In May of 2017, I began my studies at a Baptist seminary by taking a course on eighteenth-century British Evangelicalism. While we spent most of our time examining the lives and impact of figures such as George Whitefield and John Wesley, the course began with an introduction to the English Reformation and the development of the Church of England. In the context of one of these introductory lectures, the professor suggested: If students truly wanted to explore and appreciate Anglicanism as a Protestant tradition, we should try using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) for personal devotions for a year. Initially, I was taken aback by the thought of such a commitment. While I was swiftly growing fond of Thomas Cranmer and other early Anglicans, I thought that prolonged immersion in the BCP might undermine the evangelical Baptist spirituality I had come to cherish and hone for pastoral ministry. Yet, as my professor, an evangelical Baptist through and through, continued to share about his appreciation for the BCP and how its use was deeply edifying for him and his faith, I resolved to take up his challenge.
After a year of regularly using the BCP in my personal prayer life, I can safely say that it was one of the best decisions I made as a seminarian. Although I did not end the year by converting to Anglicanism or by becoming the type of Baptist who might as well be an Anglican, I came away profoundly edified by and grateful for the BCP. In this article, I will share two reasons why I, as an evangelical Baptist, appreciate the BCP, and one way I have begun to incorporate the BCP into my ministry as an elder of my local church. I will, however, also share why the BCP remains a uniquely Anglican book that I cannot fully embrace.
A Time of Unified Worship
To begin my journey, I dug up the little black BCP I had inherited from my grandmother, who herself had grown up in the Anglican Diocese of Barbados. Opening the book for the first time, I was immediately struck by how well-used it had been. My grandmother, who was a sort of spiritual matriarch of my family and someone I had known as a paragon of evangelical spirituality, had clearly been invested in and formed by the BCP. I also came to understand that the BCP was not what I had assumed. I learned that the BCP was not a conventional annual devotional book; I would need some help working through it. Therefore, I went online and found a website that provided all the information and content needed for a daily morning and evening prayer regimen from the BCP. Rather than just a short prayer for each morning and evening, I discovered many distinct prayers and multiple passages of Scripture for reading, all thoughtfully woven together as a service.
Growing up as a Baptist, extensive times of Scripture reading and prayer in the morning and evening was not new to me; we take our “daily devotions” seriously. Using the BCP, however, was the first time I encountered reading and prayer as a unified time of worship, rather than disconnected times of reading as merely study and prayer as merely petition. Day in and day out, I would now acknowledge my place before God, and my constant need for his mercy and grace. Morning and evening, I would bless and praise God as my Creator and Savior and confess my faith in him. The daily prayers of the BCP followed a clear progression that perfectly corresponded to my identity as a son of God, beginning with contrition and ending with assurance. I would open in prayer in anticipation of the word, close in prayer in response to the word, with my prayers themselves being informed by the language of Scripture, if not direct quotations. Whether or not I will continue using the BCP, this is a flow and approach to private worship that I will maintain in the future.
Widening the Circle
Before my experience with the BCP, my daily prayers followed the simple A.C.T.S. pattern of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. As I believe is standard for most evangelicals, the vast majority of prayer was spent on supplication: praying in response to needs in my life and the lives of loved ones. This time was a priority for me growing up; my parents even encouraged me to keep a journal of all the people I knew and their various needs so that I might pray for them. I believe that this was a wonderful discipline and one that works well within the flow of the BCP. The BCP itself, however, elevated this time and reminded me constantly to pray for people I might not know personally or even by name. For the first time, it was now part of my daily prayer life to be praying for those in civil government and for the pastors and members of other churches. This is, of course, a scriptural command. In the New Testament, Christians are explicitly urged or given direct examples to pray for those in civil authority and for pastors and the Church at large. Through these prayers and others like it, the BCP took me beyond my bubble. It reminded me that there is more to life and more to pray for than just my immediate circle and what directly relates to me. The BCP, through various established prayers and thanksgivings, called me to constantly pray for the people and things beyond my sight and do so not only in response to major events and disasters. On this point, the BCP not only brought my prayer life into deeper conformity with the instruction of Scripture but also transformed my outlook on all of life: things as simple as hearing someone got over a cold or that rain was expected became causes for prayerful thanksgiving whenever heard.
Canticles as Guide for Corporate Prayer
Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic struck, I had begun to lead my church’s Wednesday evening prayer meetings regularly. At these meetings, those gathered would work through a prayer guide thoughtfully prepared by our lead pastor in addition to hearing a short report from one of our missionaries and singing a couple of hymns. Once the pandemic and lockdowns took over in earnest, I began to lead an online prayer meeting. Initially, the online meeting followed the same format of the in-person meetings to the best of our ability, largely following the weekly prayer guide. During the summer, however, we no longer had a guide to work with as this was a time when the weekly prayer meeting typically went on hiatus. Not wanting to cease gathering for prayer while the pandemic was ongoing, it was then up to me to establish a program and rhythm for my group’s weekly meetings. While we still followed the basic format, I chose to introduce my group to the canticles of the BCP, reciting a different one each week.
Despite their familiar ring, being composed of Scripture, the canticles offered something new to the group. Read as one might recite a hymn, they brought a welcome element of praise to our prayer meeting. Rather than going to Scripture to frame our prayers, we recited Scripture as our prayer. While I cannot speak to the feelings of others in the group, I certainly got the sense that this practice enhanced our view of Scripture and approach to God in prayer. We not only received God’s word as nourishment, but we also offered it back to God as praise: a concept that I would assume is novel to most Baptists and, if known, likely limited to the Psalms.
Lasting Baptist Reservations
There is much more I could say in praise of the BCP as a helpful guide for personal prayer and a conversation partner for pastors formulating various liturgies. Yet, I must end by stating that the BCP remains a book that I could not “endorse” without serious qualification, especially to Baptist congregations.
Firstly, there is the reality of the BCP’s unashamedly Anglican nature. While obviously Baptists could not make use of liturgies for the baptism of infants, one will still see critical differences for its approach to the baptism of those “of riper years”. For example, the BCP has the priest state, “Doubt ye not therefore, but earnestly believe, that he will favourably receive these present persons, truly repenting, and coming unto him by faith; that he will grant them remission of their sins, and bestow upon them the Holy Ghost; that he will give them the blessing of eternal life, and make them partakers of his everlasting kingdom.” The immediate tension here is that evangelical Baptists will plainly state that baptism is a sign of these various things already accomplished in the believer’s life: in baptism classes at my church, it is a crucial and unambiguous point that baptism is for those who have already received the Holy Spirit. Within the same liturgy, there is also the use of the sign of the cross, which the majority of Baptists would find bizarre or even superstitious. Even if a Baptist congregation was comfortable with the traditional language of the BCP, the book is so positively Anglican that it could not be used without critical and consistent modification.
Secondly, there is the reality of Baptist history, culture, and spirituality. It is unfortunate, but the fact that the BCP was a catalyst for many great trials and difficulties of early Baptists seeking to live and worship in the seventeenth century has left a profound mark. As is well exemplified by John Bunyan’s I Will Pray with the Spirit, the early Baptist movement was at least partly defined by dissent to the BCP’s enforcement. From there, many Baptists have come to appreciate the central role of extemporaneous prayer in both the lives of individual Christians and the church. Pre-written prayers in general, which are liable to be viewed with confusion or suspicion by some members, are expected to be composed with the individual’s own personality and passion. Therefore, while the BCP could inspire or supplement Baptist liturgy and prayer life, it is impossible to imagine it becoming a central feature or mainstay of our spirituality. Even if a thoroughly Baptist Book of Common Prayer was published, it is difficult to imagine that it would ever become common. With strong convictions against any denominational hierarchy that could enforce such a book’s use, only a few evangelical Baptist congregations on the margin, already deeply invested in the Anglican BCP, would be likely to take it up.
Mentor not Master
Overall, Baptists have much to gain from engagement with the BCP. I can say for myself that a single year with it transformed and deepened my approach to daily prayer and worship. As an elder, thinking about liturgy and discipleship, it provides a powerful Protestant example of intentional and scriptural approaches to the various events of the church’s life. While I do not think Baptists can or should adopt the BCP wholesale, looking more to its rhythms and principles rather than its specific words and details, I do think it should be respected as a leading conversation partner. Through occasional use and studied familiarity, the thoughtfulness and beauty of the BCP’s style and content can inform and deepen the traditional and foundational practices of Baptist spirituality.