To use or not to use …?

The Book of Common Prayer that is.

In his recent blog post Why I don’t use the Book of Common Prayer Father Jonathan Munn gave his thoughts regarding his own customs for Mass and the Divine Office. This sparked a post named Reflections on the Prayer Book by Fr. Anthony Chadwick on his Sarum Use blog. Both articles are written by Anglicans that have roots in the culture and religious world created by the Book of Common Prayer (= BCP). The article to follow is written by an Anglican Catholic Priest, and fellow ACC member, who does not have any roots the culture and religious world created by the BCP. Though I sympathize with my brothers in the Priesthood, I do not share their relationship to the BCP. I am a stranger to the “Prayer Book Wars”, I do not have any emotional or spiritual investments in the “classic” BCP’s either. The BCP has never been positive factor in my entry into the Anglican Catholic Church. The opposite is, in fact, true. The BCP and the 39 Articles have been significant bumps in the road for me, and as will become clear, to some extent they still are.


Protestanism – “The brick wall of the Reformation

Fr. Munn mentions running into the “brick wall of the Reformation” and it is to avoid that same wall why I do not even own, nor desire to own, a Book of Common Prayer. My first encounters with Christianity were decidedly anti-liturgical in the form of Pentecostalism and Evangelical Protestantism. From these barren forms of Christianity I eventually moved to the Orthodox Church. The latter is a deeply liturgical Christian community so that obedience to the liturgy can be simplified as obedience to God. For the Liturgy – as much as Scripture – is a gift of God to His people. God is known in both there is no either/or here. The work of God – as St. Benedict calls it – does two things at the same time: it allows us to know God and worship Him, and through it the worshiper is deified. To change the liturgy – in any revolutionary sense – is unthinkable almost (but not quite) as much as it is unthinkable to radically change the Scriptures.

Such a respect for liturgy creates a very big problem when one is seeking to enter a Anglican Christian community. Even one as overtly Catholic as the Anglican Catholic Church. The trouble is precisely the liturgy. Namely: the Book of Common Prayer which is undoubtedly a work by Protestants for Protestants, facilitating Protestant worship and a Protestant spiritual formation. Any Catholic use of the BCP – though possible with great difficulty and some feats of mental and spiritual gymnastics – comes to it from the outside as something not natural to it. The Reformation on the European Continent and the BCP share the same (Protestant) DNA. It was the realization that the ACC contained the following important qualification to its use of the BCP that eventually convinced me that the ACC was serious about its catholicism:

OF THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. The Book of Common Prayer in its 1549
English, 1928 American, 1954 South African, 19 and 1962 Canadian editions, and the
1963 edition of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon as well as The
Supplement To The Book of Common Prayer (C.I.P.B.C.) of 1960 shall be the Standard of Public Worship of this Church, together with The Anglican Missal, The American Missal, The English Missal, and other missals and devotional manuals, based on and conforming to those editions of The Book of Common Prayer.

Constitution of the Anglican Catholic Church, Article xiv, 1.

The above clearly states that the Anglican, American, and English Missals conform to the mentioned BCP’s mentioned and are therefore “the Standard of Public Worship of this Church.” Also mentioned are (unspecified) “other missals and devotional manuals” that conform to the BCP’s mentioned in the way that the specified Missals do. This easily applies to the English Office Book, the Monastic Diurnal & Breviary, and the Anglican Breviary. Also included should be a “manual” no longer in print (except on compiled for the Community of St. Margaret over a hundred years ago by St. John Mason Neale (completed by members of the community after Neale’s death): the Night Hours of the Church (three volumes), and the Breviary Offices: Lauds to Compline.  Iow the thrust of the ACC is away from the Protestantism that gave birth to the BCP – while, paradoxically, paying lip service to BCP conformity. The “brick wall of the Reformation” is what the ACC wishes to avoid running into – but, preferably, without giving up on the BCP all-together.


Monastic Patrimony

Both Fr. Munn and Fr. Chadwick mention the monastic tradition and their shared respect for it. The ACC has a Benedictine and Franciscan tradition both of which Orders have strong (but often ignored) liturgical implications.

Fr. Munn mentions that “the genius of the BCP is Benedictine” and I have heard similar statements on the BCP more times than I am able to count. Only once have I seen an attempt to sustain that assumption with argument by John Bede Pauley OSB. I remain entirely unconvinced that there is a Benedictine quality to the BCP in any sense. The liturgical thought as we find it in the Holy Rule of St. Benedict is diametrically opposed to the liturgical thoughts expressed in the BCP. I cannot see how anyone familiar with the chapters on the Divine Office (which take up a significant number of chapters in the Rule 1 ) could find their “spirit” or “genius” reflected in Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Cranmer and Benedict were operating on very different principles. To mention just two examples:

  1. Cranmer’s Prayer Book is a vehicle for reading Scripture. The BCP is oriented toward the reading of Scripture and only Scripture. Benedict conceives of the Divine Office as “work of God” where the reading of Scripture has secondary place in the Divine Office (much like it did for John Cassian) and “psalmody” comes first. If Scripture is read, it is to be placed in the context of interpretations provided by “orthodox and catholic Fathers.” The latter was entirely absent from Cranmer’s mind. Scripture interprets itself and has no need of such authoritative “Fathers.” To Benedict such interpretative context is essential to reading Scripture whereas to Cranmer (and Prayer Book) it is beneficial and in no way essential.
  2. The Office consists of 7 day offices and 1 night office so that prayer may conform to the scriptural pattern (Psalm 119 & Rule xvi). The night and day offices together count eight offices and point to the “eight day”. It is not by accident that ancient baptismal fonts and baptisteries are built to have eight sides, that Sunday is traditionally counted as the first and the eights day, and that babies were named on the eight day etc. The eight day is the “time beyond nature” the “reality of the Risen Christ.”  The 8 fold Office as we find it in the Holy Rule is deliberate and is not open to change. The distribution of the Psalms over the 8 hours is open to change, not the structure of the Office itself. Cranmer fails to see the point of the traditional Hours of Prayer and constructs Morning and Evening Prayer out of them. Destroying an essential aspect of the traditional Office in the process.

This is but simply to touch on two issues, much more could be said. Even about these two issues. The Prayer Book is not Benedictine and, as far as I can see, reflects no specific Benedictine themes. Anglican Benedictines, it seems to me, are bound to follow the directions of the Holy Rule and naturally gravitate to using the Office as specified by St. Benedict.

The secular Office, used by the “mendicant Orders”, counts only seven Hours in the liturgical day, combining Matins and Lauds into one. But again these seven Hours are christologically and scripturally grounded as the following ancient rhyme makes clear:

At Matins bound, at Prime reviled, condemned to death at Tierce; Nailed to the Cross at Sexts; at Nones His blessed side they pierce; They take Him down at Vesper-tide, in grave at Compline lay; Who henceforth bids His Church observe these seven hours alway.

The number seven is symbolic. They remind us of the seven virtues & vices, the seven words from the Cross, the seven sacraments etc. The structure of the  traditional Divine Office is an essential feature not accidental as it is in the BCP. The number seven grounds the Office in Jesus Christ’s redemptive work and the Scripture which speaks of Him.

The mendicants active in the ACC are – to my knowledge – primarily Franciscan. It may therefore be expedient to read what St. Francis has to say about the Divine Office:


Clerics are to perform the divine office according to the rite of the Roman Church, except for the Psalter, and they can have breviaries for that purpose. Laymen are to say twenty-four “Our Fathers” at matins; five at lauds; seven each at prime, terce, sext and none; twelve at vespers; and seven at compline. They should also pray for the dead. They should fast from the feast of all saints until Christmas. Those who voluntarily fast at Quadragessima, those forty days after Epiphany which the Lord consecrated with his own holy fasting, will themselves be blessed by the Lord; yet they are not required to do so if they do not want to. They must fast during Lent, but they are not required to do so at other times except on Fridays. In case of obvious necessity, however, they are excused from bodily fasting.

Franciscans, it seems to me, are bound to obey their founder’s rule as much as are Benedictines. The “rite of the Roman Church” at this time is the pre-Tridentine Divine Office of which Sarum and the Office Books which Neale provided for St. Margaret’s are representatives. The Psalter St. Francis wants his friars to use is the older of the two Psalters in vogue at the time. The Gallican and Roman Psalter of which St. Francis – as most of his contemporaries – assumed the older was used and given by St. Peter the Apostle. In other words Anglican Franciscans, it would seem, have little wiggle room here. Whatever wiggle room there is, it does not fit the BCP. A very tight opening exists for the Anglican Breviary here since it is based in the Franciscan tradition and it could be convincingly argued that it is a reformed version of the Roman Rite.



Fr. Chadwick refers to emotional attachment to the BCP by many Anglicans and he touches on the idea that Anglicans could derive their identity as Anglicans from this book. That is certainly true. He also mentions that his own use of the Sarum Use for Mass is justified by claiming it as “Anglican” be it pre-reformation Anglican. Fr. Chadwick and Fr. Munn are both British and have roots in the religious culture created and sustained by the BCP. My background is different. I have no spiritual investment in the BCP at all. The BCP does not have an emotional grip on me either. I am a native Dutchman and insofar as I have pre-Reformation roots they are Tridentine Roman or post-Reformation Calvinist.

There is little, if anything, Catholic to be found in Calvinism. Whatever is Christian in Calvinism is the little it has retained from Catholicism. Whatever is original to Calvinism is simply of non-Christian origin and of no concern to me as a Christian.

The English and Anglican Missals are, as Fr. Chadwick notes, of Roman inspiration rather than Sarum. As a Dutchman my interrest in Anglican Catholicism – and my investment in it – lies here. Catholic first and Anglican second. The English Missal or Missale Anglicanum is authorized for use in the ACC and it contains the Sundays after Pentecost and the pre-Reformation Collects of the Roman Rite. This fits very well with the Catholic tradition of the Netherlands and is what I am invested in and have roots in. I have no need, nor any desire for the BCP.

That said – I do understand that “Prayer Book Catholicism” is a real thing and that many Anglican Catholics use the BCP for Office and Mass and are entirely Catholic in their faith. I do not intend to deny this reality, nor do I intend to deny their practice of Anglican Catholicism. I believe they are using the Prayer Book in a Catholic sense and I would not want to deprive them of it. At the same time I wish to explain why, like Fr. Jonathan I do not use the BCP. Though our reasons may differ, I think we can agree that the BCP Office and the traditional Divine Office can coexist in the Church. The Breviary and English Missal provide for the practice of a Catholic faith in the Netherands. The Anglican Catholic Church, though based on the BCP in its Catholic use and interpretation, is not limited to the BCP but extends into Missal and Breviary and is therefore relevant to a reformed (though not Protestant) Dutch Catholicism and I am quite content to have found my spiritual home in it.

Gregory Wassen +



2 thoughts on “To use or not to use …?

  1. If I’m not mistaken, the Sarum Use is of more than pre-Reformation Anglican. It could be forcefully argued that the Sarum is the original liturgical contract of the Church of England (and by extension, all of Anglicanism). We must remember that under Henry VIII the first liturgical standard for the Church was the existing Missal; the only modification being the removal of all mention of the Pope. There can be little doubt that Cranmer secretly desired more radical change. Nevertheless, this means that the first Anglicans broke with Rome under the understanding that they would continue in the ancient western liturgical tradition. The readiness with which many priests returned to traditional liturgy under Mary proves that Cranmer’s book was an unwelcome burden for most.
    Further, I’ve always found it somewhat difficult to give Cranmer much credit for what beauty there is in the BCP. Most of the BCP (90%?) was taken from existing English translations of Scripture — translations that Cranmer modified only slightly. The bulk of that which remains is a paraphrase of Scripture. Again Cranmer relied heavily on existing translations. His book is truly more notable for what he omitted that for any real work that he put into it. Most of what is important in the BCP is not authentically Cranmer’s work. What I have always found fascinating is that much that Cranmer put in the BCP — some of the prayers in the burial service, for example — seems to conflict sharply with the Calvinist heresy in Cranmer’s original 42 Articles of Religion. These inconsistencies would later become prominent is Puritan objections to the BCP. The Puritans, contrary to modern assumptions, were liturgical; they were objecting to the residual Catholic content in the BCP.

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