The title of this essay asks a question. But it is really three different questions, depending on where the emphasis falls. Why did we edit the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition? Why did we edit the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition? And why did we edit the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition? Each is a good question, and we will take them up in turn.
WHY THE BCP 1662?
Almost everyone, reading or listening to a service from the Book of Common Prayer (1662), is immediately struck by the language. It is rhythmic, but there are almost no rhymes; always attentive to sound, but never showy. It is the kind of prose that people tend to mistakenly call poetry. The prayers have round, full phrases, with careful pauses. They unfurl deliberately.
The language may seem a little distant, certainly formal, but it has a rare transparency and serenity. James Wood, a critic at The New Yorker, captured this well: “Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic, grandly alienated, perhaps what is most notable about the words of the Prayer Book are their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this ‘pithiness’; I would add ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.’” And yet, as Lord Williams said of this sacred register of English, “we’re reminded that what we’re trying to talk about is not just the business of the house in the street, it is also strange and astonishing and terrifying.”
The language of the BCP 1662 is why it is sung by choirs in cathedral Evensongs across the world. It is why these words are etched on the memory of those who repeat them. In recent contemporary language prayer books, there is nothing like it. This is why poets involved in the revision of Anglican liturgical texts—T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden on the Psalms, for example—have tended to resist the whole enterprise and tried to hold onto as much of the prayer book’s language as possible.
But the language alone is not quite a sufficient answer for why we are presenting the BCP 1662. Its language largely endures in other traditional prayer books, such as the BCP 1928 and BCP 1962 (still used by a number of parishes and individuals in the United States and Canada, respectively). So why the 1662 specifically?
We see three advantages which we will mention briefly in this essay, rather than explain at length.
First, the BCP 1662 presents the gospel with unusual clarity. The good news that Jesus offers to a fallen humanity—the “Joy to the World” that will be sung by millions around the world this year at Christmas—is found on page after page of the classic prayer book.
Second, the BCP 1662 is easier to use than later prayer books. The simplicity of its design gives it the shortest learning curve.
Third, the BCP 1662 is the normative standard for Anglican liturgies all over the world. There is much that divides Anglicans right now, yet we find that any search for a basis of unity almost inevitably draws more and more attention to the BCP 1662. Here in the United States, a diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Church can authorize public use of the BCP 1662 as an alternative to the BCP 1979, and in the Anglican Church in North America the BCP 1662 is canonically permitted and called “a standard for Anglican doctrine and discipline.”
This combination of characteristics—linguistic, kerygmatic, pedagogic, and normative—makes the BCP 1662 stand apart from all other Anglican liturgies.
WHY AN INTERNATIONAL EDITION?
But if the BCP 1662 is so great, why is another edition needed? Excellent editions abound. The university presses of Oxford and Cambridge both publish it, the standard edition for study is the Oxford World’s Classics version edited by Brian Cummings, and there’s a paper-back Penguin edition with an introduction by James Wood.
Unlike some of those editions, ours is not meant for a literature class or for comparison of textual variants. Our edition is for prayer, for common prayer. So the real comparator for us is the current Oxford and Cambridge printings.
In our view, these editions are really good. But they present three hurdles for someone outside of England who wants to pick up the Book of Common Prayer and use it.
The first hurdle is about state prayers. The 1662 has prayers for the Queen and royal family, but these prayers are not suited to use in a republic. So the 1662 International Edition, or 1662 IE for short, replaces those state prayers with ones taken from other Anglican prayer books, with slight adaptations so they can be used in any country, no matter what its polity.
Consider an example from Morning and Evening Prayer. After the third collect, there are two state prayers, the Prayer for the Queen and the Prayer for the Royal Family. In the 1662 IE we replace them with this:
A Prayer for All Those in Civil Authority.
Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting and power infinite: Have mercy upon this whole land, and so rule the hearts of all in authority, [especially —,] that they, knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek thy honour and glory; and that we and all the people, duly considering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honour them, according to thy blessed word and ordinance, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
¶ Or this.
Almighty Father, whose kingdom is everlasting: We beseech thee of thy mercy to direct and prosper the counsels of all those who bear authority in this land, that in humility and honesty they may faithfully serve the people committed to their charge. And grant, we pray thee, that religion and piety, peace and unity, truth and justice, may be established among us for all generations, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The first of these two prayers comes from the US BCP 1928, and the second from the Ghana BCP 1960. Note that we do include, elsewhere in the book, the Prayers for the Queen and Royal Family for those, especially in Commonwealth countries, who desire to use them.
The second hurdle for someone who wants to use the BCP 1662 today is some of the language. Not that much of the language, really. This is still a traditional-language prayer book, replete with “thee” and “thou.” But we do sometimes replace words whose meaning has shifted (e.g. “cheapness” becomes “abundance”) or verb conjugation (e.g. “though we be tied” becomes “though we are tied”). In the epistles and gospels and psalms we use what are now standard forms of proper nouns (e.g., “Elias” becomes “Elijah”). In prayers we tend to update pronouns like “them that” to “those who,” but in a canticle, psalm, epistle, or gospel we usually leave the more archaic form. Our approach is summarized this way in the editorial afterword: “we updated the language of rubrics most; prayers less; and psalms, canticles, and biblical texts least of all.”
This modesty of linguistic revision was made possible by one of our appendices, which is a glossary. It allowed us to keep more archaic usages, especially in the Psalms, because the diligent reader would find an explanation. Under the letter A, for example, we have entries for: abjects, after, allege, allow, alway, ante portam Latinam, anthem, and apace. These entries will also be helpful for a minister, lay catechist, or parent who is teaching someone else how to use the prayer book.
A final hurdle concerns prayers the 1662 doesn’t have. Some later prayers would be greatly missed. The development of Anglican prayer books did not stop in the seventeenth century, and more recent ones tend to include a number of occasional prayers. This edition includes an appendix of additional prayers.
These additional prayers fall under ten headings, including “Society and State, “Throughout the Day,” and “In Sorrow and Suffering.” Under “Society and State,” for example, there are the following:
For Fruitful Seasons
For Joy in God’s Creation
For Our Country (2x)
In a Time of Calamity
In a Time of War
For the Armed Forces (2x)
In a Time of Great Sickness (2x)
For an Election
For the Courts of Justice
For the Peace of the World
For the Reign of Christ
Of special interest now, given the tragedy of the covid-19 pandemic, are the two prayers under the heading “In a Time of Great Sickness” (one from the Irish BCP 1878 and one from the US BCP 1928). The main text of the BCP 1662 itself has prayers and thanksgivings related to the plague (very much on the minds of the prayer book revisers in 1662). There is a prayer “In a Time of Any General Plague or Sickness” and two thanksgivings “For Deliverance from Plague or General Sickness.” So, in all, the 1662 IE has five prayers specific to a time of plague, pandemic, or great sickness. By contrast, most prayer books from the last half century dropped all such prayers—an unfortunate excess of optimism about our human ability to control nature.
We do not pretend that these are the only hurdles. One could decide not to use the Book of Common Prayer because of its theology, or its ethics, or because it contains fixed prayers. Those sorts of revisions were beyond our remit of modestly re-presenting the classic text. And for some the language, even with a little tucking in here and pulling out there, may still be too starchy. But for someone who wants to use the BCP 1662 outside of England, we hope it will be a gift to have these hurdles removed.
That still leaves the question of why we have undertaken this work. For each of us, our scholarly specialties have led us to appreciate the language of the prayer book. Drew’s speciality is the orality of early modern English texts, and the Book of Common Prayer is a paradigm case. And Drew has served two terms on the liturgical commission of the Episcopal Church. One of Sam’s academic interests is interpretation of legal texts, with an attention to literary characteristics such as figures of speech. The language of the Book of Common Prayer has been rightly revered by major modern poets and critics (e.g. Auden, Eliot, Wood). It is not really surprising that our interest in words leads us to these words.
But more than that, the prayer book has been the ballast of our devotional lives for years. And for each of us, the trajectory was the same. We were first introduced to the BCP 1979, which is the current prayer book of the Episcopal Church; we went further upstream to the traditional-language BCP 1928; and then still further up to the standard Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Communion, the BCP 1662.
We do not presume to think that everyone will or should make the same journey. There are reasons others will not want to. But we have found the classic Book of Common Prayer by turns nourishing and captivating. We wanted to make its riches widely available.
Those who have endorsed this edition include leading scholars of the Book of Common Prayer, of early modern history, of Christian theology and liturgics; bishops; priests; writers. Their praise for this edition is primarily praise for the 1662 itself, and not for our work. For those who do praise our work, the recurring note is about its modesty and restraint. That is as it should be.
We hope this edition lets you see, in a brighter, clearer light, this work that has transfixed so many for so many generations.
- James Wood, “God Talk: The Book of Common Prayer at Three Hundred and Fifty,” New Yorker (Oct. 22, 2012). ↑
- Rowan Williams, interview with Vatican Radio (Oct. 28, 2011) retrieved from: http://aoc2013.brix.fatbeehive.com/articles.php/2234/archbishops-interview-with-vatican-radio-from-assisi-to-zimbabwe ↑
- See J.I. Packer, “The Gospel in the Prayer Book”; Gavin Dunbar, “Like Eagles in this Life: A Theological Reflection on ‘The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion’ in the Prayer Books of 1559 and 1662,” in The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present, and Future (Prudence Dailey, ed., Continuum, 2011); Liam Beadle, “No Imposition: The Commination and Lent,” Faith & Worship (Lent 2018), pp. 16-30. ↑
- For example, see The Principles of Canon Law Common to the Churches of the Anglican Communion (Anglican Communion Office, 2008), Principle 55(1) (“The Book of Common Prayer 1662 is the normative standard for liturgy”); id. at Part V (calling the BCP 1662 and the Scriptures the “touchstones” of Anglican worship). ↑
- An example is the Cairo Covenant Section 1.1(a). For similar wording, compare Canon A5 of the Church of England. ↑
- This is possible under the terms of Resolution A068 of the 2018 General Convention, which instructs diocesans “to engage worshiping communities in experimentation and the creation of alternative texts to offer to the wider church.” For the Communion service specifically, substitution of the 1662 rite is also possible under the terms of 2015 Resolution D050. ↑
- See ACNA Constitution and Canons, Canon 2, Section 1. ↑
- Note that the current printings of the 1662 diverge from the statutory text in various ways. Some of these are changes to the rubrics, especially about baptism. But the largest changes are to the lectionaries for the daily offices. The current printings from OUP and CUP have two lectionaries, the 1871 and 1922—both good, but both quite different from the original 1662’s table of lessons for the daily offices. The 1662 IE reprints the 1662 table of lessons in the text, and it includes the Church of England’s 1961 lectionary in an appendix. ↑