Towards Teaching the Spirituality of the BCP

After speaking so many fine words about spirituality and the BCP and how it ought to be taught rather than how it is normally taught, I’ve received hearty encouragement to put my money where my mouth is… A friend of mine—and the rector at one of the parishes where M served prior to his arrival—is going to be teaching the deacons in his area about the prayer book and asked my thoughts to supplement his own.

So—in a nutshell, here’s how I’d go about doing it. First a big-picture, then attention to some of the actual parts.

  • Christianity has a variety of valid spiritualities—the BCP enshrines one of them: the liturgical system approach
  • The key logic operative here is the disciplined recollection of God with the intention that following these disciplines will lead to the habitual recollection of God.

The fundamental mechanisms for achieving this goal are threefold:

    • The kalendar which leads us to view time through a salvific lens
    • The Daily Office which is fundamentally catechetical in nature
    • The Eucharist which is fundamentally mystagogical in nature

I shall now proceed to shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own pieces…:

[T]he Book of Common Prayer offers a full integrated spiritual system that is intended as much for the laity as the clergy and which is founded in a lay spirituality that arose in the medieval period. If you look at the book as a whole, it offers a program for Christian growth built around liturgical spirituality. The best shorthand I have for this is the liturgical round. It’s made up of three components: the liturgical calendar where we reflect upon our central mysteries through the various lenses of the seasons of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in his continuing witness in the lives of the saints, the Daily Office where we yearly immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and Psalms, and the Holy Eucharist where we gather on Holy Days to most perfectly embody the Body of Christ and receive the graces that the sacraments afford.

So—here’s why this is important and the meat of how it relates to the issue at hand. The purpose of any spiritual system is to bring the practitioner and their community into a deeper relationship with God—to create a family of mature Christians. Through their increasing awareness of who God is, how much God loves them and all of creation, they translate that love they have been shown into concrete acts of love and mercy in the world around them. There are several different strategies that different spiritual systems use to accomplish this. One of the classic ones—referred to in St Paul’s direction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17)—is the recollection of God. The idea here is that if we can continually keep in mind the goodness of God, the constant presence of God, and an awareness of the mighty works of God on behalf of us and others, that we will more naturally and more completely act in accordance with God’s will and ways. Continual recollection is nearly impossible, but there are methods to help us in this habit.

A primary goal of liturgical spirituality is to create a disciplined recollection of God. Thus, if we specifically pause at central points of time—morning and evening; noon and night; Sundays and other Holy Days—to reorient ourselves towards God and the mighty acts of God, whether recalled to us through the Scriptures or experienced by us through direct encounters with the sacraments, then this discipline will lead us towards a habitual recollection of God.

In the liturgical round, the Book of Common Prayer gives us specific moments to stop and orient our time and ourselves around the recollection of God. As a result, one of the most important parts of the book is the Daily Office section that provides forms for prayer at morning, noon, evening and night. These prayer offices are our fundamental tool for disciplined recollection; they provide the foundation for our spiritual practice. This foundation, then, is punctuated by the Eucharist on Holy Days (at the least). And, conceptually, this is how we should view Sundays—not the day of the week on which we go to church—but as a Holy Day which recurs on a weekly basis.

Turning now to the kalendar, we must begin with the recognition that most human measures for marking time are social constructs. That is, nature gives us a few points upon which we hang our hats. The motion of the sun determines two main things: day and night and the year broken into four quarters based on our motion around the sun. The motion of the moon provides us with another measure but, as it does not cohere with the solar cycle, causes more complexity than it solves. As a result, the majority of the methods by which we keep time say more about “us” and what we think is important than they do about the nature of time itself.

Like the natural world, the Book of Common Prayer has seasons. However, rather than pointing to agricultural potential or lack thereof, the prayer book constructs time around the person of Jesus in the Temporal cycle. While the Sanctoral cycle logically follows subsequent to the Temporal cycle, it is super-imposed upon the year as a succession of static days (as we seem to have mislaid the octaves…). The way that the prayer book orders time, then, is supposed to tell us something about our priorities. Time itself is provided with a Jesus-colored lens.

The statement that I keep coming back to as the simultaneously most important and most overlooked rubric in the prayer book is the first one on the first real page of content:

The Holy Eucharist, the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day and other major Feasts, and Daily Morning and Evening Prayer, as set forth in this Book, are the regular services appointed for public worship in the Church. (p. 13)

Now we move to contemplate Mass and Office. The liturgy of the Western Church—especially liturgy that partakes of the monastic spirit—can be described as (among other things) a disciplined and bounded encounter with Scripture. That is, under the early medieval monastic ideal (which itself is described in the preface to the 1549 BCP) the Scriptures were read yearly in the Office; then the Mass could cherry-pick pericopes at its leisure, firm in the knowledge that—thanks to the constant repetition of Scripture—the congregation would immediately recognize the proper text and recall its literary context.

Thus, in the Office the Psalms, the garden from which the fruit of all the other Scriptures may be plucked (as Athanasius put it),  would be repeated regularly (weekly for them, monthly or 8-weekly for us), and the bulk of Scripture read through every year or two depending on how many lessons you use at Evening Prayer.  This is fundamentally catechectical: it grounds us in the stories, the laws, the histories, and the laments of the people of God that illuminate and inform our own experiences.  Too, the canticles serve an important function. They aren’t just praise-bits stuck in with the “real” material, rather they are lenses and orienting devices to help us interpret the readings—especially the set traditional canticles.

The Mass, then, as it rolls through the seasons, offers us not only a weekly or more frequent experience of the grace of God but allows us to hear and experience the Good News in several major modes: expectation, joy, enlightenment, penitence, celebration—the principle Christian affections. If the Office is primarily catechetical, the Mass is primarily mystagogical. That is, it leads us by experiences of grace into the mystery of God and the relationship that God is calling us into with him and with the entire created order through him.

That’s as much as my brain can handle now. There’s lots more to be said, of course, and I’m sure y’all will add a bunch of it into the comments.

14 thoughts on “Towards Teaching the Spirituality of the BCP

  1. bls

    The Mass, then, as it rolls through the seasons, offers us not only a weekly or more frequent experience of the grace of God but allows us to hear and experience the Good News in several major modes: expectation, joy, enlightenment, penitence, celebration—the principle Christian affections.

    Love this part! I think the Great Church Year is a miracle; it deals – since it deals with the Incarnation itself – with everything that human beings can experience….

  2. mcdoc

    Thank you Derek. You have put together an outstanding articulation of the implicate order ensconced in the the Prayer Book.

    Some thoughts…

    That Prayer Book ain’t gonna pray itself.

    In order to avail oneself of the riches you mark out, one would have to live by some sort of rule. One would have to set aside or give up any number of concerns and occupations. One would actually have to pray the offices and pray the mass. One would have to live in some sort of committed, intentional relationship or community with other Christians. Discipleship then would have to entail something resembling discipline. It doesn’t sound very sexy, extemporaneous, or much fun.

    No longer living near a monastery, I sometimes consider pitching starting a ministry of morning prayer or evening prayer as a guild at my church. I have never gotten up the gumption out of fear not only that it would be a guild of one, but I also fear attributions of eccentricity and hyper-religiosity made to the solipsistic enthusiasm of my odd, monastic temperament. Not to mention I’d probably have to kick it off at 6 a.m. to be to work by 7 a.m. most days. I currently only have moderate control of when my work day ends in the ragged tatters of a schedule, and so could not lead much less reasonable commit to an evening prayer group. There are worse things and greater difficulties. These concerns of here are personal and particular, but I see them as likely being common barriers to establishing the necessary conditions for embarking on a bare-bones framework of such a spirituality.

    In the alternative event, I remain a solo practitioner, grateful for the internets, the hard work of a committed few and the good will and charity of others.

  3. jdballard

    This is easily one of the best Anglican blogs. Thanks for this.

    One thought: Your write, “Christianity has a variety of valid spiritualities—the BCP enshrines one of them: the liturgical system approach” Might it not be better to call it a “liturgical/sacramental system approach.” It isn’t simply liturgy (Presbyterians have that), but receiving the Word, Eucharist, Marriage, Ordination, etc. as sacramental. I’m reminded of Richard Hooker commenting that the reading of scripture didn’t necessarily require a sermon because simply hearing God’s word could mediate grace to the hearer.

  4. John-Julian,OJN


    You are right on! It is somewhat perilous to try to keep the full life-commitment entirely solo. Think about at least affiliating with a religious order so you can have some sense of “community” for your Offices, etc.. Most religious orders are well into their daily horarium by 6:30 am, so you could “feel” their support when you recite an Office alone. As you put it: living “by some sort of rule” is an essential key to faithfulness.

  5. mcdoc

    Indeed, John-Julian, OJN. I am, in fact, a confrater of St. Gregory’s Abbey an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. This helps. I’m also wondering if a greater portion of our liturgical spirituality system can be lived out in more of our lives outside of the cloister, and perhaps more importantly will it be tried out, if so, and will it “have legs?”

  6. Jackie

    Oddly enough, I was raised in a United Church – through years of regularly attending Sunday School and the teachings of the Bible through my “formative years” – those teachings have just stayed with me and become part of who I am and how I live. Does a child not “live what they learn”? I believe that if our churches and church families would only nurture the children within their church in a loving “Godlike” way (without the harsh discipline and/or abuse), those teachings will become part of who that child becomes and how they live as an adult. Our church also had “religious based social groups that were also fun”; we learned more about Christ’s teachings but also socialized and had fun with peers. Such groups as Explorers, CGIT, Young People’s. At the age of 71 I still recall our CGIT creed “As a Canadian Girl in Training, under the leadership of Jeasus, it is my purpose to cherish health, seek truth, know God, serve others and thus with His help become the girl God would have me be”. If all of our children were given this kind of christian educaton through the formative years into their teens (provided by loving Christian people according the the Commandments and His word) I believe we would have less hatred, biggotry, wars and so on. I don’t believe I am naive either, I feel I was just very fortunate to be surround by people who knew the true meaning of God’s love. These teaching stay with a person and one lives one’s daily life according to “the teachings” from the heart whether there is time to read scriptures or not – a person can pray (communicate with our Lord) any time, any place regardless of what we are doing.

  7. Derek Olsen

    As I keep saying, the prayer book contains an implicit rule of life. There’s some good stuff on this from Blessed Percy—I’ll try and scrape a post together on it soon.

  8. Derek Olsen


    And yes, you are correct, but mechanism-wise what we’re focusing on here is the patterning process of liturgy. Sacrament is implicit here, though.

  9. brian m

    Derek, you make mention of the value of “set traditional canticles.” Remind me again what those should be at Mattins, especially the first one? The various classic BCPs seemed to handle this differently.

  10. Derek Olsen

    Brian, I was thinking particularly of the Benedictus and the Magnificat. I still think that the preferred first canticle at Mattins should alternate between the Te Deum and the Benedicite. I have the feeling that this is a leading question, though… What are you thinking?

  11. brian m

    Honestly, it isn’t. I remember your old office customary had rubrics for when to use Benedicite and when to use Te Deum, but I found them a little hard to follow. The 1662, the deposited 1928, the US 1928, the Canadian 1962, etc. all handle that first canticle and its possible alternates differently.

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  13. Alan Robinson

    I think – from my anglican days – that the Benedicite was use in the Purple season, Sepuagesima (does anyone remember it ?) to Easter and Advent. It’s strange because it’s a joyful canticle of praise and used in Sunday Lauds of the old Breviary.

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