I’ll be the first to admit that when I pick up a book, I want to get right to the heart of it. I don’t often read the forward, the preface, or the introduction. With the Book of Common Prayer, I’m even more likely to turn simply to the liturgy or prayer for which I am looking. However, the Preface in the various versions of the Book of Common Prayer are hidden gems that reveal the heart of the prayer book tradition.
The 2019 edition contains the prefaces of the 1549 and 1662 prayers books in the section titled “Foundational Documents.” In the Preface of the 1549 BCP, we find that the heart of the book is to return simplicity and piety to the common people by conducting worship in the common tongue noting that “the Service in the Church of England (these many years) hath been read in Latin to the people, which they understood not; so that they have heard with their ears only; and their hearts, spirit, and mind, have not been edified thereby,” and “that all things shall be read and sung in the church in the English tongue, to the end that the congregation may be thereby edified.” In addition to language, the change in lectionary such that in the daily office, the whole Bible is read once a year “intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God’s word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth. And further, that the people (by daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”
The Preface to the 1662 BCP reveals the desire for unity following the English Civil War stating, “It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.” And, “Our general aim therefore in this undertaking was, not to gratify this or that party in any their unreasonable demands; but to do that, which to our best understandings we conceived might most tend to the preservation of Peace and Unity in the Church; the procuring of Reverence, and exciting of Piety and Devotion in the publick Worship of God; and the cutting off occasion from them that seek occasion of cavil or quarrel against the Liturgy of the Church.”
After a brief but thorough historical review of the Anglican Church, The Book of Common Prayer (2019) proclaims itself, “indisputably true to Cranmer’s originating vision of a form of prayers and praises that is thoroughly Biblical, catholic in the manner of the early centuries, highly participatory in delivery, peculiarly Anglican and English in its roots, culturally adaptive and missional in a most remarkable way, utterly accessible to the people, and whose repetitions are intended to form the faithful catechetically and to give them doxological voice.”
Throughout the centuries, we can see in the prefaces the heart of the Book of Common Prayer the desire for all of the congregation to participate in and be formed by corporate worship and private devotion guided by the prayer book.