Dearmer on the Prayer Book System

In one of his brief little tracts, Percy Dearmer wrote explained for his day (the turn from the 19th to the 20th century) the spiritual system of the prayer book. Of course, he’s referring to the English 1662 BCP, but most everything he says still holds for the American ’79 as well:


Let us see, then, what the Prayer Book system will be when we have come back into the habit of carrying it out.

The Churchman is helped by the grace of God all through his life, from the cradle to the grave. He is baptized as a little child, and thus brought into the [28/29] Holy Catholic Church and made a member of Christ. As soon as he is old enough to understand, he is taught the Catechism diligently, thoroughly, regularly, from week to week, while his elders sit by and listen—for they are expected to be present.

When he has come to years of discretion, and is no longer a little child, he is brought to the Bishop to be fortified by Confirmation. After Confirmation he becomes a regular communicant, going to the Lord’s Service every Lord’s Day, indeed on Holy-days as well as Sundays. [* The Prayer Book provides Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for the red-letter Saints’ Days just the same as for Sundays.]

Thus at Baptism he begins his spiritual life, just as he begins his natural life at birth. [* See the 3rd chapter of S. John’s Gospel, where our Lord explains this as being “born again.”]

At Catechizing he learns about his spiritual life.

At Confirmation he is strengthened in his spiritual life.

At Communion he is given spiritual food to support his spiritual life, just as at ordinary meals he is given common food to support his natural life. [* See the 6th chapter of S. John’s Gospel, where our Lord says that except we are fed with the Body of Christ we have “no life,” that is no spiritual life, in us.]

If he is married, he comes for the blessing of the Church; and at the end of the Marriage Service a rubric tells the newly-married pair that they ought then, or as soon after as possible, to make their Communion. If there are any children, the mother comes to be Churched; and then the little one is brought to Baptism, and the “Occasional Services” are begun over again for another little Christian.

Lastly, when illness comes, the Church is there with her blessing once more for his Visitation, Absolution, and Communion; and at the end of all she receives his body for the last time within her walls, and commends his soul to God in the Burial of the Dead.

[30] Thus the events in a Christian’s life have taken us through a considerable part of the Prayer Book—the part that lies between the Thanksgivings and the Psalter.


Now let us look at the rest of the Prayer Book—the parts that concern the everyday life of the Christian, viz.:—

(1) The Kalendar (including the Lectionary).
(2) The large section from Mattins to the end of the Prayers and Thanksgivings.
(3) The Psalter.

How does the Church of England expect you and me to worship God from day to day? More than we most of us do. The bad habits of many generations have left us far behind this Christian ideal, and often we cannot live up to it if we would. Holy-days, for instance, used to be real holidays, when all the people had a rest; and then it was easier to come to church. But Oliver Cromwell made people work on these days, and took away the people’s holidays; and so it has been more difficult to go to church ever since.

Still, most of us could worship God more than we do. We might come to church before work begins, for instance, on Holy-days, and many can often come on ordinary week-days also.

Here, at any rate, is what the Prayer Book expects of us:—

1. Every day of the week. Morning Prayer in the morning and Evening Prayer in the evening, “that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God.” [* The Preface “Concerning the Service of the Church.” See also the Order at the end of this Preface; and notice how often the word “daily” comes in the Prayer Book.]

2. Wednesdays and Fridays. [31] The Litany in addition to Mattins and Evensong.

3. Holy-days, i.e., the Saints’ Days, etc., “to be observed.” The Holy Communion (see the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels provided for these days), and Catechizing, in addition to Mattins and Evensong.

4. Sundays. In addition to the above (Mattins, Litany, Holy Communion—with the special Collect, Epistle and Gospel of the Sunday—Evensong, Catechizing) a Sermon is ordered to be preached on Sunday during the Communion Service by Canon 45.

Some special days are further marked out. The Great Festivals (Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday) have Proper Prefaces at Holy Communion. Ash Wednesday has an extra service of penance called the Commination. Four times a year there are three Ember Days, which have special Collects, so that people may pray for those who are to be ordained on the following Sunday. Other “Prayers and Thanksgivings” are provided for special occasions, notably the beautiful Prayer for ALL Conditions for use on the mornings when there is no Litany, and the Prayer for Parliament for use during the Session; and furthermore, the Athanasian Creed is set down on certain Festivals.

Add to these the Forms of Prayer to be read daily at sea, which come after the Psalter, and the Ordinal (i.e., the Services for the Ordination of Deacons and Priests, and for the Consecration of Bishops), and we have completed our survey of the Prayer Book.


Is it not a great ideal of Christian life and worship? Shall we not all be better and stronger men when we take better advantage of our opportunities? Will not the Church of England be indeed a great and noble [31/32] Church when all who belong to her are regular communicants, when the parish church of every place is thronged with devout worshippers day after day, and when the children of England are all thoroughly taught the splendid Doctrine and Duties of the Catechism?

It is a sad and humiliating thought that, while a few centuries ago all Englishmen belonged to the fellowship of the one Church, and all partook of the life of our Lord in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, now England is full of petty divisions and miserable quarrelling, while the masses of the people are not even communicants. They belong to the Church, but they do not understand her, and so they are not faithful to her, and have little real love for Christ in their hearts. We have, therefore, enormous arrears to make up. We must pray more, worship more, teach others more, and thus lead the way, by our own loyalty, to a great revival of Christianity in our land.

Shall we not succeed? Through the neglect of past years the Church has become like a missionary in a strange land. But as we love God more and love our neighbour more, and in this spirit of love and devotion carry out the half-forgotten rules of the Prayer Book, we shall lead the people back from their Babylon, and build again the walls of Jerusalem.

The whole tract is available on Project Canterbury but this is the heart of it.

19 thoughts on “Dearmer on the Prayer Book System

  1. mcdoc

    Would one go so far as to say, “Supported by the contents of the BCP, somebody (anybody, wherever they happen to find themselves) has to strike out, even on their own, crack it open, use it, and lead,” despite whatever prevailing apathetic inertia round about?

  2. bls

    My aunt used to keep the 1928 Book on the table in her living room, and she did use it often. It was a small, hand-size book; the regular 1928 was smaller, too, than our current one, and maybe it felt more like a “prayer book” than the huge fat tome we have now. It could be held in one hand, and easily leafed though.

    The thing is: I think a lot of people don’t really know what’s in the book anymore, on account of bulletins.

    Also, I’m not sure what the differences were and are between, say, the Pastoral Offices of the 1928 and the 1979; I may go take a look. And I believe the Sunday readings were right in the book, too, because there was no 3-year Lectionary at that time. The 1928 Offices are quite beautiful, I think – I bet lots of people really DID use them at home. Even I like them, and the words sometimes pass through my head.

    I suppose people probably re-read those Sunday readings during the week following; was there also a section with all the different kinds of prayers in it, as we have now? I really will have to go take a look.

    So it seemed, maybe, to be more of an all-in-one thing than it does now: a smaller book that one could easily pick up and pray from.

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile to put out something new, that maybe followed the system of the Prayer Book -, but that had a more personal and devotional flavor. It would have the Daily Offices, and then maybe meditations on some of the other services (because we really don’t need the full service of Baptism and Eucharist – let alone the Ordination services – at home!) Lots of prayers, some stuff about the calendar and the saints, etc. (Maybe something quite a bit like Full Homely Divinity, in fact! In both print and e-Reader versions….)

  3. Mike

    I know a lot of people who stil use the 28 book, even if they worship with something else on Sunday, and not necessarily folks older than me. There are certainly improvements in the 79 book, especially in the Eucharistic rite, but I also think something of value was lost. I can still remember pretty much what gospel goes with what Sunday from the old book (and I am only 48) but wouldn’t have a clue for 79, especially with the three year lectionary, which has never grown on me. As far as psalms, I now usually say the 79 psalms most often for my office, but if I am quoting from memory, it is Coverdale à la 1928.

  4. bls

    Oh, the Coverdale! I don’t know it at all by heart, but most Anglican Chants are written with those texts, so I have the feel of it from singing in the choir. So lovely. (You might like my Anglican Chant posts, in fact! Wonderful choirs.)

    I do like the 1979 Psalter, too, though. But getting a 1928 for prayer at home is kind of a good idea, in fact; I’m considering that seriously now – even though I’ve never worshipped with it, and had never even seen one till I went to St. Thomas in New York, where they keep it in the pews just so people can follow along with the Coverdale…..

  5. Alan Robinson

    For people who love the language,style and spirit of BCP, and yet want something that is more personal and subjective, might I suggest: ERIC MILNER WHITE; My God, My Glory. I have just recently discovered it and find it a wonderful collection of prayer-prompts-meditations. There may be others……..any suggestion ?

  6. Scott Cooper

    It is a bit of a brick, but the 1928 (deposited) Book of Common Prayer from the Church of England, in addition to having lovely language, has all of the Daily Office readings.

  7. brian m

    Yes, but the Office readings are from the 1922 English tables of lessons. I think those are great, and far superior to the 1979 US tables, but they are entirely different.

  8. bls

    Milner-White is great, I agree. I’ve seen another of his books – “A Procession of Passion Prayers.”

    The books are really expensive now, because out of print – but a note in the “Book Description” section on that page says that “Many of the earliest books, particularly those dating back to the 1900s and before, are now extremely scarce and increasingly expensive. We are republishing many of these classic works in affordable, high quality, modern editions, using the original text and artwork.”

  9. Paul Goings

    I used to use the two-volume Daily Office Book from Church Hymnal, which was very useful, and for parochial use the four-volume green daily office readings set is superb. Both, I think, are still in print. The one drawback is that, if you want to have two readings at each office, and need to use the book for the alternate year, it’s cumbersome. These used the RSV, and there is also a set with the NRSV, which I have, but have never used regularly

  10. Alan Robinson

    BLS Have you tried A.B.E. books ? I have found Eric Milner White books and others quite cheaply. Some old-ish Office books, e.g. the excellent and well produced CUDDESDON OFFICE BOOK, which I bought off the shelf in 1971 for about £1, is fetching huge ££££, as do others.

  11. bls

    Well, I don’t do £££££, so I don’t know if A.B.E. will even work for me…. ;-)

    But, I will check it out – thanks!

  12. Paul Goings

    My God, My Glory is available on Amazon for $11.99. It’s an SPCK edition from ’94, so I don’t think it’s been updated.

    I have a Cuddeson Office Book, bought when things were cheap, i.e. the mid-1990’s. It seems that it and Galley’s Prayer Book Office now fetch a premium.

  13. Alan Robinson

    I am sure EVERYONE can access A.B.E. with $$$$$.
    Does anyone know if and where Percy Dearmer writes against Realistic/naturalistic crucifixes and presumably praised Majestas-Christ the King Crosses ? There seem to be a lot of P.D. experts here. Cuddesdon Office Books cheap in the 1990s!!!!!! I bought mine off the bookshop shelf new In Belfast (of all places) and I am sure it was only about £1/$2 or so. O tempora o mores

  14. Derek Olsen

    Hi Alan,

    You may be thinking of this section in chapter 2 of The Parson’s Handbook:

    The Cross was very generally used, but not always, before the Reformation; though nowadays many seem to consider it a necessity. In cases where a painting forms the altar-piece it is often better dispensed with, especially for minor altars; and the appropriateness of using a cross where the crucifixion forms part of the altar-piece is more than questionable. Although altar crucifixes are certainly included under the rubric, there is much to be said both from the ceremonial and from the theological point of view against their use on the altar.[8] The proper place for a representation of the crucified Redeemer is the Rood-screen. In any case the primitive crucifix, in which our Lord is represented in an attitude of benediction and majesty, is more seemly than the twisted and distorted figure one often sees.

  15. Alan Robinson

    Thanks for this. I have always wondered where he was supposed to have said this, if indeed he did. Interesting that in the brand new Abbey Church of St Madeleine, Le Barroux (France) this Traditionalist Catholic community have a Majestas Cross as a kind of Rood beam in front of the Sanctuary. There are many pictures of this fine robed and crowned Christus and now they make smaller copies for sale.

  16. brian m

    Paul, there is also the option of carrying just the BCP (or the BDW, if you are RC and/or in need of arm strengthening) and downloading the daily RSV lessons from the SMV site:

    These files include the OT lessons from the alternate year, and are set up for Years 1 and 2 so the “Gospel flip-flop” is also accommodated.

  17. Paul Goings

    Brian, that’s an excellent resource, although it does require downloading, printing, and carrying around rather a lot of pieces of paper.

    I tended to just use the three lessons, one at Mattins and two at Evensong.

    I always wished that Galley’s office book would have been a more worthy successor to Hartzell’s, but I never much cared for it.

  18. Harold Stassen

    Isn’t the Episcopal church, like all the protestant mainline, shrinking away? They just mothballed the cathedrals in Rhode Island and Delaware.

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