The Significance of the Book of Common Prayer

An interview with J.I. Packer on the BCP for daily devotions and Sunday worship.

Think about the BCP as the Bible orchestrated for worship – when you take the Prayer Book apart, just about every phrase echoes something in Scripture.  And the BCP is the Bible orchestrated for worship much more fully than any modern alternative than I have seen as yet.  Think of the difference between a full orchestra and a sextet – a few instruments trying to play the same grand music which that full orchestra plays. Since it is the same grand music, the sextet sounds a bit thin and forlorn.

Dr. J.I. Packer discusses with Julie Lane-Gay the significance of the Book of Common Prayer (1662) upon its 350th Anniversary. The renowned theologian calls the Prayer Book “the Bible orchestrated for worship.”  This interview is published with the permission of The Anglican Planet where it first appeared.

How did the Book of Common Prayer first get your attention?

I was taken to church from an early age, and was thus reared on the 1662 English (Prayer) Book, but no one ever explained any of it to me.  So Sunday worship by the BCP never meant more to me than regularly cleaning my teeth – a required routine which I was told was good for me.  Most of the time I was thinking about something else.  When I became a Christian, I was so cross with the Church of England for never having explained the Gospel to me properly that I spent a couple of years fellowshipping with the Brethren.

Then, slowly but surely, I became aware that Prayer Book services were celebrating the same realities that were now shaping my life and from that point on the Prayer Book has anchored itself deeper and deeper in my conscious life. It has anchored itself as an articulation of worship, celebration of the God of Grace, celebration of union with and life in Christ, and celebration of the quest for holiness, which God impressed on me from fairly early on in my pilgrimage, as a priority.

How do you use it now?

I have memorized most of the regular services.  On Sundays I am a regular at the 7:30 am Holy Communion service at St John’s [Vancouver], a service that closely follows the Book of Common Prayer.  On weekdays, I aim to walk thirty minutes every day very early in the morning and I say Morning Prayer as I walk.  That is quite distinct from the 30 minutes I then spend back in the house reading the Bible.  I do not use the BCP in the evening because I am never at my best in the evening so I never plan to do any serious praying, or serious anything else, at that time. At night I do a ‘minimal sign-off’ after the day’s living, noting the mistakes I have made that need to be forgiven and repented of and expressing thanks for anything particularly good that has come my way during the day.

If I wanted to integrate the BCP into my devotional time, how would you suggest I start?

I appreciate very much the wisdom and fruitfulness of building one’s daily devotions on what is spelled out for you in the collect. The collects are brief and you get a different one every week. Pray through each one and reflect on it. Then I would say talk freely with the Lord about what is going through your mind, what you care about, things you are seeing, things you are becoming aware of – obligations, admonitions, encouragements, matters for thanksgiving. I don’t think most of us do as much Thanksgiving as we should – so when I am trying to help people get into the habit of prayer, I underline the fact that thanksgiving, and plenty of it, is necessary to a healthy Christian life – as the BCP shows.

What about the places where the Prayer Book says ‘minister’ or ‘leader?’  Do we say these parts to ourselves?

When you are saying the Office on your own, you become the leader.  Then, I believe, you can properly say everything, including the absolution, to yourself and indeed need to.

What parts of the BCP are important to say with others?