Lay Anglicana, the unofficial voice of the laity throughout the Anglican Communion.
This is the place to share news and views from the pews.

Get involved ...

In Defence of the BCP: It’s Got Rhythm!

The poor old Book of Common Prayer (not the Episcopalian one of 1979, but the 1662 version, albeit as amended in various parliamentary measures) seems to be under attack, despite the best endeavours of the Prayer Book Society, which says it:

is increasingly endangered by indifference and undermined by neglect. In many churches, it is not used at all, whilst in others it is marginalised to “off-peak” times such as Evensong and 8.00 a.m. Holy Communion. Too often, new clergy emerge from ordination training with little or no knowledge of the Book of Common Prayer, and most younger churchgoers and newcomers to the church have barely even heard of it.

Many clergy – and churchgoers – understandably feel that the 1662 prayer book is one of the outdated shibboleths of the Church of England which has no place in  21st century worship.

However, although I accept absolutely that the majority of services need to be in modern language, I wonder whether we are missing a trick here? I offer two examples of Anglican liturgy, both from Morning Prayer. The first is:

 As we rejoice in the gift of this new day,
so may the light of your presence, O God,
set our hearts on fire with love for you;
now and for ever….

Merciful God,
purify our hearts in the flame of your Spirit
and transform our toil into an offering of praise,
that we may reject the proud rule of might
and trust in Christ alone,
for he is our Lord for ever and ever.

The second is the third collect from Matins:

O Lord, our heavenly Father,
almighty and everlasting God,
who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day;
defend us in the same with thy mighty power;
and grant that this day we fall into no sin,
neither run into any kind of danger,
but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance,
to do always that is righteous in thy sight;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I have deliberately chosen a passage from the modern liturgy which is highly poetic, with a marvellous image of our hearts being set on fire by the light of God. Admirers of the 1662 book often criticise the prose of modern versions for being banal and lacking in imagery. Although I think this a fair charge to level against the 1980 ASB, I would say that the modern liturgy in Common Worship (2000) does not ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’ in the same way.

The main difference now is the lack of metre in modern liturgy. The 1662 language is not the language of the 17th century man in the street: it is the language of Shakespeare. The secret of the continued popularity of the Book of Common Prayer amongst those who do love its cadences is that, for anyone brought up on it, it is a succession of earworms. I have never set out to learn any passages by heart but I can recite virtually by heart the General Confession, the Collects for Peace and for Grace (quoted above), the General Thanksgiving and several others. To show what I mean, may I suggest you try reading both my examples out loud. The first simply does not flow in the way that the second does.

Church people find no difficulty in understanding that music and singing add an extra dimension to the words and enable a part of us to be touched in a way that the words on their own cannot. As Sir Kenneth Clark put it in ‘Civilisation’:

“What is too silly to be said may be sung” — well, yes; but what is too subtle to be said, or too deeply felt, or too revealing or too mysterious — these things can also be sung and can only be sung.

Metre goes some of the way to meet the gap between prose and music. Not the irritating rhythm of Robert Herrick’s ‘Fair daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon’, but the metre of any Shakespearean soliloquy (pick your favourite).

An extreme example of this is ‘Jerusalem’, here sung on the last night of the Proms. Marvellous stuff, isn’t it. As you sing it, you believe every word. And yet…

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green? No, actually.

And was the holy Lamb of God on England’s pleasant pastures seen? Er, no.

And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? Not really

And was Jerusalem builded here among these dark Satanic mills? Well, not exactly.

Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Do you have a weapons licence?

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire! Unfortunately, health and safety regulations forbid the driving of fiery chariots.


George Gershwin understood: he wrote ‘I Got Rhythm’, here sung by Gene Kelly. To paraphrase:

I got rhythm

I got music

I got my Lord

Who could ask for anything more ?


And Sid Caesar wrote a sketch to prove how much more effective an argument could be if performed to the (very rhythmical) accompaniment of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony

Argument to Beethoven’s 5th


I rest my case.






‘Teenager reads old book’ is by Andrey Shadrin via Shutterstock

30 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

So, you have a convert. I’ve just been given a full copy of the 1928 BCP with the 1662 services included. The 1928 revisions caused controversy and were eventually twice thrown out by Parliament. I suspect that in those days, MP’s brought up on the BCP didn’t feel that the revisions did it any service.

I must admit that I love the language and evocative images of the 1662 BCP and attend a service weekly. I also love attending BCP Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral.

I believe that the BCP remains the official Prayer Book of the CofE and despite warnings to the contrary, is not grave danger. What it need’s is more education and training within Clergy and Laity to appreciate its beauty.

I’m sure that Common Worship after 400 years might be considered to be precious and in need of preservation. I suspect that the BCP will still be around even than.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you, UKViewer. I think the BCP is ‘safe’ in our generation, but after us I worry what will happen when there is no one left who was brought up on it. I was rather alarmed by several clergy saying on twitter that they had abandoned the use of the BCP even at the 8.00 communion service – and certainly don’t use it for any of the main services.
Shakespeare has certainly lasted, so I hope the BCP can nevertheless share his fate!

04 October 2011 20:58
04 October 2011 18:30
Claire Maxim said...

I was brought up with BCP Matins, Holy Communion and Evensong, so am declaring an interest upfront. I knew the General Confession off by heart before I ever saw a Shakespeare play – and BCP certainly helped me access Shakespeare very easily.

I agree with a lot of what you say. The language is musical and rhythmic, and I believe there remains a place for BCP for as long as people are willing to engage with it.

BUT while I was training, there were just two of us who loved BCP. We were exposed to a wide range of worship when all of college got together weekly. We got CW, Methodist Worship Book, Celtic, Church of India, Church of South Africa, Church of Nigeria, etc etc, as well as Nightclub church and Cafe Church. But never BCP. Ordinands just don’t get very much practical experience of it, although it was covered in Liturgy lectures.

This week a Reader in training deaconed for me at 8 o’clock (BCP HC). He doesn’t have a background in it, and didn’t manage to pick up the rhythm. He was so worried about getting the words out that it all ended up nonsensical. To do BCP well, you have to be able to feel the rhythm, and trust the language. It doesn’t matter so much for CW (although that has a music of its own, as you showed). And each congregation has a slightly different rhythm – I use BCP regularly for three congregations (we do plenty of CW too!), all are different.

I’m hoping to take our Reader through the BCP services one day – he’s perfectly competent and just needs practice.

And depending on the context, I probably wouldn’t use the BCP for those who are new to church. The exception might be Drama students, or Shakespeare fans – and there are plenty of those about.

But music takes practice, rhythm takes practice. BCP? Practice!

Lay Anglicana said...

And I agree with all that you say!
I hoped through my illustration to show that I think drama students and Shakespeare fans might be exposed to the BCP – and might even revive its use. At the moment, its use seems to be restricted to any old fogeys around who are vociferous enough about their desire to keep the BCP alive.
By all means, let people practise!

04 October 2011 21:02
04 October 2011 19:22
Claire Maxim said...
Lay Anglicana said...

I recommend this to any readers of this page

UKViewer said...


Trying to read the blog gives me an error message that I’m not authorised to view it?

Tim Chesterton said...

I had the same problem. How do we get into the page?

Lay Anglicana said...

Sorry, Tim and UKViewer – I have substituted a link to what I think must be the blog post Claire means – will you try again? Thanks.

08 October 2011 20:32
Tim Chesterton said...

Thanks, that worked fine!

09 October 2011 09:05
john scott said...

BTW I couldn’t hear the argument for all that LOUD old fashioned music!!! Or did I miss the point LOL.

10 October 2011 22:34
08 October 2011 15:27
05 October 2011 05:52
04 October 2011 21:23
04 October 2011 21:04
Richard Haggis said...

The Sid Caesar piece was fantastic! I wonder if a person with full hearing could have written that music?

The Prayerbook has its infelicities, for instance the confession in the communion service which was all too demonstrably written by a depressive (which, by his own account, Cranmer was). But it has far more glories, the most glorious of which, to my ear, is Evensong: a perfectly balanced combination of vespers with compline, with a paean of praise not to, but by, the Mary of whom the reformers were so suspicious, and with the Song of Simeon to remind us that we might all die in the night, and that would be OK because God is waiting for us, and we’ve seen all there is to see. I still find it very hard not to lapse into the old when trying to remember the new, because the old is so very much more memorable – more musical, as you say. I had to help our rather modern vicar out on Sunday with the modern Lord’s Prayer, which was a bit of a giggle! Coverdale and Cranmer are two generations before Shakespeare, and I shouldn’t wish any of their limelight to be hogged by that whippersnapper!

About the 1928 book – the House of Commons rejected it because the people didn’t want it. It was a rare expression of the role of the laity in the Established Church. MPs thought that bishops and clergy had not sufficiently made their case, and the “Jews and Jobbers” of the House of Commons stood up for their punters. As we use it now, the book is largely the “Shorter BCP” which came in during WW2 when Parliament – and everyone else – had other things to do than argue about theological niceties.

The last two office collects – for the Clergy and the People, and Chrysostom – and the Grace are masterful. I particularly like the scepticism about pastoral care expressed in “who alone workest great marvels”!

05 October 2011 01:31

[…] terms of churchy stuff, Lay Anglicana wrote fairly convincingly in defence of the BCP and Rachel Held Evans gives ten reasons why she supports women in church leadership. The […]

05 October 2011 19:42
UKViewer said...

It was interesting this morning. I attended a mid-week communion at a church fairly close to where I live. The service was advertised on their website as Common Worship.

When I arrived, I was handed a service sheet, which was BCP? I happened to have a copy of the BCP in my pocket (as you do ;)) and I compared the service sheet to the BCP. Differences were apparent. The opening sentences were not used. The Opening Lord’s prayer was omitted and the service opened with the Prayer of Humble Access.

Further changes within the service sheet was the substitution of the Modern Lords prayer and modern wording for the creed.

The Priest was female and during the service, whenever a prayer used the term ‘men’, she either omitted it or used and alternative word.

Another change was the Epistle, instead of the words ‘Here endeth the lesson’ the modern This is the word of the Lord = Thanks be to God was used.

Overall, I enjoyed the service, but wondered how you can change the authorised version in the BCP and substitute alternatives to suit a particular theological stance?

I am not criticising the Priest or the Church, but changing an advertised service with another, ‘diluted’ one seems to me to be a little over the top. Or am I just being a curmudgeon?

Lay Anglicana said...

I used to take BCP Morning Prayer once a month; as I was not a priest that meant leaving out the normal absolution and substituting the collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. Also my vicar insisted that I use ‘Holy Spirit’ throughout, instead of ‘Holy Ghost’. I must say I rarely used the sentences on offer (many of which would sound strange from a lay person); instead I used a biblical quotation in line with the theme of the lectionary. I would have thought you needed to keep the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed as written – in fact I think I said to you that I got a proper ruling from the Liturgical Commission on the creed. I was unhappy about the reference to the harrowing of hell (which the modern versions all omit). Nevertheless, the officer of the Liturgical Commission said – as you might imagine – that I could not chop and change creeds to suit myself (I paraphrase!). I think it is now quite common to change men, but personally I think this is silly. No one could really think that ‘who, for us men and for our salvation’ means that all the women are not going to be saved! I am interested in all that you say and suggest that it is indicative of the unease – all too apparent from Twitter – that many younger clergy feel at the use of the BCP.

06 October 2011 20:12
06 October 2011 17:58
UKViewer said...

Thanks Laura,

What I find a little strange is that the Priest, who is the Vicar of a single church parish, changed CW to BCP, when the CW service would have avoided the need for such changes? Perhaps as most of the congregation were like me, of ‘ripe’ years might have something to do with it. 🙂

It won’t stop me going back, as apart form my being a curmudgeon, the people were most welcoming and free refreshments were available afterwards.

The good thing is it’s a mile and a half walk, up and down two steep hills, so my fitness will improve no-end. 🙂

07 October 2011 06:23
Tim Chesterton said...

Our parish in Western Canada is quite young and we use all contemporary services from the 1985 B.A.S. However, I must admit to using daily Morning and Evening Prayer for my own daily office. I like the simplicity of it (multiple alternative forms draw my attention from God and onto the service itself, which I think is deadly for real prayer), and also think its daily lectionary is way better than the modern alternatives.

Lay Anglicana said...

Welcome to Lay Anglicana, Tim, and thank-you for your comment. It is always good to meet a fellow-enthusiast for the language of 1662 and you raise an interesting point about its simplicity, as well as its lectionary.

Tim Chesterton said...

Yes, I will admit to enjoying Cranmer’s gift for a memorable English sentence (I like his theology of Holy Communion, too). Our Canadian 1959 BCP is probably about half way between your 1662 book and the proposed 1928 book.

07 October 2011 22:46
07 October 2011 15:26
07 October 2011 07:18
Alan Crawley said...

CW does in fact include most of BCP Communion as Order 2, and there is an Order 1 in traditional language.

You may well find that the service was indeed CW.

But then there is no reason you should be a CW anorak (yet :)).

07 October 2011 07:50
UKViewer said...

Alan, it definitely was BCP, the Service Sheet was listed as that. I am familiar with CW Order 2 as two of the churches in our Benefice use it in preference to Order 1.

I’m just expecting BCP services to be delivered as per the Book of Common Prayer, and perhaps I’m as I said, just an old curmudgeon?

I also enjoy CW services, so, I can’t be all bad 🙂

UKViewer said...

I should have said, prefer Order 1 in traditional language. Doh 🙁

Lay Anglicana said...

Common Worship does also contain services from the BCP, as Alan points out. However, don’t people generally use the expression ‘CW’ or Common Worship to mean the modern liturgy when they are contrasting it with the original Book of Common Prayer?

11 October 2011 04:38
07 October 2011 11:35
07 October 2011 11:33
john scott said...

I have regularly attended BCP services all my life in a multitude of settings and love the language, but I have NEVER atttended a service which is full BCP! How many use the 10 commandments as opposed to a summary of the law, except in Lent or Advent. Has anyone ever heard the Exhortation in earnest? or are you so used to turning the three pages to get to ‘Ye that do truly earmestly repent….’. And (and as for starting sentences with And and using inappropriate capitals!) as for the positioning of the ‘We do not presume…’ and the ‘Gloria…’. And the strange construction of the Eucharistic prayer… and the two Our Fathers? and the verbose two sentences for administration of each element of communion. And if anyone can see any pastoral sensitivity and love and care in the BCP Funeral Service they are a better man or woman than I (lol)… though there are many of those!. Otherwise I also love the cadence and language of most of 1662 but it did need revision for modern usage and I have a preference for the 1928 revisions. I love Shakespeare but can you imagine what would have been lost to literature if there was an edict that every play for evermore should be written in the language of Shakespeare. Or more to the point that every play written in contemporary language should have a special ‘performance’ in Shakesperean language laid on for those lovers of 17th century (and earlier)courtly language, whether at 8am on a Sunday morning or at any other tine:-) That said, I love the 1662 Collects.

As for training in 1662 at theological colleges it would probably horrify most lay people as to how little training there is in the usage of any Prayer Book or Liturgy, that is mostly left for training incumbents at title parishes. There is however academic training on the contruction of the various prayer books pre and post 1662.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for letting us in on these trade secrets!
The Revd Tom Goode, when he was vicar here, used to tease us by threatening really to do a 1662 service of communion. He said he had done it once and as they got into the second hour people were begging for mercy (I think he was slightly exaggerating, but I know what he meant). Apart from the minor problem of the 1928 prayer book not having been approved by parliament for use in the Church of England, I agree with you that this is in fact more acceptable. And in my previous church we had transcribed (well, downloaded from the CofE website)a form we were prepared to use and then had service booklets made.
The Prayer Book Society have now amended their application form but when I tried to join a few years ago you had to sign a form saying you would do everything you could to ensure that only BCP services were in use. I wrote a very polite covering letter explaining why I could not sign this, but I received no reply and my cheque was never cashed!

John Scott said...

Gosh Laura never had you down for someone who would take ‘not being approved by Parliament for use in CofE’ lying down LOL. Think of all those criminal, dissenting,rebellious Prayer Book Catholics (more inappropriate capitals!). And (I love starting sentences with And a la BCP it is so subversive) of course we will not mention those who use the Additional Curate Society (does it still exist?) liturgies or even, dare I say it, the Roman Missal! And that is just the Catholic end of liturgical dissent in the CofE. God bless us one and all.

Lay Anglicana said...

I would echo your ‘God bless us one and all’ except that as a lay person I am not allowed to say it (Come to think of it, I wonder how Tiny Tim got away with it?!)

11 October 2011 10:59
11 October 2011 05:11
11 October 2011 04:39
Claire Maxim said...

I regularly use all ten commandments (the alternative is so 1928!!), and both Our Fathers, noting that the Minister is supposed to say the first one alone (it never happens like that). But I always omit the Exhortation, and if I do use the long sentences at the administration, I do several people at once….take and eat this, take and eat this, etc.

The funeral service was never supposed to be remotely comforting, and I quite agree, it isn’t. I’ve not taken a BCP funeral, and am hoping I never have to!

And I do love taking CW services too – they just do different things for me at different times….

Tim Chesterton said...

K’ll have to check out the funeral service in your 1662 BCP because I actually find our Canadian 1959 BCP funeral service very comforting. Perhaps in this (as in so many other ways) our book is closer to your 1928 book.

Oh, and I was always taught that the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the BCP Holy Communion service was intended to be the last part of the celebrant’s private devotions before leading the service. Perhaps Cranmer thought that if he wrote it down, the celebrant might actually do private devotions before the service…!

12 October 2011 22:40
12 October 2011 18:30
10 October 2011 22:17
john scott said...

Juat another pastoral aside… my time in the East End of London taught me that you just had to begin a 1662 Collect when praying with a West Indian Anglican of a certain age and they would immediately recite it with you from memory, even if they were confused by dementia or other illness. Apparently many West Indian parishes insisted that a qualification for confirmation was knowing the Collects by heart (all of them!) and the words and their ability to recall them was such a comfort for them… and very humbling for a priest.

12 October 2011 22:15

Leave a Reply

We rely on donations to keep this website running.