Ways to Pray: The Book of Common Prayer
Lent is a wonderful time for self-reflection, prayer, and meditation. For some people, this comes easily; for others, it is more of a challenge. But there are as many ways to pray as there are people in this world, and God hears them all. On the blog this Lent, I’ll be sharing some different ways to pray, reflect, and meditate, through words, song, movement, and art. Perhaps you will discover a way to pray that speaks to you.
In case you missed it, click here to read last week’s post, which includes some Lenten devotional resources.
Episcopalians, in general, are not known for their extemporaneous (spontaneous and non-formulaic) prayer. Of course, that does not hold true for everyone; I have known many Episcopalians eloquent at such prayers. However, for those who, like myself, find coming up with a prayer on the spot more intimidating, the Book of Common Prayer is a wonderful resource. (And, in search of those more eloquent than myself, I’m citing several other bloggers / priests / theologians today. So be sure to click on the underlined links to visit their blogs and read their thoughts on the BCP!)
Our prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), is a great place to find prayers for every occasion. (If you don’t have a copy yourself, you can view the BCP online here or download a free PDF in English, Spanish, or French here.)
The Book of Common Prayer was first published by the Anglican Church in 1549, following the English Reformation (when the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope). It was the first prayer book that was meant for the common people (not just clergy) and included liturgies in English rather than in Latin. The BCP has been revised numerous times over the past five centuries. The most recent version used in the Episcopal Church was published in 1979 and includes options for liturgies and collects in more contemporary language for addressing God (you, your) as well as traditional language (thee, thy, thou). In 2015, the Episcopal General Convention passed a resolution for the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to prepare plans for a further revision of the BCP that would address liturgical, cultural, racial, generational, linguistic, gender, and ethnic diversity and the use of current technologies. They will share this plan at the 2018 Convention.
Here is what one priest and blogger, Laurie Brock, says about the BCP, and why it is important, in her blog post, “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About the Episcopal Church”:
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) contains our prayers and services for our life as a church. We call these our liturgies. Our liturgies for Holy Eucharist, for Baptism, for marriages and burials, for daily prayers, and for prayers and worship over almost any human experience live deep within the words of the BCP.
These liturgies span thousands of years of Christian faith and human experiences of celebration, sin, grief, and joy. What ties us together as Episcopalians is not a particular confession, a hierarchy of religious authority, or a particular dogma, but our common prayers. Our prayers shape our beliefs.
Though we don’t often flip past page 355 in the BCP (The Holy Eucharist: Rite Two) on Sundays, there are many other liturgies, collects, and prayers in the BCP that you may find useful for personal prayers as well. I want to call your attention to a few of them:
The Collects (BCP, pg. 159): The collect is usually the first prayer we hear during worship each Sunday. There are collects for each Sunday, for Holy Days, for Saints, and for various occasions (such as for stewardship of creation, for social service, for our nation, etc.). Many of these collects date back to the 5th and 6th century and have stood the test of time. Collects generally follow a common structure: (I) the address, (II) the acknowledgment, (III) the petition, (IV) the aspiration, and (V) the pleading (C. Frederick Barbee, Paul F.M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, 1999). Here is an example from the collect for the service of Holy Communion (pg. 355) broken into the above sections:
I. Almighty God,
II. to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid:
III. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
IV. that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name;
V. through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
New Testament scholar and theologian Scott McKnight describes the format of the collect this way in his blog post, "Collects": “We address God as our Father, we ponder theologically on what basis God can be petitioned, we have the confidence to ask, and we know that we are in God’s presence solely on the basis of what Christ — our Mediator — has done for us.” This time-tested format can be a useful structure when creating prayers for other situations as well.
Fr. Regis, Rev. Rodge, and St. Brendan's children and youth saying a prayer for the start of the new Sunday School year.
Prayers and Thanksgivings (BCP, pg. 814): Near the back of the BCP is a section of "Prayers and Thanksgivings" for a variety of occasions (for the world, the church, national life, the social order, the natural order, family and personal life, and various times of day). Some of these are well known prayers, like the prayer attributed to St. Francis, but many of these prayers may be unfamiliar because we use them less frequently during our regular worship services.
The Daily Office (BCP, pg. 37): Found at the beginning of the BCP, the Daily Office includes Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline. These liturgies, and the even older practice of praying at set times of the day, have a rich history in Jewish and Christian traditions. And the liturgies for the Daily Office are at the heart of Anglican tradition, as these were first liturgies printed in English and intended for use by everyone, and not just clergy. They are less frequently used in Episcopal churches today but are very versatile liturgies (with many pick-and-choose options) that may be led by a layperson privately, in a small group, or as a full worship service. The Episcopal Church also offers a variation on these liturgies in their 2014 publication, “Daily Prayer for All Seasons.”
Even though we use the prayer book in our services every Sunday, it is easy to forget what a rich resource the Book of Common Prayer can be. There are also numerous other collections of prayers and devotions available from a variety of different backgrounds. Personally, I enjoy some of the prayers included in A New Zealand Prayer Book. This book follows the format of the BCP but includes some lovely prayers traditional to New Zealand.
Some more evangelical traditions are skeptical of reading written prayers, saying they are rote or meaningless, rather than from the heart. However, I think there is something very meaningful about reading a prayer that is based on scripture and tradition, that has been prayed by thousands of people in thousands of times and places, and that holds as much meaning today as it did a hundred or a thousand years ago. Rev. Sam Ochstein, an evangelical pastor and regular attendee at an Episcopal Church, reflects on the why he prays using the BCP in his blog post “Learning to Pray with the Church,” published on the Episcopal Cafe:
I’ve also discovered that some of the collects I’ve been praying regularly for several years, like the prayer for grace in the morning office, or the prayer for God to “keep watch” at compline, or the soothing but reverent refrain of the Gloria, reverberate in my mind throughout the day. These prayers and others have become part of me. They’ve formed and shaped me. They’ve informed my theology. And they’ve helped me to pray extemporaneously.
A spiritual master once said we are all novices in the spiritual life. When it comes to prayer I’m especially a novice. Prayer is still hard. But I keep working at it. My journey into liturgical prayer and worship through the Book of Common Prayer and other prayer books over the years has taught me to pray with the Church. There’s a rich treasury of prayers, ancient and less ancient, available to any that seek it. My life has been profoundly enriched by praying these prayers. It’s a gift from God. It’s a gift from the Church. And it’s a gift for the Church.
I encourage you to take some time this Lent to read through some of the prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. Read them silently or aloud, alone or with your family. Find a prayer that speaks to you or use that as a starting point for further prayer and reflection.
The prayers of the BCP are called “common” because they are for the “common” people—for all of us. They are also what we have in “common” with Episcopalians and Anglicans around the world. But they are also “common” in the sense that they help us realize, praise, mourn, and otherwise deal with, seriously and spiritually, what is holy in the common events of our lives and our lives together: birth and death, sickness and health, dangers and delights.
The Lord be with you. And also with everyone. Let us pray.
On a personal side note, there has been a lot of commentary in the news and on social media about the value of “thoughts and prayers” and the lack of action by those who send their “thoughts and prayers” following the tragic, violent events that have become disturbingly frequent in our country. And, I felt I could not write about prayer this week without touching on the necessary companions to prayer—advocacy and action.
Bishops Against Gun Violence (a group of nearly 70 Episcopal Bishops) issued a call to prayer, advocacy, and action in response to the shootings in Florida on Ash Wednesday. (You can find the full call to action here.) They write, “The phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ has been devalued by politicians whose prayers seem never to move them to act against their self-interests or the interests of the National Rifle Association. Yet, as Christians, we believe deeply in the power of prayer to console, to sustain and to heal, but also to make evident the work that God is calling us to do.”
At St. Brendan’s we believe in action and advocacy alongside prayer. We pray for the poor and we grow produce in our garden and collect food for our local food pantry. We pray for immigrants and refugees and we offer ESL conversation groups to help immigrants in our community practice English and navigate the cultural differences of being in a new country. We pray for one another and we support each other when we are sick, lonely, or in any kind of need. Prayer itself is not the problem; but neither can it be the whole solution. So, perhaps, as you pray this Lent, ask yourself also, “What is God calling me to do?”
Grace and Peace,
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.