BCP: Dead or alive?

This blog is the result of reading the thoughts of others, mainly folk I have met through Twitter – thanks to ALL of them for thought provoking, stimulating discussion.

I was brought up on the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Matins (Morning Prayer) twice a month, Evensong once a month, Holy Communion once a month.  That’s a lot of Thee Thou and Thy from the age of 2-18. It wasn’t until I joined the Christian Union at secondary school that I discovered that apparently God understands modern English – a discovery which was, and remains, liberating.  But when I started to lead worship in the last few years, sometimes services from the BCP, I discovered that I had memorised huge chunks of it, without realising it at all.  That’s what repetition does for you.

People have been predicting the death of the BCP for the whole of my life.  It tends to get used at the early and late services these days (I generalise).  And the argument goes along the lines that “the congregation is old, so as they die, so will BCP”.  (With apologies to any BCP bod reading this, I know you are probably not old). But over the last 40 years, it hasn’t happened.

I grew up near Stratford-Upon-Avon – Shakespeare country.  So the first theatre I saw was by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and yes, until I was about 15 it was all Shakespeare.  Finding modern dramatists was just as liberating as being freed from BCP liturgy.  But I have found I need both old and new, that different needs are met.  Just as I still love watching and reading Shakespeare, but enjoy David Hare too.  It’s interesting to see how Shakespeare is reinterpreted again and again – those of my generation will recall a Romeo and Juliet at Stratford in the mid-1980s with gangs and an amazing flash red car.  It was sexy and modern and used Shakespearean language faithfully.   Twenty years later I saw an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in the West End, performed by 4 American men, in which they used the text to explore the awakening of gay sexuality.  It was sexy and modern and used the Shakespearian text faithfully (with a couple of modern bits at the beginning).  

If I use BCP with the same musical settings, interspersed with the same hymns, and possibly the same sermons, as I heard as a child 40 years ago, then some people will find it comforting and “right”.  Others will find it dull.  More will find it incomprehensible.  Understanding Shakespeare’s language takes work (and did even when he was alive – he invented dozens? hundreds? of new words).  Understanding BCP takes concentration – especially if it is said by someone who hasn’t invested the time to make it comprehensible.  

And not everyone has to like it.  Not everyone likes Jane Austin, or Tom Sharpe, or Henning Mankell, or Stephen Fry.  We have multiple liturgies (set services) available for use in the Church of England today – a richly textured variety.  What matters is not what language we and God use to speak to each other – but that we understand and act on the conversation.

I will carry on using BCP as long as two or three are prepared to gather with me.  I reserve the right to change the sermon (or even do something which makes the congregation move), to use modern hymns, and one day I might try using some screen visuals.  I won’t be forcing people to have BCP Baptisms or Weddings – unless they ask, I won’t even suggest it.  But BCP, done well, has as much right to be in the churches as Common Worship done well.  Or even, Common Worship, done well, has as much right to be in the churches as BCP, done well!

I don’t mind that some folk hate it.  Some people hate boiled eggs, or baked beans, or gherkins.  We are all different.  I do mind when people tell me I shouldn’t like it – or that I should love their favourite worship song, when I might not.  I wouldn’t want an exclusive BCP diet, any more than I would want to rely exclusively on the KJV of the Bible.  Using modern language makes sense.  But so does reaching back into our heritage, be it literary or theological.  


7 responses to “BCP: Dead or alive?

  1. Well said!
    I think our desire to use the BCP and the KJV from time to time (not exclusively) needs to be indulged by our fellow Anglicans just as we indulge their desire to sing 'Shine, Jesus shine' (and even join in) and use a modern liturgy which to my ears can sound banal in its efforts to sound up to date. You say tomayto and I say tomahto: let's hear it for a rainbow-coloured inclusive Anglicanism!

  2. I think you've hit the nail squarely on the head. I came to the CofE 3 years ago from an RC background, having not practised any faith or over a quarter of a century. I'd never heard of BCP, Common Worship and my view of 'Protestent' liturgy (as it was described to us as catholics) was uninformed and unformed.

    I was welcomed into my Parish and the CofE during a Common Worship Holy Communion, which felt pretty much like the Mass (in the vernacular) I used to attend many years ago. The difference being that we had a small side service for me to renew my Baptism Vows so that I could take HC in good conscience. Off course there was no latin, but than the Catholics abandoned that, only now wanting to bring it back!

    I was later received/confirmed in a confirmation service at Canterbury Cathedral, a most affirming experience, which initiated a process, which has now been discerned as a call to ministry, still being evaluated.

    I was advised to try all types of worship service and traditions within the CofE and did so. My parish has the predictable 8 am BCP rotating around our 5 benefice churches each Sunday and we have services of Matins and Evensong (one or two a month) again, rotating around the churches. I also have Canterbury Cathedral 2 miles away for the wonderful services they run, including BCP. Evensong there is a joy, and a fulfilling worship experience, musically and spiritually.

    I attend and continue to attend a wide variety of services on courses at the Services Chaplains Centre and during some formal training at Christian Colleges. The mix of liturgy and music is wonderful and I love being somewhere new to experience worship, even if I find it uncomfortable in some way, it's still an experience of an act of worship.

    I think Laura perhaps has it in here comment above “let's hear it for a rainbow-coloured, inclusive Anglicanism”. BCP will always be a part of my worship experience and long may it continue.

  3. Many thanks both of you. I am entertaining the notion of a T Shirt – “I [Heart] the Book of Common Prayer” with small print “and reserve the right to use modern language to talk with God whenever we like”

  4. What a wonderfully balanced view. Like you and others, I was raised on BCP and later the less lamented late-ASB. And yes, on the rare occasion I'm enabled to use it (like on holiday) I still find it comes back everso easily.

    It's just a pity that in some places those who are 'lay ministers' do not get to use it, because BCP is often reserved for Holy Communion only – at least in the places I've led worship.

    There's also something about the place of the sermon in a BCP Holy Communion… somewhere in the back of my mind I think it sort of makes more sense, so I shall have to go re-read it.

  5. Thanks Rachel. The good thing about our Benefice is that we get Matins and Evensong too. The sad thing is that as one of the Priests, I seldom get to do either!

    I largely missed out on ASB – used it at university, then for long and complicated reasons didn't go to church again (apart from occasional BCP at original home) until 1996 – and CW came out in 2000? and 2001? So I never got used to ASB at all!

  6. Excellent post, Clare – thank you. I live in western Canada and our 1959 Book of Common Prayer (which is probably about half way in between your 1662 and 1928 books) is now very, very rarely used – in my parish it is not used at all, and there is really no call for it. However, as I said over on the Lay Anglicana blog, I have found that the BCP perfectly meets my needs for my daily office. I like its simplicity and ease of use (too much variety, to me, tends to draw my attention to the mechanics of the service rather than to God – a killer for real prayer, I find), I enjoy the language and the theological depth of the intercessory prayers, and I especially enjoy the lectionary which is much more simple and straightforward, and covers a lot more scripture each day than our 1985 Book of Alternative Services (I especially enjoy reading through the psalms once a month).

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