From its inception in 1549, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has always been a text intertwined with the text of the Bible. Many of the prayers utilize phrases that have been extracted from the Bible. Verses of the Bible are quoted directly (for example, Opening Sentences in the Daily Office and Offertory Sentences in the Eucharist service) and whole passages of the Bible have been included as lections (e.g., the Epistle and Gospel for the Sundays of the Church Year, which were printed in full in BCP 1549 through to BCP 1928), not to mention the inclusion of the entire Psalter (Book of Psalms).
Some Important History
When the first BCP was produced in 1549, the only authorized English Bible was the “Great Bible” of 1539, so naturally, in most cases it was the source for Scriptural texts included in the first Prayer Book. I say “most cases” because there are some verses of the Bible in the BCP that seem to be unique translations of Thomas Cranmer, such as the “comfortable words” in the Liturgy for Holy Communion. But for the lections (which were printed in full) and the Psalter, the Great Bible was used.
When the Prayer Book was revised in 1662 (its third minor revision since 1549), a new Bible had appeared on the scene, the one now known as the “King James Bible” of 1611 (which didn’t step out of the shadow of the Geneva Bible really until the Restoration). It was agreed that the lections contained in the BCP should be from this translation, replacing those of the Great Bible. However, by this point, the Psalms—which form the backbone of the Daily Office—had become so deeply embedded in the hearts and minds of those who had been praying them (they had been using this translation for more than 100 years!) that keeping the Psalms from the Great Bible would be for the best. The Psalms of the Great Bible were translated by Myles Coverdale, so they are sometimes referenced as the “Coverdale Psalter.”
It is interesting that this impulse toward keeping the older translation of the Psalms runs deep. Celtic manuscripts of the Psalms (such as in the Book of Kells) often reveal a Latin translation of the Psalms that is based on the Old Latin or Gallican translations which had been in use before the promulgations of Jerome’s final Vulgate, and, even though a more accurate translation of the Psalms had been available for centuries, the old and well-worn one endured. Indeed, the Psalms, by virtue of the great frequency with which they are on the lips of faithful Christians, always remain tethered to a deep past. So deep in fact, that even though we have been praying them in English for 450 years now, the original Latin titles are still in currency.
In the ancient world, all texts were known by their first words. This was known as the incipit. We still often use this practice today: The hymn “Amazing Grace” is called that because the first two words are “Amazing Grace”. The Psalms were similarly organized in the Church’s memory. “Titles” (Incipits) are much easier to remember than numbers. Thus, when Harry wants to lead his men in prayer after winning the battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Shakespeare has him say,
“Do we all holy rites.
Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum.”
“Non Nobis” are the first two Latin words of Psalm 115, “Not to us” as in “Not to us, not to us, but to your name be glory.” Psalm 51 has always been known as “Miserere” for the same reason, and this is still in currency enough to feature in folk songs to this day (e.g., this one). This practice is also the case for the Canticles; for example, “Magnificat” is the first word of Mary’s Song in Latin.
These Latin subtitles thus continued to be presented as “sub-titles” to the Psalm numbers in the Book of Common Prayer, a tradition continued in the BCP 2019.
The Bible in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer
However, in the same spirit in which the 1662 revision of the BCP replaced the 1539 Bible translations with the 1611 translations for its lessons, the 2019 BCP “re-synced” its biblical texts to the English Standard Version (ESV). Not every instance of a quoted biblical text was put in ESV—some verses are so deeply embedded in Anglican memory that they were deemed best to leave in the form that previous Prayer Books have brought them down to us (these are marked with a super-scripted ‘T’ in BCP 2019). But unless there was a deep and well-recognized memory stumbling-block, the various verses throughout the BCP were conformed to ESV.
The reasons for choosing ESV were four-fold:
- It represents the next recension of accurate translations compared to the RSV, which had been used in the 1979 BCP.
- The ESV was/is the most used translation in parishes across the ACNA.
- Dr. Jim Packer, of blessed memory, served on both the ESV translation team and the BCP 2019 Taskforce, which naturally suggested the confluence.
- The principles that governed the translation of the ESV were of a similar spirit to those that governed the 2019 revision of the BCP—moving backward toward a previously continuous tradition in the face of a disjunctive revision (NRSV::1979 BCP) only making new changes when it seemed necessary.
Also like in 1662, the Psalms (and canticles) were not imported from the English Bible that was used for the rest of the biblical material, but an older version was retained. The BCP 2019 did a fresh polishing of the 1539 Coverdale Psalter that was titled “The New Coverdale Psalter” in an attempt to “plug back in” to that great tradition of English Psalmody before it falls out of living memory. The ESV Psalter, while accurate, does not have the well-memorized phrases of the traditional BCP Psalter, nor was it rendered with a view to corporate vocal recitation.
Thus we see that the BCP continues to be intertwined with the Bible. The 1662 integrated the Bibles of 1611 and 1539, the 2019 integrates the Bibles of 2016 (the ESV) and 1539 (with a little updating).
Ben Jefferies is the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He served on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. He is married with three daughters.