The Book of Common Prayer (BCP): A Rookie Anglican Guide to the Prayer Book

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This article was written in 2018 by Joshua Steele. It was heavily updated in 2023 by Jacob Davis. For a guide to the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer, read our Rookie Anglican Guide to the ACNA’s 2019 BCP here.


You can’t be curious about Anglicanism for long without running into the Book of Common Prayer—commonly abbreviated as the “BCP” or the “Prayer Book.”

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Common Prayer? More like complicated prayer!

Based on the title, you might reasonably assume that there’s just one BCP out there. But then you type “Book of Common Prayer” into Google, and you’re faced with an overabundance of BCPs! Why are they referred to by years/dates? 1549? 1662? 1979?! Which BCP is the “official” BCP?

If you can overcome the decision paralysis and peruse any BCP for yourself, things don’t improve. Let’s say you go with the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 BCP. The table of contents is quite overwhelming! Why is the content arranged in this order? Why are there multiple versions of the same thing? Where do I go if I just want to pray and read the Bible? WHY IS IT SO COMPLICATED TO FIGURE OUT WHEN EASTER IS?!

Take a deep breath. You’ve come to the right place.

We hope to demystify the BCP for you so that you don’t have to go through all the frustration I went through when I became an Anglican. This guide will give you enough information about the BCP[s] to start using a BCP on your own!

What is the Book of Common Prayer (AKA “BCP” or “Prayer Book”)?

Put simply, the Book of Common Prayer is the comprehensive service book for Anglican churches (churches that trace their lineage back to the Church of England) worldwide. It shapes both how Anglicans worship and what Anglicans believe. It has also shaped Christian worship in the English language for almost 500 years.

Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) was the primary person responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and its revision in 1552. However, since these first Prayer Books, subsequent editions have been produced and revised by the leadership of the Church of England and Anglican Churches worldwide.

The first Prayer Book was published in 1549. It was revised in 1552, 1559, 1604, and 1662. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is still the official Prayer Book in the Church of England, and it has served as the model for subsequent BCPs throughout the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Prayer Book Contents

Editions of the Prayer Book contain the written liturgies for almost any service held at an Anglican church. These include:

  • daily prayer services (the Daily Office)
  • weekly worship (the Holy Eucharist)
  • special services, like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday
  • services held throughout one’s life, from baptism to a wedding to a funeral
  • ordination services (for a bishop, priest, or deacon)
  • services to celebrate new ministries or churches

The Book of Common Prayer also usually contains:

  • calendar to help you follow the Church Year
  • prayers and thanksgivings that you use throughout the Church Year or at any time
  • A Psalter, or Book of Psalms, because these get used a lot in Anglican worship
  • catechism and other documents to teach the basics of the Christian faith
  • lectionaries, which let you know what passages of Scripture to read during all the services mentioned in the previous list

With just a Bible and a Prayer Book, you should have all the text you need to hold Anglican worship services.

How did we get the Book of Common Prayer?

Ironically enough (from our perspective, at least), the first Book of Common Prayer was a simplification!

Thomas Cranmer drew from existing liturgical traditions and manuals to produce the first BCP in 1549. It was meant to be an all-in-one resource (used alongside the Bible, of course) for both clergy and laity. Check out our article on the origins of the Book of Common Prayer.

Because the BCP is now a global family of books sharing a historical connection to Cranmer’s first BCP, each particular Prayer Book has its own nuanced story. For example, the history of the BCP in New Zealand will be different than its history in the USA.

The Prayer Book in the U.S.

The Episcopal Church’s glossary notes the family history of the BCP in the USA:

Anglican liturgical piety has been rooted in the Prayer Book tradition since the publication of the first English Prayer Book in 1549. The first American BCP was ratified by the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1789. It was based on the Proposed Book of 1786, and the 1662 English Book of Common Prayer, as well as the Scottish eucharistic rite of 1764… The process of Prayer Book revision led to publication of editions of the BCP for the Episcopal Church in 1789, 1892, 1928, and 1979.

 Did you catch the mention of Scotland there?

The first Anglican bishop in the USA, Samuel Seabury, was consecrated in 1784 by Scottish bishops because the Church of England required its bishops to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown. This is why the Scottish liturgy of Holy Communion influenced the American liturgy adopted in 1789. That Scottish influence has remained in American BCPs to the present day!

For more information on the history of the BCP, I highly recommend reading Alan Jacob’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. In approximately 250 pages, Jacobs will bring you up to speed on ˜500 years of Prayer Book history! If you really want to know much more about the BCP, then you should peruse The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey.

Why do Anglicans fight about Prayer Books so much?

Great question!

On the one hand, we here at Anglican Pastor think that Prayer Book wars are a shame. We wish more Anglicans would spend more time expanding and enriching the kingdom of God than taking potshots at other Anglicans who use different BCPs.

However, on the other hand, Anglicanism has traditionally held to something called lex orandi, lex credendi—meaning something close to “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” In other words: “Words matter!”

When Christians gather to pray, the words that they use both reveal and shape their theology. So, there’s a good reason for Anglicans to care deeply about changes to the Prayer Book(s). Revisions will shape the theology of subsequent generations!

Which Book of Common Prayer should you buy?

That depends on how you intend to use it. There is no shortage of editions. It is common to refer to each specific Prayer Book by the year it was published: the 1662 BCP, the 1979 BCP, the 2019 BCP, etc. However, prayer book, used for daily prayers, has traditionally been called a “breviary” (as opposed to a “missal,” which is used for Holy Communion).

The “Official” Prayer Book: 1662

If the “official” Prayer Book is what you’re after, then the 1662 BCP is the closest thing. It is still the official Prayer Book of the Church of England. We recommend you buy this Oxford World’s Classics edition of the 1549, 1559, and 1662 BCPs if you want to study all the classic Prayer Books. However, if you intend to use the 1662 Prayer Book as a devotional resource, we recommend the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.

However, it’s (arguably) more important to own a BCP that you regularly use than it is to own the “official” Prayer Book!

The Prayer Book Your Church Uses

So, if you’re already attending an Anglican church, we strongly suggest you find out which Book of Common Prayer your church uses and get a copy of that edition!

A Prayer Book You Will Use: 2019 or 1662 IE

If you’re not attending an Anglican church and you’d like to get a BCP for your personal use, we recommend getting a copy of the 2019 Book of Common Prayer.

Yes, like every other BCP, it has its shortcomings. However, the 2019 edition is a great all-in-one resource for personal use. And it’s a great first BCP for Angli-curious individuals! However, if you’d like a more traditional BCP, you should check out the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition.

How do you use the Book of Common Prayer?

This is where the rubber meets the road! Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the BCP can feel overwhelming when you open it for the first time!

It’s important to remember that the BCP is designed to be a comprehensive resource. That means that unless you’re Anglican clergy (and even then!), you won’t use the entirety of the BCP very often. Instead, you’ll come back to certain sections time and time again. And you’ll use others maybe once in your life!

So, let’s focus on the sections you’ll use most often. We’ll be keying these instructions to the 2019 Book of Common Prayer (see our more comprehensive guide to this edition here).

What liturgical day is it? The Calendar of the Church Year

The first thing you need to do when using the BCP is figure out what liturgical day it is. Specifically, you need to know which week of the liturgical year you’re in and whether today is a feast day. This is where The Calendar of the Church Year (pp. 691-729) comes in handy.

(For a brief overview of the Christian year, click here.)

However, because the liturgical date is dependent upon the date of Easter, which changes from year-to-year (see Tables and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day, pp. 713ff.), it’s easier just to use an online tool such as LectServe.

What should you pray today? The Daily Office

Keep the liturgical date in mind. You’ll need it again soon.

Because it’s devoted to daily prayer, you’ll use the Daily Office (pp. 8–88) most often.

(We have a guide to how to lead a Daily Office service for a group of people. To read it, click here.)

  • Morning Prayer (pp. 11-31)
  • Midday Prayer (pp. 33-39)
  • Evening Prayer (pp. 41-56)
  • Compline (prayer right before bed, pp. 57-66)
  • Family Prayer (abbreviated morning, noon, early evening, and close of day services, beneficial for families with children, pp. 67-78).
  • Supplemental Canticles for the Daily Office section can be found on pp. 79-88.

What’s the Collect of the Day? The Collects for the Church Year

In saying the Daily Office, you’ll notice a point in each service where “The Collect of the Day” is supposed to be prayed.

(What is a Collect? Click here to find out.)

You find the Collect of the Day by looking it up in the Collects of the Christian Year (pp. 598-640).

Here’s where knowing the liturgical date comes in handy. Usually, you use the Collect for each Sunday of the Christian year for the following weekdays until the following Sunday. However, if it’s a feast day, there’s a special Collect just for that day. See the “Holy Days” sections on pages 624-635.

What Scriptures should you read? The Daily Office Lectionary

There’s also a place in the Daily Office where you read passages from Scripture. To find out what passages you should read, use the liturgical date and the Daily Office Lectionary (pp. 734-763). Take a minute to read the instructions for the Daily Office Lectionary on page 734. You’ll find out that the lectionary in the 2019 BCP is a two-year cycle, Year One and Year Two.

  • If it’s an odd-numbered year, it’s Year One.
  • If it’s an even-numbered year, it’s Year Two.

You’ll also learn how to divide the readings between Morning and Evening Prayer.

(We have a guide to the Daily Office Lectionary and the different lectionary options that are out there. Click here to read it.)

Reading the Psalms: The Psalter

Because they are often used in worship, a complete copy of all 150 Psalms is included in virtually all Prayer Books. The 2019 edition is no exception; its Psalter (book of Psalms) is on pages 267–467.

Occasional Prayers

It’s also worth knowing about the “Occasional Prayers” section (pp. 641-683). You’ll find a list of prayers on pages 642-645. You can use these prayers and thanksgivings whenever you like, whether in a liturgical service or not!

Other stuff!

Those are the sections of the BCP that you’ll use most often on your own.

The next most important section is undoubtedly “The Holy Eucharist” (pp. 103–158), used for services of Holy Communion.

For an overview of what Anglicans believe, there’s the Documentary Foundations (pp. 755-802)

Other than that, the BCP contains special liturgies/services, such as the following:

  • The Great Litany (pp. 91-99ff.)
  • The Decalogue (100-101)
  • Ash Wednesday (542ff)
  • Palm Sunday (553ff)
  • Maundy Thursday (559ff)
  • Good Friday (564ff)
  • Holy Saturday (578)
  • Easter Vigil (581ff)
  • Baptism (183ff)
  • Confirmation (174ff)
  • Marriage (198ff)
  • Rites of Healing (including Reconciliation and ministries to the Sick and Dying, 222ff).
  • Rites for a Vigil and Burial (246ff)
  • Ordination of a Deacon (472ff), Priest (483ff), and Ordination and Consecration of a Bishop (497ff).

Want to learn more about the BCP?

Check out these other posts here at Anglican Pastor:

Check out these resources elsewhere:

However, there’s no substitute for getting a copy of the BCP and using it! Dive in and join the rest of us in figuring things out as we go along!

We hope this guide has been helpful. If you have any questions, please ask them in the comments below!

Author

Joshua Steele

Josh Steele was the first Managing Editor of Anglican Compass. Learn more about him at joshuapsteele.com.

View more from Joshua Steele

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