“Dearly beloved” is one of the most well-known phrases from the Prayer Book. Virtually anyone who hears it (regardless of religious affiliation), thinks of weddings. But this form of address is not unique to the marriage liturgy: the phrase (or variations of it) is found all over the Prayer Book. It is the principal formula for ministerial address of the congregation, and although closely associated with the Prayer Book it did not in fact originate with it. Like much of the language of the Prayer Book, it derives from scripture and has a rich theological significance.
Close attention to the use of biblical quotations and echoes in the liturgical script is vital to understanding how the Prayer Book works, an insight that informed the first stand-alone commentary of the Book of Common Prayer, published by John Boys in 1610. “Dearly beloved,” one of the foremost biblical phrases used in the Prayer Book, is William Tyndale’s rendering of ἀγαπητός (agapétos), retained in the subsequent English Bibles edited by Myles Coverdale. It is used by several NT writers to address the recipients of their epistles. Many more recent English translations render it as “my friends” or “my dear friends.” While more idiomatic twentieth-century English, these translations obscure the word’s significance. “Friends” is both less passionate and less precise.
The apostles likely were friends with some of those to whom they addressed letters, perhaps even many of them, but it is not on the basis of φιλία (philia), of merely personal affection, that they were addressed. Neither is it on that basis that a minister addresses the congregation of the faithful. No, Paul wrote in his capacity as δοῦλος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (doulos Iesou Christou), “a servant of Jesus Christ,” one “called to be an apostle, one separated unto the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Likewise, in the liturgy, the presiding minister speaks as one set apart, a servant of Christ, and his delegate or ambassador (that is, a lowercase “apostle”). Christ, the one in whose name the delegate speaks, is not merely the friend of the Father, φίλος Θεοῦ (philos Theou) as was our forefather Abraham (II Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), he is the one of whom the voice from out of heaven said, “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17). Therefore, those who are identified with or incorporated into Christ by faith are necessarily also beloved of God, co-heirs with Christ, and so beloved brothers. As Paul explains to the Galatians:
When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. (4:4-6)
Unsurprisingly, then, it is not uncommon to find ἀγαπητός (agapétos) paired with ἀδελφός (adelphos) “brethren.” Paul writes in Phil. 4:1, “my brethren dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown… stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved.” In 1 Thes. 1:4, he addresses himself to “brethren beloved of God” and 1 Cor 15:8 to “my beloved brethren.” Not only Paul, but James addresses “beloved brethren.” And John, who addresses his auditors as beloved twelve times in his corpus (more frequently than any other NT writer) reminds the beloved that they are “the sons of God” (1 John 3:2) and, therefore, of necessity, an inseparable familial connection. Thus he can write in no uncertain terms, “ If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar” (I John 4:20).
The Prayer Book uses this form of address in the same way as the scriptures do, with the same set of implications in mind. Twice daily in the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the minister addresses the congregation as “Dearly beloved brethren.” This twice-daily repetition establishes a definite association between ἀγαπητός (agapétos) and ἀδελφός (adelphos), so that, whenever one is heard, either beloved or brethren, a single network of theological associations is evoked.
As already noted, the marriage liturgy begins “Dearly beloved” (p. 312). The liturgy for visitation of the sick uses “dearly beloved” (p. 326) both to exhort the sick person and in a prayer with reference to Jesus, “thy most dearly beloved Son” (p. 330). The order for burial addresses the congregation as “brethren” and “my beloved brethren” (p. 345) and refers to Jesus in a prayer as “thy well-beloved Son” (p. 348) and the phrase “dear brethren” is used in the reading from 1 Cor. 25. The Commination begins more starkly, “Brethren” (p. 353) sans the dearly or beloved, emphasizing paternal chastisement over affection (both of which are vital aspects of the familial relationship). The formula is also used to refer to Jesus in the proper preface for Ascension Day (p. 260) (a seasonal variation of the preface to the sanctus in Holy Communion). “Dearly beloved” appears twice in the Ordinal (p. 609 and 623) with reference to Jesus. Variants of the formula are also, of course, quite frequent in the propers for Sundays and other Holy Days (epistle and gospel readings for the Communion service).
In the exhortation for the announcement of an upcoming Holy Communion, potential communicants are addressed as “Dearly beloved” (p. 251). In the exhortation for use when people exhibit reluctance to come to the Holy Table, the assembly is addressed as both “Dearly beloved brethren” (p. 253) and “most dearly beloved in Christ” (p. 254). The increased intensity of the address, achieved both with the use of more modifiers and thorough repetition of the address, does not appear accidental. There is an element of pathos-laden urging or pleading present, but also something entirely objective as well. It emphasizes identity in Christ precisely because neglect of his Table conflicts with that identity. The third exhortation — the one intended to be read on Communion Sundays after those not intending to receive the sacrament have exited and the communicants have gathered round the table — begins “Dearly beloved in the Lord” (p. 255). Only in the Lord, that is, by virtue of ontological identification with Christ, is the Lord’s Table open to us.
The distribution of “dearly beloved” (and its close variants) in the Prayer Book also points to this ontological insight. The liturgies for baptism contain the highest concentration of instances of the phrase both with reference to Jesus and with reference to the congregation. This is almost certainly no accident.
In the liturgy for the public baptism of infants there are seven instances, three referring to Christ and four referring to the congregation. It opens by addressing the congregation as “Dearly beloved,” (p. 272) as several Prayer Book offices do. Then, the first prayer in the office, often called the “flood prayer,” recalls “the baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the River Jordan” (ibid.). The second prayer recalls a promise of God’s “well-beloved Son,” namely, “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (p. 273; Matthew 7:7). Fourth, after the gospel lesson (Mark 10:13-16), the minister draws out the significance of the reading to the rite at hand, addressing the assembled people as “Beloved.” Fifth, a subset of the congregation, the god-parents of the child, are exhorted as “Dearly beloved” (p. 275). Sixth, the prayer just before the minister takes the child up to baptize her addresses the God “whose most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, did shed out of his most precious side both water and blood” (p. 277). Finally, at the end of the service, the whole assembly is addressed, “dearly beloved brethren” (p. 278).
The baptismal liturgy’s references to Jesus as the “well-beloved Son” evoke the account of his own baptism, explicitly recalled in the flood prayer. In the synoptic Gospels, as he emerges from the waters, a transcendent voice identifies Jesus as “my beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). Water, of course, symbolizes incomprehensible, primordial chaos (cf. Genesis 1:2); it is the image of destruction, death and the terror associated with these — personified as Leviathan (the sum of our fears). Paradoxically, water also symbolizes creation, birth, and purification. Baptism, then, by covering a person with water, dramatizes being swallowed up in death and then reborn, being un-made in order to be re-made. It is a ritual death-and-rebirth or, as the Prayer Book terms it, regeneration, that has in view the mystical identification of the individual with the dearly beloved Son of God, Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.
Unsurprisingly, we also find four instances of the word “regeneration” in this liturgy and one of its cognates “born again.” In the service for adult baptism (or, “such as are of riper years and able to answer for themselves,” as the Prayer Book has it) this is further amplified by the lesson. For the saplings Mark 10:13-16 is read, but for the ripened, John 3:1-8, the Lord’s discourse with Nicodemus (which is also read on Trinity Sunday). Twice the Lord Jesus tells the bewildered Pharisee that a man must be born again to see the kingdom of God. Baptism contains both the highest concentration of “beloved brethren” and the highest concentration of the word “regeneration” in the Prayer Book. They belong together. Through baptism, the rite of incorporation into Christ, those “born in sin” (p. 272) are sacramentally reborn as the beloved sons of God and, therefore, brothers.
Apart from incorporation into the well-beloved Son, we are “children of wrath” (as the Catechism puts it, p. 305), subject to the world, the flesh, and the devil, at so enmity with God. The baptism liturgy contains within it, just before the washing, a renunciation of this infernal triad. The unregenerate are not conceptualized as unaffiliated, belonging only to themselves. No, they belong to “this world… to the prince of the power of the air, [and] the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). It is as if in the baptismal liturgy this triad is vanquished and its captives liberated: the flesh by new birth, the world by brotherhood, the adversary by the Beloved.
The baptism liturgy contains the key to understanding the nature of this love that the minister expresses towards the assembly and upon what it is predicated. It is the love that God the Father has for the eternally begotten Son, a love to which we have access only because of our union with the dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. This is, as Bonhoeffer explained in Life Together, the only basis of Christian community — “Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community” (p. 25). That would be a house built on sand. “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” (p. 30).
It is not a rhetorical flourish but a precise characterization. Just as the phrase “miserable offenders” in the daily confession of sin (p. 3) does not aim to capture how those who pray it may feel about themselves, but instead precisely describes their ontological condition — “in need of mercy” — so too, “dearly beloved brethren” does not express personal feelings but rather expresses objective fact grounded upon the eternal changelessness of the Father’s love for the Son.
Of course, genuine affection there may be and should be — Paul told the Philippians “how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ” (1:8). The bowels were regarded as the seat of pity, mercy, and feelings of tenderness — Paul is describing real, embodied emotion. But the emotion is not merely personal or physiological; rather, it is spiritual, that is, deriving from the indwelling Spirit of Christ, by which the whole interior self is being transformed. Similarly, Paul commands the Colossians,
Put on… as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any. Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. (3:12, 13)
Do not misunderstand; this is not an official telling his subordinates to find a way to get along. Rather, Christ, speaking through the voice of his commissioned delegate, calls forth these affections from his own Spirit dwelling within his people. So too, John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God” (I John 4:7).
This biblical language that the Prayer Book puts into the mouths of the ministers spilled over into their preaching, as so much of the language of the English Bible and liturgy did. Pastors across the religious divides of early modern England addressed their flocks as “dearly beloved”; it was as common among Puritans as Papists, among simple Prayer-Book Conformists as among Avant-Gaurd Ceremonialists. In discussing the use of “dearly beloved” as a form of address in seventeenth-century sermons, Jennifer Clement observes, as we have here, that it “does not speak so much of the preacher’s own feelings” but to “a kind of otherness within the rhetorical speaker, a mode of speech in which the speaker’s voice is potentially both sincere and also fictional” (p. 726). From a rhetorical level of analysis that seems precisely right. There is, however, another dimension to this “otherness,” a theological dimension. Insofar as the minister in the pulpit speaks as Christ, as his ambassador and mouthpiece, there is nothing “fictional” about this love at all, though there is certainly something “other” about it — indeed, even entirely “alien.” As Bonhoeffer said,
[T]he goal of all Christian community [is to] meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation. As such, God permits them to meet together and gives them community. Their fellowship is founded solely upon Jesus Christ and this “alien righteousness.” …[T]his alone is the basis of the longing of Christians for one another.
The “authenticity” of this expression of love is no less for being scripted. Formula is no foe of feeling (music is the best proof of that). The love expressed in the preacher’s address is entirely sincere in a sense that merely human love (deficient both in constancy and purity) cannot be. If there is anything that seems fictional or feigned, that is a consequence of the nature of our present estate, that quality of “already and not yet.” By virtue of union with Christ, the preacher is ontologically the beloved brother of all the faithful who are his beloved brethren; and yet, the process of sanctification — that transformation and renewing of the mind, the full realization of all that baptism exhibits — remains incomplete until the last day. So the preacher also preaches to himself.
“Dearly beloved” may (at first) sound somewhat quaint to twenty-first century ears, but no other form of address so aptly expresses the relationship shared between Christians in Christ, the beloved Son of God. Viewed rhetorically, Clement explains, the address “Beloved” serves to call the congregation into being; it creates as much as describes (p. 735). Viewed theologically, it identifies the auditors by their truest selves, reaffirming the ontological fact so often belied by what we have done and what we have left undone, recalling the incomparable grace in which we have been washed. In that sense, then, each time the Prayer Book and the pastors who animate its liturgies daily in churches, address the assembly as “dearly beloved brethren” the Body of Christ is reconstituted by the Word of God.
Prayer Book references are to The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (Samuel L. Bray & Drew Nathaniel Keane, eds., IVP Academic, 2021).
- Many comments on the Prayer Book were of course made in the course of the Admonition Controversy, beginning with the 1572 Admonition to Parliament by John Field and Thomas Wilcox. Cambridge divines Thomas Carwright and John Whitgift (later Archbishop of Canterbury) both wrote a great deal about the Prayer Book in their debate. The crowning achievement of the Admonition Controversy, Book V of Whitgift’s protege Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclessiastical Polity (published in 1597) contains what is essentially a Prayer Book commentary; but, again, the comments are framed in response to others’ objections and form only part of a larger argument. Boys’s 1610 An Exposition of All the Principal Scriptures Used in our English Liturgy is the earliest book framed as an exposition of the Prayer Book. ↑
- Interestingly, this was a change introduced in 1662; from 1549 to 1604 had “friends” at this point, a form of address not found in the NT. ↑
- This too was a change in 1662 from “well-beloved friends.” Tyndale uses “well-beloved” in some places instead of “dearly beloved” to translate ἀγαπητός. ↑
- John’s gospel preserves the tradition of the baptism without the voice from heaven. ↑
- When the scriptures (and the Prayer Book) refer to “the world” it does not mean the planet, but the sphere of human existence or the order of things (along the lines of what “world” means in “welcome to my world”). ↑
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, translated by John W. Doberstein (New York: HarperOne). ↑
- Anyone who has felt “butterflies” in his or her stomach can appreciate the intuitive connection. ↑
- Jennifer Clement, “Dearly Beloved: Love, Rhetoric, and the Seventeenth-Century English Sermon” English Studies 98(7): pp. 677-687. ↑
- It should be noted that formulae are no less prevalent among those who advocate for the exclusive use of extemporaneous prayer in public worship. Employing formulae allows the extemporaneous speaker to think ahead while speaking seamlessly. It need not be conscious at all — many readers will have heard “Hallelujah” employed this way in extemporaneous prayer , for example, or “Jesus we just…” used anaphoristically. ↑