Sue Careless is a pro-life journalist familiar to Interim readers. She is also the author of an inspiring ecumenical resource, Discovering the Book of Common Prayer: A Hands-On Approach. Volume 1: Daily Prayer. She has written this book at the behest of the Prayer Book Society of Canada to promote a renewed and deeper appreciation for the Book of Common Prayer as a classic of English literature and Christian meditation.
The principal editor of The Prayer Book, as the BCP is commonly known among Anglicans, was the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. He compiled the text in 1549, shortly after the death of King Henry VIII. The book includes prayers for all occasions, drawn mainly from the Bible and the ancient Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church.
The current patroness of the Prayer Book Society in England is P.D. James, the mystery writer who is widely acclaimed as the greatest of contemporary English novelists. In an elegant introduction to Careless’s book, James notes: “For over 400 years, Cranmer’s Prayer Book has solaced, sustained, rebuked and exalted Christians throughout the English-speaking world, providing for all the rites of passage in this our earthly journey in cadences of incomparable beauty, dignity and grace.”
Today, it’s not just Anglicans who appreciate the Prayer Book. This classic has also been adapted for liturgical use by Catholics and is now read with keen appreciation by a wide range of Protestants. Even some implacable Calvinists have been gratified to discover that number 11 of the 39 Articles of Religion in the Prayer Book forthrightly affirms: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”
Of course, some people can profit nothing from the Prayer Book. Neither can they appreciate the Catechism of the Catholic Church or even the Bible itself, because they read these works in a captious mood, looking only for aspects with which they disagree. To find merit in any masterpiece like the Prayer Book, a reader must approach the text in an honest spirit of inquiry for truth.
For some readers, another impediment to appreciation of the Prayer Book is its archaic language. Yet Cranmer’s prose is a model of clarity. The few words in the Prayer Book that are no longer in common use are defined in a glossary appended to Careless’s book.
To reassure feminists, Careless points out that the language of the Prayer Book is “truly inclusive.” “Man and mankind might take a little getting used to,” she writes, “but for centuries they have been used in this broader sense to include every one of us – men, women, and children – made in God’s image, parted from Him through sin, and redeemed by mercy through Christ’s blood.”
To assist readers, young and old, who are new to Christianity as well as the Prayer Book, Careless presents a graceful introduction to basic tenets of the faith that all theologically orthodox Christians can appreciate. Consider, for example, her explanation of why so many prayers are addressed to God through Jesus Christ:
“In settings of interfaith worship, where there are representatives of various faiths offering prayer, some people wish to mention only ‘God’ or ‘God the Father’ or ‘Lord,’ so that no offence is given to those who don’t embrace Jesus.
“But Christians believe that we cannot approach so holy a God in our own shabby goodness; we just don’t measure up. It actually shows great humility and honesty to admit that only through trusting Jesus can we approach God; only through Jesus’s blood shed on the cross is God our spiritual Father.”
This book by Careless, like the Prayer Book itself, is too good to be reserved exclusively for Anglicans. James, as usual, has put the matter well. Referring to Careless’s book, she concludes: “I hope that this introductory guide will bring many more Christians, and those searching for faith, to the treasure of the Prayer Book, and will open the eyes of new generations to its riches. Here, indeed, is language almost worthy of the God it celebrates.”
Rory Leishman, a regular contributor to The Interim, is a columnist for the London Free Press.