I have said that if the universal Church had a fire, we would grab two things on our way out, the Gospel of John and the Book of Psalms. These books are near and dear to the Christian’s heart. With that said, however, if there was a fire in the Episcopal Church, the first thing we’d probably grab is the Prayer Book, sometimes called the “Episcopalian Bible.” (During a Bible study, a participant joked it is nice how the Bible quotes our Prayer Book.) Approximately 70% of the Book of Common Prayer comes directly from the Bible. And this should not be a surprise because the English Prayer Book was born in the Reformation when the Church was examining historical liturgical practices it had received and how to balance tradition in regard to Scripture. The first English Prayer Book of 1549 was a major overhaul of the Latin missal and underwent several revisions, and one civil war, until its final update of 1662. It will now literally take an act of Parliament to change it.
The first Christian service spoken in English on our Coast was from the English Book of Common Prayer. On June 24, 1579, Sir Francis Drake’s chaplain held a service on the shore believed to be where Golden Gate Park is today. In 1894, the Prayer Book Cross was erected in Golden Gate Park, a gift from the Church of England. The 57 foot sandstone Celtic-style cross, one of the tallest in San Francisco, commemorates the first use of the Book of Common Prayer in California.
The first American prayer book dates to 1789, revised in 1892 and again in 1928. In 1979, the prayer book went through a major overhaul – it made two rites, Rite I and Rite II, plus a host of other changes. I seriously doubt it will be revised again in my lifetime. Additional services have been added for use in the Episcopal Church and I believe further changes will simply happen as additions and not revisions.
This month, the once-every-three-year General Convention of the Episcopal Church is convening in Utah and will look at a variety of things for the Church. One topic is liturgical language for blessing of same-gendered unions. As I suggested above this is not a revision of the Rite of Holy Matrimony but, if approved, will be an additional service. Nevertheless, you may want to prepare for national media to cover this story as a complete overhaul.
When William Shakespeare was writing, the commissioning and completion of the King James Bible occurred as well as the shaping of the English prayer book. If you were to watch a Hollywood rendition of a 17th century funeral or wedding, you would recognize the language taken from our prayer book. For that matter, most evangelical preachers on television today quote from the King James Bible which can even be found in surprising places like Chevy Chase’s attempt at a prayer in the comedy movie, “Vacation.” Just as Shakespeare has been influential in shaping the English language, the Book of Common Prayer has been influential in shaping the theological and liturgical expressions in our country. It’s difficult to imagine where we would be without it.
The Book of Common Prayer is one of the best gifts the Episcopal Church has given to Christianity. But, there is something very personal about our prayer book. Besides the Bible, no book has changed and shaped my life like it. It has been with me through rough times and great times and it has been a source of prayer and hope for my entire life. One of the greatest blessings of my ordination is getting to share what the book has to offer with others.