A Common Purpose

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer presented the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to the Church of England in 1549, introducing the phrases “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” “till death do us part,” and “speak now or forever hold your peace,” among others, to the cultural lexicon. In an interview about his new “biography” of the BCP, Alan Jacobs discusses how different Christian traditions perceive the book:

What about some of the problems that evangelicals have had with the BCP over the years? For instance, you show in your book how some evangelicals have viewed the prayer book as a kind of rote formalism that quenches revival and the free movement of the Spirit.

The evangelical suspicions of the prayer book have been varied over the years. Some of them are linguistic: Why do you call that table an “altar”? Why do you call that minister dish_BCP a “priest”? Some involve gestures and objects, even those that are not prescribed by the BCP but are not forbidden by it: Why do you light all those candles? Why do you ask people to kneel to receive Communion? The general suspicion seems to be that if it looks like Papistry and sounds like Papistry and smells like Papistry (e.g., incense), then it must be Papistry. …

What would you say are the strengths of the historic prayer book tradition? More specifically, speaking as an evangelical Anglican yourself, what do you think evangelicals can learn from it?

In making his prayer book, Thomas Cranmer wanted to make sure that the people of England were constantly exposed to Holy Scripture in a language they understood, working through the whole of the Bible regularly and the Psalms every month, while following a calendar that rehearsed in every church year the whole story of salvation starting with the Fall and culminating in Christ’s unique sacrifice of himself on the Cross and his glorious resurrection, the benefits of which we are not worthy to receive on any merits of ours—”we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table”—but only through the purest grace extended on the basis of Christ’s unique status as Lord and Savior.

How can you get any more evangelical than that?

(Image of title page from Cranmer’s Prayer book of 1552 via Wikipedia)