The Book of Common Prayer (BCP): A Rookie Anglican Guide
You can’t be curious about Anglicanism for very long without running into the Book of Common Prayer—commonly abbreviated as the "BCP" or referred to as the "Prayer Book."
Common Prayer? More like complicated prayer!
Based upon the title, you might reasonably assume that there’s just one BCP out there. But then you type "Book of Common Prayer" into Google, and you’re faced with an overabundance of BCPs!
Why are they referred to by years/dates? 1549? 1662? 1979?! Which BCP is the "official" BCP?
If you’re able to overcome the decision paralysis and peruse any one BCP for yourself, things don’t get much better.
Let’s say you go with The Online Book of Common Prayer, which is a digital version of the 1979 BCP. The table of contents is quite overwhelming!
Why is the content arranged in this order? Why are there multiple versions of the same thing? Where do I go if I just want to pray and read the Bible? WHY IS IT SO COMPLICATED TO FIGURE OUT WHEN EASTER IS?!?!
Take a deep breath. You’ve come to the right place.
I hope to demystify the BCP for you, so that you don’t have to go through all the frustration I went through when I became an Anglican.
This guide will give you enough information about the BCP[s] so that you can starting using a BCP on your own!
What is the Book of Common Prayer?
Put simply, the Book of Common Prayer is the comprehensive service book for Anglican churches (churches that trace their lineage back to the Church of England).
It contains the written liturgies for almost any service that would be held at an Anglican church. These include:
- daily prayer services (the Daily Office)
- weekly worship (the Holy Eucharist)
- special services, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
- services held throughout one’s life, from baptism to a wedding to a funeral
- ordination services (for a bishop, priest, or deacon)
- services used to celebrate new ministries or churches
The Book of Common Prayer also usually contains:
- a calendar to help you follow the Church Year
- prayers and thanksgivings that you use throughout the Church Year and/or at any time
- the book of Psalms, because these get used a lot in Anglican worship
- a catechism and other documents to teach the basics of the Christian faith
- lectionaries, which let you know what passages of Scripture to read during all the services mentioned in the previous list
Basically, with just a Bible and a Prayer Book, you should have all the text you need to hold Anglican worship services.
How did we get the Book of Common Prayer?
Ironically enough (from our perspective, at least), the first Book of Common Prayer was a simplification.
Thomas Cranmer drew from existing liturgical traditions and manuals to produce the first BCP in 1549. It was meant to be an all-in-one resource (used alongside the Bible, of course) for both clergy and laity to use.
This video (by the Anglican Foundation) offers a great introduction to Cranmer’s original vision and the subsequent history of the Prayer Book.
Because the BCP is now a global family of books sharing a historical connection to Cranmer’s first BCP, each particular Prayer Book has its own nuanced story. For example, the history of the BCP in New Zealand will be different than the history of the BCP in the USA.
Speaking of the USA, since that’s where I’m writing from, the Episcopal Church’s glossary notes the family history of the BCP in the USA:
Anglican liturgical piety has been rooted in the Prayer Book tradition since the publication of the first English Prayer Book in 1549. The first American BCP was ratified by the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1789. It was based on the Proposed Book of 1786, and the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer, as well as the Scottish eucharistic rite of 1764. . . . The process of Prayer Book revision led to publication of editions of the BCP for the Episcopal Church in 1789, 1892, 1928, and 1979.
Did you catch the mention of Scotland in there?
See, the first Anglican bishop in the USA, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated in 1784 by Scottish bishops because the Church of England required its bishops to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown. This played a role in the Scottish liturgy of Holy Communion influencing the American liturgy that was adopted in 1789. That Scottish influence has remained in American BCPs to the present day!
This is a good example of how the history of the BCP is the history of the Anglican Communion!
For more information on the history of the BCP, I highly recommend reading Alan Jacob’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. In approximately 250 pages, Jacobs will bring you up to speed on ˜500 years of Prayer Book history!
If you really want to know much more about the BCP, then you should peruse The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey.
Why do Anglicans fight about Prayer Books so much?
On the one hand, we here at Anglican Pastor think that Prayer Book wars are a shame. We wish more Anglicans would spend more time expanding and enriching the kingdom of God than taking pot shots at other Anglicans who use different BCPs.
However, on the other hand, Anglicanism has traditionally held to something called "lex orandi, lex credendi"—meaning something close to "the law of prayer is the law of belief."
In other words: "Words matter!"
When Christians gather to pray, the words that they use both reveal and shape their theology.
So, there’s a good reason for Anglicans to care deeply about changes to the Prayer Book(s). Revisions will shape the theology of subsequent generations!
For a conservative take on the matter, check out this video (again by the Anglican Foundation). We’re not giving a 100% endorsement to the Anglican Foundation here, by the way. But this is a great, brief introduction to why Anglicans care so much about the words in the BCP!
Which Book of Common Prayer should you buy?
The "Official" Prayer Book: The 1662
When I was becoming interested in Anglicanism, I wanted to know which BCP was the "official" one.
If that’s what you’re after, then the 1662 BCP is the closest thing. It is still the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and I recommend that you buy this Oxford World’s Classics edition of the 1549, 1559, and 1662 BCPs if you’re interested in the classic Prayer Books.
However, it’s (arguably) more important to own a BCP that you regularly use than it is to own the "official" Prayer Book!
The Prayer Book your church uses: ???
So, if you’re already attending an Anglican church, then I strongly suggest that you find out which Book of Common Prayer your church uses and get a copy of that edition!
A Prayer Book you will use: The 1979 or 1928
But if you’re not attending an Anglican church and you’d like to get a BCP for your personal use, then, based on my experience, I recommend that you get a copy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
Yes (comment section), like every other BCP ever, it has its shortcomings. However, the 1979 is a great all-in-one resource for personal use. And it’s a great first BCP for Angli-curious individuals!
However, if you’d like a more traditional BCP, then you should check out the 1928.
Whereas the 1979 BCP has both traditional (Rite 1) and contemporary (Rite 2) language, the 1928 just has traditional Thee/Thou language. (That’s a big reason why the 1979 is so much longer!)
How do you use the Book of Common Prayer?
This is where the rubber meets the road! Unfortunately, as we mentioned at the top, the BCP can feel pretty overwhelming when you open it for the first time!
At this point, it’s important to remember that the BCP is designed to be a comprehensive resource.
That means that, unless you’re Anglican clergy (and even then!), you won’t use the entirety of the BCP very often.
Instead, you’ll come back to certain sections time and time again. And you’ll use others maybe once in your life!
So, let’s focus on the sections you’ll use most often. I’ll be keying my instructions to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. (Once the ACNA Prayer Book is out later this year, I’ll write up a guide.)
What liturgical day is it? The Calendar of the Church Year
The first thing you need to do when using the BCP is figure out what liturgical day it is. Specifically, you need to know which week of the liturgical year you’re in, and whether or not today happens to be a feast day.
This is where The Calendar of the Church Year (pp. 15–33) comes in handy.
(For a brief overview of the Christian year, click here.)
However, because the liturgical date is dependent upon the date of Easter, which changes from year-to-year (see Tables and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day, pp. 880ff.), it’s easier to just use an online tool such as The Lectionary Page .
What should you pray today? The Daily Office
Keep the liturgical date in mind. You’ll need it again soon.
Because it’s devoted to daily prayer, the Daily Office (pp. 36–146) is the section of the BCP you’ll probably use the most often.
(I’ve written a guide to how to lead a Daily Office service for a group of people. To read it, click here.)
As I mentioned above, in the 1979 BCP, Rite One means "traditional language" and Rite Two means "contemporary language."
So, if you want to pray using traditional language, you’ll use:
- Morning Prayer I (pp. 37–60) and
- Evening Prayer I (pp. 61–73).
For contemporary language, use:
- Morning Prayer II (pp. 75–102) and
- Evening Prayer II (pp. 115–126).
You’ll also notice that Rite Two includes liturgies for:
- Noonday Prayer (pp. 103–107),
- "An Order of Worship for the Evening" (abbreviated Evening Prayer, pp. 108–114),
- Compline (prayer right before bed, pp. 127–135), and
- "Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families" (abbreviated morning, noon, early evening, and close of day services, especially useful for families with children, pp. 136–140).
Additional directions for the Daily Office section can be found on pp. 141–146).
What’s the Collect of the Day? The Collects for the Church Year
In the course of doing the Daily Office, you’ll notice that there’s a point in each service where "The Collect of the Day" is supposed to be prayed.
(What is a Collect? Click here to find out.)
You find the Collect of the Day by looking it up in the Collects for the Church Year (pp. 158–261).
- If you’re using Rite One, you’ll use the "Collects: Traditional" section (pp. 159–210).
- If you’re using Rite Two, you’ll use the "Collects: Contemporary" section (pp. 211–261).
Here’s where knowing the liturgical date comes in handy. Normally, you use the Collect for each Sunday of the Christian year for the following weekdays until the next Sunday comes around.
If it’s a feast day, however, there’s a special Collect just for that day. See the "Holy Days" sections on page 185 (traditional) and 237 (contemporary).
What Scriptures should you read? The Daily Office Lectionary
There’s also a place in the Daily Office where you read passages from Scripture. To find out what passages you should read, you’ll use the liturgical date and the Daily Office Lectionary (pp. 934–1001).
Take a minute to read the instructions for the Daily Office Lectionary on pages 934 and 935.
You’ll find out that the lectionary in the 1979 BCP is a two-year cycle, Year One and Year Two.
- If it’s an odd-numbered year, unless you’re already in Advent in November/December, it’s Year One.
- If it’s an even-numbered year, unless it’s already Advent, it’s Year Two.
You’ll also learn how you can divide up the readings between Morning and Evening Prayer.
(I’ve written a guide to the Daily Office Lectionary and the different lectionary options that are out there. Click here to read it.)
Reading the Psalms: The Psalter
Here I should mention that, because they are used so often in worship, a complete copy of all 150 Psalms is included in virtually all Books of Common Prayer.
The 1979 is no exception, and you can find its Psalter (book of Psalms) on pages 582–808.
Various Prayers: Prayers and Thanksgivings
It’s also worth knowing about the "Prayers and Thanksgivings" section (pp. 810–841).
You’ll find a list of the prayers included on pages 810–813. You can use these prayers and thanksgivings whenever you like, whether in a liturgical service or not!
I’ve already introduced you to the section of the BCP that you’ll use most often on your own.
The next most important section is undoubtedly "The Holy Eucharist" (pp. 316–409), used for services of Holy Communion.
- Just like with the Daily Office, there’s a Rite One and a Rite Two.
- There’s a separate lectionary (The Lectionary, pp. 888ff.) on a three-year cycle (Year A, B, and C) to determine which passages of Scripture should be read at a service of Holy Communion.
For an overview of what Anglicans believe, there’s "An Outline of the Faith, or Catechism" (pp. 845ff.), as well as "Historical Documents of the Church" (pp. 864ff.)
Other than that, the BCP contains special liturgies/services, such as the following:
- The Great Litany (pp. 148ff.)
- Ash Wednesday (264)
- Palm Sunday (270)
- Maundy Thursday (274)
- Good Friday (276)
- Holy Saturday (283)
- Easter Vigil (285)
- Baptism (299)
- Confirmation (413)
- Marriage (423)
- Burial (469)
- Ordination of a Bishop (511), Priest (525), or Deacon (537)
Want to learn more about the BCP?
Check out these other posts here at Anglican Pastor:
Check out these resources elsewhere:
However, there’s really no substitute for getting a copy of the BCP and using it! Dive in and join the rest of us in figuring things out as we go along!
I hope this guide has been helpful. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below!
As Managing Editor, Josh is in charge of the day-to-day operations at Anglican Pastor. He is a Transitional Deacon in the Anglican Church in North America, serving at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL. He is also a Ph.D. student in theology at Wheaton College. Josh isn’t on Facebook or Twitter anymore, but you can follow him on micro.blog.