Resourcing BCP Spirituality

Following my “almost manifesto” on the need to teach the spirituality of the BCP to the church rather than simply teaching points of historical development and an initial start in that direction, I’ve received a number of requests concerning what resources are available to do this.

It’s a good and important question to which I am attempting to find an answer…

In response to my post, JD Ballard put up a solid post that moves the ball a bit further down the field than mine.

I also started wondering about the popular introductions to the BCP that have been put out by the Church Publishing and others. I confess that my own studies of the BCP have come in through the back rather than the front, so to speak. That is, I’ve engaged it as someone grounded in the medieval English liturgical tradition and early history of the BCP and have largely skipped over introductory works. As a result, I’ve realized that it’s time to go ahead and do that.

I’m in the process of surveying some books on the topic and will post thoughts here as I read through them. My focus here will not be to offer a general review of the books and their content but to ask the narrow and specific question of how how well they work as resources for teaching either laity or clergy the spirituality of the BCP.

While it’s not necessarily an introduction, I’d be remiss if I didn’t start with Hatchett. Typically, clergy offices and the bookshelves of interested laity contain a copy of Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book. As a result, when clergy or lay leaders want to know or do something with a part of the prayer book, this tends to be where they go first. That’s a natural response. In fact, it’s a learned response because most folks who have taken formal academic coursework on the prayer book did this for homework. Unfortunately, it’s not the best response when dealing with the topic at hand.

Hatchett’s book is an excellent tool and does what it is intended to do very well. A quick glance at the table of contents shows how the book is structured and lets us know how it’s going to proceed. As most commentaries do (biblical or otherwise) it cleaves to the order of the text and moves systematically from part to part. For major portions, the text is organized in two logical units labelled “Background” and “Commentary”. The “Background” section gives a brief treatise on the history of the rite or concept as a whole touching on some theological themes or changes but speaking primarily about historical changes to the structure and/or content of the matter at hand. The “Commentary” serves to point out applicable rubrics, suggest when various options might be utilized, to point out theological differences between the ’79 book and earlier forms, and to identify the source of the prayer book text.

I go to Hatchett when I want to see how he draws a big-picture synthesis of a particular change to a rite or when I want to know when, where, and for what purpose a particular prayer was composed. That is, I’ll approach a prayer from the Gelasian Missal differently from one written in 1662 o in the 1930s. Not that the earlier one is necessarily better, but knowing the sources gives me insight into why certain concepts or doctrines are framed the way they were—what the prayer is and is not saying and what fights it’s either picking, avoiding, or totally oblivious of.

Knowledge of this sort is, for the most part, not particularly useful for entering into the spirituality of the text. Rarely does knowing the origin of something help me pray it better, more attentively, more intently. Understanding the organization of the rite does play into our ability to access its spirituality, but our spiritual appreciation of a rite’s movement is rarely tied to understanding the historical movement of distinct elements. Rather it’s understanding how the flow leads our spirits in particular directions and this is a not a topic that Hatchett has helped me see. Again—that’s not his intention either.

Thus, Hatchett gives us a very useful tool for understanding the history of our rites. I don’t agree with him in all particulars, especially in his syntheses (I’d accent certain things differently), but there is no other resources that gives such a clear identification of the sources of the prayer book elements. Its value for understanding and communicating the spirituality of the texts described is limited. Yet time and again when I hear presentations on liturgy they fall back into this pattern and model.

I’ve also been reading Deacon Vicki Black’s Welcome to the Book of Common Prayer in the Kindle form (hence no page numbers—sorry…). This is a brief introduction to the prayer book that serves as both an introduction and an apologia. That is, it’s aimed at communicating to a  broadly American protestant audience that may be slightly suspicious of a book of “wrote-down prayers.” The writing style is friendly and accessible, leaving aside the bulk of the liturgical jargon and explaining terms that would be unfamiliar. The perspective presented is a middle-of-the-road trending higher. Thus, it acknowledges that there will be differences between high and low liturgies and mentions that a thurible might be present at some elements (like a Eucharistic Gospel procession), but otherwise takes a Broad Church line.

The table of contents shows that the ordering of liturgies is somewhat different from the BCP itself; it follows the order in which the liturgies might be encountered by a visitor or seeker, starting with Baptism, then going to Eucharist, then the Offices, and then into the pastoral rites. However, the approach within the rites themselves is also cast within an historical mode. While Hatchett and I prefer to look at liturgies by beginning with the 2nd or 4th century and moving to the present day, Black resolutely begins with the perspective of the present prayer book, and looks at the history in light of where we are now, highlighting in particular continuities between present and past practice but also noting spots where we differ from either historical practice or other Christian groups.

Because it’s a short book with limited space for each topic, Black does a lot of synthesis in describing the history of churches and rites. Aside from a few factual errors my main disagreements with the book would be in how these syntheses are sketched. In particular, the relationship between the pre- and post-Reformation churches seems much to discontinuous for my liking and follows the standard narrative that all of the liturgies were taken away from the people and were the preserve of the clergy and religious. Books of Hours in this section are mentioned in passing only, and are explained as one-volume breviaries which fails to capture their spirit or their use. (This definition is corrected to a slight degree in the section on the Office but not to my satisfaction.) While this may seem a minor point, I’d argue that overlooking the place of the Books of Hours, prymers, and lay mass devotionals presents a much more discontinuous picture of English spirituality pre- and post-Reformation than was actually the case.

Black does weave in some comments on theology and spirituality. For instance, her discussion of how we engage the words of the liturgies—following the words of the book in common with the church and one another, but ideally not getting hung up on the words themselves—or her discussion on the spirit of the Daily Office as offering are helpful but brief. Again, she’s writing a brief introduction; spirituality is not her focus.

In summary, Black’s book does what it intends to do—to give an accessible introduction to the prayer book for those getting into it for the first time. History is its main paradigm. Attention to spirituality is present but not prevalent. While this book would be a good MOTR introduction, it cannot serve as a text for teaching prayer book spirituality without significant addition and adaptation.

This is where I shall pause…

I’m also reading Jeffrey Lee’s Opening the Prayer Book and will give it a post of its own once I’ve finished it and collected my thoughts; my initial sense is that this work is more what we’re looking for. I also intend to write-up a bit concerning where the teaching of prayer book history falls in the teaching of prayer book spirituality. In my experience and in the historical orientation of the books surveyed to this point, the teaching of history is often done in place of the teaching of spirituality or—perhaps more unfortunately—the teaching of history is mistaken for the teaching of spirituality.

12 thoughts on “Resourcing BCP Spirituality

  1. George William Pursley

    has some great recent posts about praying the prayerbook and participating in the daily office. I see your own reference to the Order of St. Julian… In my experience, the best way to teach prayerbook spirituality is to get people praying the offices regularly. It helps if you have a community close, like our Common Friars here in Southern Ohio. But for a Rector, it is pretty easy to start singing one of the offices with a handful of people once or twice a week. In my first parish of about 40 people, we averaged 20 for Wednesday night Choral Evensong and Bible Study and established a rota which offered some form of the offices from the BCP or St. Augustine’s Prayer Book every day of the week at 7 PM. In my current parish, we have Evensong every Monday at 7PM and are getting ready to reinstitute compline once each week led by our teens. The Daughters of the King offer Sunday Morning Prayer in our Parish garden (a wonderful English sort of an affair) as a part of their monthly meeting. To experience the rythems of the Prayerbook is in my experience one of the best teachers we have. Marion Hatchett was my advisor at Sewanee for my D.Min. You might not pick it up immediately from reading his Commentary, but his home on the mountain was a gracious place where he and Carolyn lived out the rythems and beauty of the Anglican way. It was there on the Domain that I learned much of how one ought to pray.

  2. Andy Carlson

    All very good and encouraging. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has much to offer in the way of prayers, spiritual practices, structured readings (the Lectionary – daily offices) and liturgical practices. However, (for me) the daily or weekly use of the prayer book has become a tool pointing towards the Scriptures from which the BCP is an expression of, yet – it takes a decision and effort. I am finding (as a lay person) that the depth of learning (Faith grounding) available from the study Catechism and of the 39 Articles of Faith (the 2nd Book of Homilies specifically) are grounded with Scriptural references continually – which we pew folk rarely are directed towards.I do not recall ever in my adult life in the Episcopal Church being directed to those pages. I have learned more about my faith structure (social expectation of our faith life – not unlike etiquette) as an Anglican / Episcopalian form those sources than from my Confirmation 40 + years ago. I have found our (church wide – cross denominational) weekly messages to focus lightly on the walk we ought to have with little pointed reflection of the social / political struggles of the day. To the point of Scriptural foundations of our faith, I was surprised and very frustrated (disappointed – discouraged) that the Catechism provides zero scriptural references. Without the Scriptural references to our Statements of Faith as expressed in the Catechism they are incomplete for individual or group study – and appear socially driven rather then Biblically grounded. By far the vast majority of the life long Episcopalian friends of mine had never seen, let alone read, the Catechism or Historical Documents of our faith as found in pages 845 to 878 – yet they hold it in their hands every week. Simply reading the titles of the 39 Articles was an eye opener. The BCP is a good tool…yet simplistic for it’s lack to Scriptural documentation in the pages of instruction. The BCP ought to point us directly to Scripture in the pages of instruction (the “clean pages) so that the Liturgy (the “dirty pages”) are not the “end” of our instructional experience, but the beginning – the summary. The BCP ought to also be used regularly as a teaching resource pointing directly towards Scripture from the pages of our Outline of Faith and Historical Documents. Well…at least those are the thoughts of a common pew folk.

  3. stgeorgesardmore

    I liked Bishop Lee’s Book a lot, but I liked the previous Church Teaching Series treatment of the topic (by Louis Weil) even better. Lee’s is probably better introduction for someone completely unfamiliar with the topic, while I felt Weil’s went deeper.

  4. Derek Olsen

    The catechism in the ’79 is decent for what it tries to do. It is a little limited and you’re right, the lack of Scripture is unfortunate. On the other hand, while Scripture does contain all things necessary for salvation, the faith of the Church is a synthesis of Scripture (enabled by tradition and reason), and just pointing to verses can sometimes miss this point. I’m glad that you have found the 39 Articles helpful. My perspeciive tends to be a bit more catholic than the Articles approve of, but they certainly frame a healthy form of classical Anglicanism.

  5. Derek Olsen

    Fr. Ryan, In the set I have access to Bishop Lee’s book is volume 7 and Louis Weil’s (A Theology of Worship) is volume 12. I think they’re intended to be complementary. I’ll let you know as I read through them… :-)

  6. Andy Carlson

    Thank you for your time and thoughts. I agree that simply point to a Scripture as a single answer is normally unproductive if left there. However, having the Scripture as an initial topic of conversation and reference point will lead us in the path of greater discovery. Without even the simplest of reference, where is a lay person to begin. In seeking to secure my own understanding (as a disciple) it sure would give me tools for my own understanding; to then be an knowledgeable apostle for others. For me to use the Articles of Faith or Catechism as a teaching tool…please provide me (a general appeal) with the foundational references for that which I profess in the Catechism and strive to live by the Articles of Faith. I appreciated your use of the lower case “c” in “catholic”. Which itself is confusing in the BCP’s use of capital “C” in one version of the Creed, and the lower case “c” is the other version. Which do we profess in which Creed…the Catholic Church (capitalized, as in the denomination) or in the “catholic church” as in Christian community. Even in Hatchett’s” Commentary on the American Prayer Book” does not explain those differences. Very incomplete for us folk in the pew. Thank you sir for reading my ramblings….Peace of the Lord be with you….Andy

  7. Christopher

    I recommend a good long read of Cranmer, Hooker, Jewell, the Caroline Divines, F.D. Maurice, William Temple, and Michael Ramsey as well as our poets (Donne, Herbert, Eliot, Auden, und so weite) as a starting point, but then, I would. Sermons, poetry, and adversarial responses in particular are a good place to get into piety/spirituality that is shaped by the Prayer Book tradition. For Americans, DeKoven is a must because our Ritualists are distinctive from the Oxford Movement. By doing so you get into the depth of Who the Prayer Book professes and praises when prayed and how wide is the breadth of Who we profess.

  8. Derek Olsen

    Th “foundational references”? My initial (half-serious) response is that many Episcopal parishes say it every week but ignore it because it appears where they aren’t expecting it: “Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). Indeed, one of my mentors considers that to be the most succinct summary of Paul’s theology found in Scripture.

    More seriously, I do think an exposition of the catechism complete with references to Scripture and the teachings of the Tradition would be a worthy project.

    On catholic/Catholic, the issue here is that, properly, the term is a characteristic, not a name. It means “universal” and should refer to the faith of the whole church regardless of organizational groupings. Due to historical and political circumstances with which we’re all familiar, the safest source for identifying this faith is the doctrine of the Undivided Church (before the East/West split formalized in the eleventh century), and may even be further located in the teachings of the Church Fathers in the first five Christian centuries.

    Aside from this doctrinal reference, the creeds confess the simple truth that there is one holy catholic and apostolic church which is also “the blessed company of all faithful people” who are “very members incorporate in the mystical body of [the] Son” regardless of organizational affiliation.

  9. stgeorgesardmore


    If you look at the previous Church Teaching Series, published in 1979, the book I am referencing is “Liturgy for Living” by Louis Weil and Charles Price. In the new Church Teaching Series, the books you mention are meant to be complementary, I’m sure.


  10. Derek Olsen

    Ah ha! So *that’s* how that book fits in… I’ve seen it referenced several times in both the Black and Lee books and have added it to my list of books to hunt down. Now I wonder how much overlap there is between the two Weil books…

Comments are closed.