The Episcopal Church relies on the Book of Common Prayer. If you grew up in a non-liturgical church, like me, then you probably have no idea what that means. You may not understand the beauty of saying the words “His mercy endures for ever.” at the same time as everyone around you. You may not rest in the knowledge that thousands of people are reading the same Scripture as you. You may not take comfort in the pattern and repetition of liturgical worship. I dare say we may be missing out.
The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is one of the central texts in the Episcopal Church. Based on both the lunar and solar cycles, the BCP holds all the prayers, texts, and traditions of the church. Each individual congregation in the Church will use the same lessons from Scripture, the same prayers, and the same songs. The BCP sets the Church year around two cycles of feasts and holy days; one is based on the lunar calendar, the movable date of Easter. The other is based on the solar calendar and the set date of Christmas. Individual congregations are only allowed to vary from this calendar in extraordinary circumstances or by explicit permission of their bishop.
There are seasons in the Book of Common Prayer. Advent Season, which consists of four Sundays, leads the church into the Christmas Season. After the Christmas service, New Year’s Eve service, and two post-Christmas Sunday services, the Epiphany Season begins. This season that does not have a set number of services, as its length depends on the date of Easter, a date that varies based on the lunar cycle. The Lenten Season follows Epiphany. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends just before Holy Week. There are services for every day in Holy Week, and Easter Sunday ushers in Easter Season. After the seven Sundays in Easter Season, the Season After Pentecost begins. The length of this season varies, because it leads into the Advent Season, which begins four Sundays before Christmas. And then the church calendar begins again.
The original Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549, a result of the Protestant reformation. It has undergone many changes and revisions; the Episcopal Church broke from the Church of England in 1789, and the following year released its own BCP. Since then there have been a few official revisions; the revisions in 1892 and 1928 were relatively minor. But the most recent revision in 1979 was more controversial. This version set out to modernize the prayer book. Prayers for air and space travel were added. Language was updated and the Eucharist was restored as the central liturgy. This revision resulted in two different service options. Instead of getting rid of all traditional language, a new rite was added. Now services can be held using Rite 1 or Rite 2. The basic structure of each service is the same, but Rite 2 is used for “contemporary” services. (At the church I attended, the early service used Rite 1, while the second service used Rite 2.)
The current Book of Common Prayer contains nearly everything a church member needs for daily life. It holds the morning, noon, and evening prayers; the lectionary (collection of appointed Scripture readings); the liturgies for special days; the liturgy for the Holy Eucharist; and so much more. The BCP was designed to incite participation and to be transparent. The Episcopal Church in particular seems to desire openness while holding on to uniformity and conformity.
I’ve definitely enjoyed dipping my toe in the pool of liturgy. I actually own Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. It is a book for both those who are completely unfamiliar with liturgy and for those who have grown up with a love for it. I spent some time in it last year during Lent. I loved the language and beauty of it, but I got out of the habit. If you are interested in liturgy but aren’t sure where to start, I’d suggest picking this book up. (Or you can visit commonprayer.net – all the prayers are available there.) It’s not a bad way to wade in.
Tomorrow I will be sharing my final post on the Episcopal Church – and on Thursday I’ll share my assumptions about the Roman Catholic Church, my next stop in this journey.
Image belongs to rosefirerising – used under Creative Commons License.