I love the  Book of Common Prayer (BCP). When I was at university our college Principle, Richard Turnbull, used to tell us that the two most important books in the world were the Bible and the BCP - that we should always carry one of each around with us. At the time I was not even an ordinand, though I was hoping to be; I found this BCP adoration absurd. What is so good about a book that is hundreds of years old? A book which is at times hard to understand? A book which is almost never used in the Church of England today? What is so good about the BCP?
Since getting ordained as a Deacon in the Church of England in 2012 my views on the matter changed dramatically. During my ordination I took oaths that I would agree with and uphold Anglican doctrine - which the canons tell us are seen primarily in Scripture, the historic creeds, and these as understood by... the Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinal, and the 39 Articles (now all included in the little book we called the BCP). My first year in parish ministry was a whirlwind of deep theological reflection brought about by the oaths I took that day - did I really hold to the theology of the 39 Articles? Did I think the doctrine of the BCP was not only correct for the 16th century but actually the true interpretation of the Scriptures?
As someone who years before came within half an inch of joining the Eastern Orthodox Church and who throughout his time at university regularly attended Pusey House, it is fair to say that I have become a changed man. This change is not just in how I think and what I believe, but in what I do and how I perceive what should be done in church.
I could not agree more with the words of Jonathan Fletcher, once Rector of St. Ebbes Church in Oxford when he said
"I was introduced to the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, and I was convinced that the theology of the Church of England was the best presentation of the Protestant Reformation"
If that isn't enough to get your juices flowing with passion to go and read the BCP then let me bring out the big guns - TIMOTHY KELLER. Tim Keller is a GIANT of modern day evangelicalism. His ministry has defined a generation in New York City and his preaching, his teaching, his pastoring has reached countless thousands. If you have not read any of his books then open up amazon and go buy them all right now
...............( If you are too lazy to go to amazon yourself here is a link for you: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=ntt_athr_dp_sr_1?_encoding=UTF8&field-author=Timothy%20Keller&search-alias=books-uk&sort=relevancerank )
In an interview on sermon preparation Keller was asked what material he used in his own private devotional time to help him continue growing spiritually. This was his answer:
"I use a version of M'Cheyne's reading calendar, reading the Bible in its entirety every year. I follow the traditional daily office, and I read and pray all the psalms every month. I use older versions of the Book of Common Prayer for many of my prayers."
Timothy Keller in Sermon Preparation ed. Craig Brian Larson (Hendrickson, Peabody, 2012)
By 'older versions' Keller almost certainly means the 1662 and this shows his rejection of the more modern versions fobbed off as the BCP by The Episcopal Church.
If the BCP is used even by giants like Tim Keller in their private devotion times, when they have access to a wealth of Presbyterian resources from their own tradition, then it is something every evangelical should take the time to look at.
In this post, and in many more following, I intend to walk you through some of the most important doctrines and beliefs we find in the BCP - I want to get behind the rustic archaic language and really get down to the marrow and the bones of the book. The BCP has changed my life and my relationship with God, I hope it will for you to.
"The BCP starts in the perfect place for a book concerning
how to pray and live the Christian life - with Biblical repentance
and the teachings of grace alone through faith alone in Christ
Start with the Bible
So let's begin with the confessional start to the BCP services for Morning and Evening Prayer. Cranmer ditched the numerous offices called the 'hours' which were used by monks and wanted to bring right doctrine and right belief back into the churches of England in a language they could understand. He did it like a PRO.
The services start off in the best places possible - with Scripture, lots and lots and lots of Scripture. When beginning the service there are eleven different scriptures one can read from to set the tone. All of these are on the theme of repentance and God's forgiveness. They make clear just how serious sin is "Enter not into judgement with thy servant, O Lord; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified" (Psalm 143.2) but also the overwhelming power of God's mercy "Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil." (Joel 2.13)
Following these Scriptures comes the first exhortation - here the minister sets the scene for the entire service and lays out vital Biblical truths.
"Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us, in sundry places, to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy. And although we ought, at all times, humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; yet ought we chiefly so to do, when we assemble and meet together to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy Word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul. Wherefore I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice, unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me;"
What can we learn from this?
1) As a church we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we are one body, we admonish one another in love. This service can be taken by an ordained minister or a lay person and in either case they address the people simply as beloved brethren - as brothers and sisters whom we love and who God loves.
2) Scripture compels us to confess our sins and wickedness. Not only are we sinners but we are 'manifold' sinners, that is we sin ALOT in various ways. Not only are we sinners but we are wicked as well. The word 'wicked' seems harsh, to our nice 21st century minds it seems unfair - Hitler was 'wicked' the lady who put a cat in a bin and walked away was 'wicked' but are we good upstanding people 'wicked'? Yes. We are all sinners and this makes us all wicked - no amount of window dressing can get around that fact.
3) We by nature try to hide our sins. We are masters at hiding our sins, at cloaking them so people cannot see them, we disguise them and paint them as good things or virtues. This is pride and arrogance. How foolish it is to try and justify our sins before an Almighty God who sees right through every lie we tell and who knows our own hearts and reasons for sinning better than we do ourselves!
"Not only are we sinners but we are 'manifold' sinners, that is we sin ALOT in various ways."
4) Instead of pride we need humility, we need to be humble, we need to be lowly, we need to be people with hearts that are contrite, hearts that long for obedience, hearts that yearn for forgiveness. If we want to be forgiven of our sins we need to really desire for them to be forgiven. Being penitent doesn't just mean feeling sorry but means actively rejecting our old sins and turning away from them and consciously marching toward Christ and holiness.
5) Sometimes our sins are so great and we have committed them so many times that we find it impossible to believe that God would ever forgive us - again. But we are assured in this exhortation that genuine repentance always leads to forgiveness because God's goodness and mercy are infinite - His love and His mercy never end, they go on forever and ever and ever and beyond. No matter how deep down our sins are in our souls the arm of the Lord is not too short to save.
6) We should confess our sins with humility at all times and in all places. Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg had this as his first point:
"Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said 'Repent', willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."
Luther started the Reformation, he changed the world, by starting with repentance. Luther was right, Cranmer knew it, and we must own it. We are sinners, we sin all the time; just imagine if every thought you had was permanently tattooed on your face - you would lose all your friends in no time! We are all so full of pride and arrogance and idolatry, we worship everything that gives us pleasure. As John Calvin said "The human heart is a factory for making idols." He was spot on. We should be constantly bringing our sins to the foot of the Cross. The holiest people are not those who find they repent less and less but those who find themselves repenting more and more as the Holy Spirit reveals to them all the different sins they commit every hour of every day. The difference is these holy people immediately show humble obedience to the call of the Spirit and lay down their sin at the foot of the Cross, they hand it over to Jesus knowing that they cannot deal with it themselves.
7) Not only should we confess in private to God - all the time - but we should do so publicly in church. As James 5.15 makes clear:
"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed."
Public confession makes us face up to the seriousness of our sin, helps us to see that we are not alone in our warfare against sin, the flesh, and the Devil. It encourages us through a mutual commitment to turn away from sin and a direct call of our sins forgiven under Christ.
"No matter how deep down our sins are in our souls the arm of the Lord is not too short to save."
8) What is church about? Why do we meet on a Sunday? The BCP says we meet together to "render thanks for the great benefits we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary as well for the body as the soul." To our modern ears and sensibilities it is striking how the word 'worship' is missing. Praise and worship are not the same thing - I can praise Simon Ponsonby for being a fantastic preacher but that doesn't mean I worship him. I can praise God for His goodness in healing me of sickness but that is different from saying I worship Him - though I should hope I would do that too if He did! Today, especially in the more charismatic evangelical circles, of which I am a part, it is often seen that the worship music is the most important part of the service. It is not. Worship is important, we should sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual song, but it is not the main reason we gather.
We gather to thank God for all He has generously given us, to praise Him because of who He is - the only one worthy of praise. We gather to listen to the Bible and hear it explained, and to ask for things. These days it is often seen as a faux-pas to say that prayer is 'asking for things' but actually most Biblical prayer is exactly that. When looking at the whole of Scripture and at this text in the BCP it is true to say that the main, but not only reason, we meet together is to edify one another, to build up one another, to have fellowship, and to share in the wonders of the faith together. Just look at Paul's treatment of what should be going on in services in 1 Corinthians 12-14 - the word edify or something similar crops up countless times. Church is not about YOU it is about God and His body on earth - the Church.
9) We pray for what we need, for what is needed not for what is unnecessary. We pray not just for what our bodies need but for what our souls need. There is no point looking after your soul if your body withers in the process, there is no point looking after your body if you don't let the Great Physician heal your soul.
10) When we confess and bring our sins before the throne of the heavenly grace we need a pure heart and a humble voice. God hears the humble but ignores the proud.
Having made clear why we are here and what we must do to get right with God the people say this meaty confession:
"Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen."
I love this confession, it models Biblical confession like no other.
1) The God we confess to is ALL powerful and is more merciful than anyone else. He is also our loving Father, a Father who will always rejoice when His children return back to Him from their sinful ways.
2) Let us just put it straight out there, no beating around the bush, we have got it wrong, we are in error, we have willingly walked away from our Good Shepherd and got lost in the darkness and thorny bushes of the Evil One.
3) Why have we got so lost? What caused our sin? No time here for shifting blame like in the Garden - we are the reason, end of story. We have sinned and abandoned God because we just love the desires of our sinful human hearts too much and believe all its lies about it being OK. There is no room for self justification of any kind in Biblical repentance.
"When the BCP says that there is no health in us it means that we are completely and utterly DEAD in our sins, we are game over"
4) How have we sinned? How do we know what sin is? Well God's Holy Laws reveal to us His heart, His standards, His ways and we ignore them and break them like criminals who just can't resist committing crime. We sin firstly, and most of the time, not by the things we actively go and do but by the things we fail to do, all the things we really should have done if we truly loved God but don't. These are called sins of omission. But we also actively do what is wrong, these are sins of co-mission. Together this makes clear that sin is not just 'stuff' but actually where the 'stuff' comes from - we are sinners by nature.
5) Between all of our omission and co-mission we are so full of sin that there "is no health in us" I love this phrase. It cuts right to the heart of the matter. Imagine you are playing a computer game, your character has 'health' usually represented by a bar of some kind. Every time you get hit or do something wrong you lose a bar of health. When you have no health left you are dead - game over. When the BCP says that there is no health in us it means that we are completely and utterly DEAD in our sins, we are game over, no coming back without a miracle from a healer (Colossians 2.13) That healer is called Jesus.
6) Given our status as 'dead meat walking' we are rightly asking God to show mercy and pity on us. If we are coming to Him with a right and humble heart we will be miserable about our sin. If your sin does not make you miserable then you are not really repenting.
7) Mercy is not something someone deserves - if it were it would be a right. We have no rights before God, He would be 100% just if He just damned us all to Hell for our sins. There is no legal argument we could make, no loop-hole to get us out of jail for free. The only hope we have is the mercy of the judge.
8) Thankfully God has made countless promises in the Scriptures to forgive all those who come to Him with genuine repentance and faith. In confession we beg God to restore us back to full health and spare us from our much deserved sentence in Hell because of the promises He has made to us.
9) Just confessing the past is not enough, true repentance means changing your future as well. Thus we end with a plea that God would allow us and help us to live a righteous life that is godly from now on. We can't even dream of doing this by our own abilities and feeble strength - but we can if we ask God to change us from the inside out, new heart, new Spirit, new desires.
10) Why would God do all of this? To bring glory to His mighty Name. Everything we do should be to the glory of God and thus we end our confession by lifting it all up, especially His mercy, as a sign of His mighty greatness and infinite glory.
Cranmer ditched the old 'I absolve' you formula the Roman Catholic Priests used to say except for in the most serious circumstances - but more on that in a later post. He preferred to let the Scriptures do the talking instead. He didn't want people to be reliant on a minister to feel forgiven, he wanted them to know that reality in their daily walk and every day life - that they could confess to Jesus on their own and know and feel His forgiveness. Along these lines this is the Prayer Book absolution in Morning and Evening Prayer:
"Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power, and commandment, to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins : He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore let us beseech him to grant us true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him, which we do at this present; and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure, and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
1) God has no problem with sending people to Hell, He is just and holy and doing so is completely in-keeping with His character. But He does not desire it, God would rather people turned from their wickness and live. We cannot blame our sins on God, it is our hard hearts that are to blame.
2) God has given His ministers (notice the word 'priest' is not used here) the power to tell people, and told them to tell people, that their sins are forgiven. Does this mean a minister can absolve people and just tell them they are forgiven? No.
3) Whilst the minister is commanded to drive home to the repentant that God forgives their sin, they cannot actually forgive it - only God can forgive sins (hence one reason why Jesus must have been God). To be forgiven we actually need to be penitent, to desire forgiveness and desire to change our ways. We must actually repent.
"Repentance doesn't mean squat unless the person who is truly repenting also 'unfeignedly believes his holy Gospel'"
4) But simple repentance is not enough. Muslims repent to Allah, Hindus repent, even some atheists repent of their wrongdoing and wish to change the direction of their lives. But none of these people are actually forgiven. The reason why is that repentance doesn't mean squat unless the person who is truly repenting also 'unfeignedly believes his holy Gospel' Unfeignedly believing the holy Gospel means totally, sincerely, without pretence or hidden motives, completely believing that Jesus Christ is Lord, God, and Saviour and died on the Cross to forgive us our sins. Without real faith nothing is worthwhile, especially repentance. Without real faith repentance would be like if the prodigal son was running home to his father but ended up going to hug a Roman Soldier and getting beaten up instead.
5) So we need to truly repent and really believe the Gospel. The problem is that by nature that is just not what we do. We don't naturally repent of our sins - naturally we relish in them and love them and want to be bathed in them till we drown. If we want to truly repent and be forgiven we are going to have to have someone from outside change our hearts and give us that true repentance. That person is God the Holy Spirit.
6) In this prayer we pray that the Holy Spirit would enter into our lives and make us truly repent of our past sins and realise our unworthiness. We also pray that the Holy Spirit would change us from the inside out, that He would give us new desires, new ways of seeing the world that match up to how God does, new hopes, new dreams, new strengths, new gifts. We pray that the Holy Spirit would change our motives so that all we do would be to the glory of God and thus be pleasing to Him. Anything we do which might seem 'good' in the eyes of the world is not 'good' in God's eyes unless it is done to glorify Him - in His eyes it is like a filthy used tampon (Isaiah 64.6) or a sticky steaming pile of dog turd (Philippians 3.8). Trying to please God and gain His favour by doing 'good things' and being a 'good girl/boy' is like walking up to God with a big box wrapped up as a gift, giving it to Him, and Him finding inside the things I just mentioned. This is why other religions can't lead to heaven. This is the teaching of the 39 Articles of Religion:
"WORKS done before the grace of Christ, and the Inspiration of his Spirit, are not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, neither do they make men meet to receive grace, or (as the School-authors say) deserve grace of congruity: yea rather, for that they are not done as God hath willed and commanded them to be done, we doubt not but they have the nature of sin." Article 13
Don't treat the Almighty God like a great divine Santa in the sky
- He isn't.
7) The prayer ends by asking that we may, with this new heart and new desires, finally come to the eternal Kingdom, finally when we die make it to heaven. How do we get to heaven? "Through Jesus Christ our Lord" The only way to the Father is through faith in the Son (John 14.6) and forgiveness at His cross and a redemption price paid in His blood.
So far we have only mined the deep riches of the opening prayers before the real services of Morning and Evening Prayer actually start - and look at how full of gems and gold these three passages were! The BCP starts in the best place possible for a book concerning how to pray and live the Christian life - with Biblical repentance and the teachings of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
I hope you will continue to read more posts from this series on the BCP!