While trying to find some inspiration for Lena McCall’s graveside service, I took from my office bookshelf my copy of “The Book of Common Prayer.” Even though my background is not in the Episcopal liturgical tradition, I respect the hundreds of years of faith tradition behind these prayers and readings, and they often stimulate my devotional thoughts.
This time I didn’t get past the book’s title. What is the meaning of “Common Prayer”? Is there anything “common” about prayer.? And is there another book with a collection of “Uncommon Prayers”? (I think I’ve prayed a few of those.)
Surprisingly, this was not easy to research on line. Finally, I found myself focusing on the original publication of the very first edition in 1549 AD. This was during the time of the Protestant Reformation. Splits from the Roman Catholic Church became “Lutheran” in Germany, “Reformed” in Holland and “Presbyterian” in Scotland. The English Reformation took another shape, and the church became “Anglican” (“Episcopal” in America). Royal politics was very much part of the process. King Henry VIII was motivated more by the need to justify his multiple marriages and divorces than by spiritual and theological issues. Even though he caused the Church of England to separate from Rome, Henry wanted it to follow Catholic forms and traditions, and he refused to allow church services, including prayers and Bible readings, to be in anything but the holy language, Latin.
When Henry died, the English Reformation gained new vigor, mainly under the leadership of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. One important thing Cranmer did was to develop a liturgy for church worship services written in English. English was the language of the common people, and that’s how the new publication became known as “The Book of Common Prayer.” Average lower class believers were no longer just observers at worship services, while priests did all the praying and praising in a foreign language. The common people could be totally involved through the common language contained in “The Book of Common Prayer.”
The Baptists took this idea farther than most other groups emerging from the Protestant Reformation. They emphasized the “Priesthood of All Believers,” which means that there is no special class of people in the church with authority over the others, but every individual is able to relate personally to God without needing a mediator. Another aspect of this is known as “Soul Competency,” which means that every individual is accountable directly to God. It’s easy to see why having the Bible and prayers and worship services in the common language is very important to us. Each “soul” is “competent” to understand God’s Word because it’s not obscured by layers of foreign language and official interpreters.
Let’s hear it for the wonderful word “common“!
–Pastor George Van Alstine