J.I. Packer on Prayer Book Principles

In a 1999 event celebrating in the 450th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, J.I Packer outlined five principles Thomas Cranmer flowered as he produced the Prayer Book. With the long awaited arrival of ACNA’s 2019 Book of Common Prayer, Packer’s words are worth a fresh look. The words which follow are Packer’s:

Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year 1547. Henry VIII has just been succeeded by the boy-king Edward VI, and at last all systems are “go” for the reformation of the Church of England. The first task has to be the production of a God-honouring, life-enhancing set of services in English that all congregations will use, and that will involve all the worshippers in a way that advances their personal discipleship to Jesus Christ. The project is ambitious and demanding, but Cranmer has resources for it. Over and above his access to like-minded colleagues, he is himself a learned man, familiar with the liturgical and theological legacy of all Christendom since it began; he knows the writings of the Fathers, the Medievals, and the Reformers; he is a brilliant producer of poignant prayers for public use, as he showed in his Litany of 1544; and he is a Bible-man to his fingertips, totally committed to the Reformation ideal of Bible truth irradiating every Christian’s head and heart and shining forth in every Christian’s attitudes and actions. On what principles, now, was he to proceed? The two versions of his Prayer Book, those of 1549 and 1552 respectively, show him implementing the following five.

1. Services must be congregational. Cranmer’s goal was a book of Common (that is, communal) prayer. Before the Reformation the priest had said Mass in Latin, and the congregation, not understanding, spent the time saying private prayers, or else did nothing. Cranmer, however, drafted services in the vernacular, writing into them set parts for the congregation to say (prayers, psalms, responses), and he looked forward to the day when all worshippers would be able to read and would have a copy of each service open before them, so that they could follow with their eyes as well as their ears, and so be completely involved in what was going on. In his preface to the 1544 Litany he had written: “And such among the people as have books and can read may read them quietly and softly to themselves; and such as cannot read, let them quietly and attentively give audience in time of the said prayers, having their minds erect to Almighty God, and devoutly praying in their hearts the same petitions which do enter in at their ears, so that with one sound of the heart and one accord God may be glorified in his church.”1 “One sound of the heart” – that was Cranmer’s ideal of congregational worship, and surely there can be no argument that in this he was right.

2. Services must be simple. Cranmer’s Prayer Books reject the studied ornateness of thought and ritual in older worship forms in favour of studied simplicity and, as we have just seen, “inwardness”, meaning that involvement of heart to which complexity and elaboration are always hostile. Cranmer sought to reduce ceremonial to the minimum consistent with full reverence and decency, and to simplify the flow of his services as drastically as the substance and thrust of the biblical truth being expressed would allow. His sixteenth-century ceremonial language, to which Prayer Book users have always had to adjust, masks for some today the essential simplicity which marks all Cranmer’s services, but it is there, as I shall illustrate in a moment, and Cranmer’s achieving of it has milestone status in Christian liturgical history.

3. Services must edify. As we saw from Colossians, Christians are to be “built up” in Christ; and Cranmer’s 1549 preface “Of Ceremonies” states explicitly that edification is the end “whereunto all things done in the Church (as the Apostle teacheth) ought to be referred.” Recognizing that edification comes through the teaching and applying of biblical truth, Cranmer gave a major place in his drafting to Scripture readings and set exhortations, and prescribed a sermon at each Holy Communion service. Already he had sponsored the writing of the Homilies, a set of sermons to be read from pulpits to guarantee that Christian basics would be properly presented to all congregations. (Thus, the first four were on personal Bible reading, human sinfulness, justification through Christ’s death, and saving faith.) And Cranmer’s Lectionary, used for daily worship, would take you through the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice every year. Thus Cranmer, Bible-man and gospel-man that he was, sought to advance Anglican edification.

Involved here was a long-term educational ideal. Facing a laity deeply ignorant of basic Christianity, it was central to Cranmer’s plan to construct services of proper theological fullness and depth and then teach people to use them. The Prayer Book as we have it today still sets the same high standard. It has never been possible to enter properly into Prayer Book worship without some prior acquaintance with the essentials of the Christian message, plus some concentrated mental effort, requiring some preparation of heart beforehand.2 The payoff, however, if I may so express it, is that the profound simplicities of Cranmer’s liturgical forms have infinite power to feed the soul, as Anglicans for four and a half centuries have been discovering. One grows into the Prayer Book, one never outgrows it.

The principle that services should have a didactic quality, so that they may both instruct and edify, is rarely stressed (you will agree) in modern liturgical discussion. The quest today is for services that will express what people have in their hearts at the moment, rather than put into their hearts what they need to grasp if they are ever to grow in grace and please God – that is one reason why today’s alternative service forms are so shallow and flat. The plea for reducing the theological content of services so that they will never outstrip any participant’s present understanding gets a hearing today that Cranmer would not have given it. Train up the people, he would have said, rather than water down the faith! Surely this is the true wisdom, which we need urgently to recover. It is never right to buy simplicity at the cost of shallowness.

4. Services must unify. One aim of Cranmer and his colleagues was to unite the local congregations of England, some ten thousand of them as it seems there were, in a common faith, a common worship, and hence a common sympathy of a kind that cannot exist where patterns of belief and worship diverge. The 1549 Prayer Book was enacted as an all-England liturgy, just as our 1962 book was intended to function as an all-Canada liturgy. Uniformity historically, whatever its political significance at different times, has always been valued by church leaders as a means of realizing the ideal of unity, and it seems to me that this pastoral argument for uniformity in the essentials of worship is as strong today as it ever was. Agreement in the use of a liturgy that is biblical, evangelical, and worthy of God (which is the only uniformity I argue for, as it is the only uniformity that English and Canadian Anglicans have ever had) has three beneficial effects. First, it keeps the church’s standards of worship at the highest level. Second, it brings all worshippers face to face with the gospel and keeps them there. Third, it maintains a sense of oneness and solidarity within the church as a whole. In today’s discussions of the historic Anglican ideal of uniformity, only two points are usually made: first, that uniformity is not the same as unity, which can exist without it; second, that more flexibility than the Prayer Book prescribes would sometimes be an advantage. True, no doubt, yet the deeper truth lies in the balancing points: first, that godly uniformity is a potent means of expressing and deepening unity in Christ, and second, that in enlarging the area of allowed variation we should hold to the principle that as there is one gospel, and only one, so the actual worship of churches within the same diocesan and provincial networks should be seen and felt as one, and only one. Too much variety makes this impossible.

5. Services must express the gospel. Cranmer saw that a good service is not a set of unconnected bits and pieces, like a club concert – it is an integrated unit, having an overall “shape” and a clear, planned “route” along which worshippers are led. Cranmer “routed” Anglican public worship via the gospel, so that it might have a fully evangelical “feel” and “shape”. How did he do this? By giving his services an inner structure consisting of a sequence of three themes: sin., detected and confessed; grace, proclaimed and celebrated – and faith, focussed and expressed. In the proclaiming of grace Jesus Christ the Mediator must be central, so we may formulate the sequence as, first, facing our utter need of Christ; second, acknowledging God’s merciful provision of Christ; third, expressing our trustful, thankful response to Christ. Thus Cranmer’s services first make us face our present badness; then they tell us of the new life of grace; finally they lead us into the right response, which is multiple – prayer and praise for pardon; joyful trust in God’s promises of mercy; learning of God from his Word; asking for help both for ourselves and for others, professing our own faith, and giving ourselves directly to God out of gratitude for all he has given to us. Since this point about the structure of Cranmer’s services is not always appreciated, I propose now very briefly to illustrate it, first from the “Bible” services of Morning and Evening Prayer and then from the sacramental service of Holy Communion.