A liturgy makes it easier to pray with others, and to pray with the church—past, present, and future. Liturgical prayers are not the only kind, but there is something special about them. These prayers can be etched on your heart, taught to your children, and remembered at the close of life. For Anglicans, these prayers are found in the Book of Common Prayer (AKA “BCP,” AKA “Prayer Book”).
But for anyone who is curious about Anglicanism, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Which Book of Common Prayer is the Book of Common Prayer?
After all, here in North America, you can find at least a dozen to choose from, and then there are all the customizations, variants, hacks, add-on packets, bells and whistles. There goes a Saturday just figuring all this out, and you haven’t even started praying. And what if you don’t want a book unique to the United States or Canada, but one that is used by Anglicans around the world, including throughout the Global South?
Which Prayer Book? The 1662 BCP
There are four reasons the Prayer Book you pick up should be the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
First, the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer is the closest thing there is to a standard Prayer Book for the Anglican Communion.
It is the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and it is the standard for doctrine and worship in Anglican provinces in Africa, Asia, and South America that hold the vast majority of the world’s 80 million Anglicans. And even though there have been hundreds of local and national Prayer Books in the last century, the 1662 edition is the headwaters from which nearly all of these streams flow. So if you want a Prayer Book that lets you pray with Anglican brothers and sisters around the world, the 1662 edition is the one that crosses all boundaries.
Second, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is simpler than any other.
Take for example Morning Prayer. It’s a set of prayers and Bible readings to start your day, and is probably the first place you’ll go in the Book of Common Prayer. If you read Morning Prayer in one of the many recent Prayer Books, you have to make a lot of choices. Choice after choice after choice. You even have to decide which version of the Lord’s Prayer to say!
Some people like all that choosing, but it can also distract you from praying. Morning Prayer in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is very, very simple. You make one choice at the beginning, and then you can just follow the service.
In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C. S. Lewis said that a liturgy
“‘works’ best . . . when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.”
The Prayer Book with this simplicity—the Prayer Book C. S. Lewis used—is the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It is not a buffet of options, but a place of prayer that you can inhabit.
Third, the language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is unsurpassed.
Critics have called it pithy and direct, grand but cozy, rhythmic but not rhyming, formal but full of feeling, words you can say every day for your whole life without them ever feeling trite or worn out. The style of the Book of Common Prayer was “intended for repeated use until it was polished as smooth as a pebble on the beach” (Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life, p. 631).
The language is certainly a little old-fashioned. It was even old-fashioned in 1662. But just like Psalm 23 in the King James Version, many people find in these memorable words a source of great comfort. It is as straightforward and timeless as “to have and to hold,” “till death do us part.”
Dr. Johnson (author of the first great English dictionary) struggled throughout his life with depression. One thing that sustained him was the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Alan Jacobs has written about why, and he shows that for Dr. Johnson the language of the Prayer Book was critical:
“The sonorous cadences, the elegant repetitions and antitheses, of [the Book of Common Prayer] may strike some as cold . . . . Johnson, however, did not need his heart warmed, but rather his racing mind calmed. For him, and for many who have felt themselves at the mercy of chaotic forces from within or without, the style of the prayer book has healing powers. It provides equitable balance when we ourselves have none” (The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, pp. 104-105).
Fourth, there’s a pattern in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and once you know what it is, it makes every service come alive.
The services start bleak and cold—with sin, judgment, law—and then move to forgiveness and grace, and then end with thanksgiving and peace.
J.I. Packer has written about this in his guide to the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer called “The Gospel in the Prayer Book.” Another good source for reading about this pattern in the Communion service is Gavin Dunbar’s essay “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).
The pattern goes by different names, but one is “guilt-grace-gratitude.” Martin Luther’s discovery of this pattern in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans helped to launch the Reformation; this pattern is one of the many links between the Reformation and the Book of Common Prayer.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is special for all these reasons—it’s the standard you can find around the world, it’s the simplest to use, its language is stunning, and it has the hope of the gospel built into the structure of every service.
The new International Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer
But there’s one more question—which 1662 should you get? Yes, even for the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, there are choices!
You should get The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.
It will be published in January 2021 by IVP Academic, and it will be the easiest to use. We are the editors, so we admit we’re biased. But it has been endorsed by bishops and priests, scholars and writers, from around the world.
Our goal was to make the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as accessible as possible, so modesty was the watchword of our editing.
We tried to remove a few hurdles that might keep someone from using it.
One is the prayers for the Queen and royal family in the Prayer Book; these prayers aren’t well suited for countries without a king or queen. Instead, in the international edition, there are prayers for civil authorities that can be used in any country in the world.
Another hurdle is that there are some words that have changed meaning or become completely confusing to a reader today. For example, stool used to mean a royal seat, a throne, but it no longer has that meaning. In Psalm 94:20, “the stool of wickedness” is changed to “the throne of wickedness.” Or to take another example, in Psalm 59:3, “the naughty men are gathered against me” is changed to “the mighty men are gathered against me.” That is the kind of very modest updating of the language that is done in The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.
The international edition also has some helps for the modern reader.
One of these is an appendix of additional prayers supplying more prayers for particular occasions and some much-loved prayers written after 1662. Another is a glossary, which defines some of the words in the services and the Psalms that might be less familiar, but once learned, add to the richness of the Prayer Book. Another is a one-page guide to following the most common services.
Order a copy of the 1662 BCP today!
If you want to know more about Anglicanism—if you’re a rookie Anglican, or even if you’re just curious—the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is a place to begin.
It’s not the only good Prayer Book out there. But it’s the Anglican standard. And of all the Prayer Books you can get, it’s the simplest to use, it has the most beautiful language, and it has a gospel arc in all the services. And it has never been easier to pick up and read than with The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.
Samuel L. Bray is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, as well as a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. He is a co-author, with John F. Hobbins, of Genesis 1-11: A New Old Translation for Readers, Scholars, and Translators (2017).
Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a Ph.D. candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews. He served on the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church from 2012 to 2018.