a necessary corrective so that the use of the BCP will survive as a religious rather than simply as an aesthetic experience.

Kevin Carey is one of Sacristy Press’s founding and most prolific authors, writing Christian literature in all major forms: novels, non-fiction, plays and verse. He is a Reader in the Church of England, singing in three church choirs, and was a Member of General Synod from 2005 to 2010. His book Stir Up, O Lord is being featured as part of our November #ThemeOfTheMonth: New Beginnings – get your copy here!

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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