The Influence of the Book of Common Prayer

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Millions of people around the world have utilized the Book of Common Prayer and it still influences Christians throughout the world today. It holds a place in history as one of the most beautiful prayer books ever composed. Second only to the King James Bible in religious readership, the Book of Common Prayer contains orders of services, ancient creeds, communal prayers, and a lectionary (a suggested reading plan for use throughout the year).

Its influence on English-speaking people cannot be overestimated. Over time, the Prayer Book influenced the development of the English language itself. According to historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, the Book of Common Prayer is “one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language.”2 Similarly, contemporary author Daniel Swift wrote about the essential influence of the Book of Common Prayer on the English people and their language in Shakespeare’s Common Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer and the Elizabethan Age. Swift claimed, the Book of Common Prayer is an extraordinary and too-often neglected work. . . . It is a skeleton beneath the skin of the best-known literary works of our or any time.”3

Not only is the Book of Common Prayer widely used throughout the English-speaking world, but it also appears in many variations in churches in more than fifty different countries and in more than one hundred fifty different languages. Because of its widespread use, the words of the Prayer Book have become a familiar part of the English language, and after the Bible, it is the most frequently cited book in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Like the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, many words and phrases from the Book of Common Prayer have entered popular culture, such as “ashes to ashes” and “till death do us part.” Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians alike have borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer, and its marriage and burial rites have found their way into other denominations and into English rhetoric. The Prayer Book has transformed both the Christian and cultural landscape ever since its inception in the 1500s.

Common Prayer Means Never Praying Alone

Beyond its influence in the broader church though, what impact does the Book of Common Prayer have on us personally? The use of the word “common” indicates the original purpose of the book. Related to our word “community,” common doesn’t mean “ordinary”; rather, it denotes something that is shared in common with others. This stands in contrast to our radically individualistic world, which makes common prayer not so common.

Cranmer originally designed the book as a way to unite the people in worship through a liturgy where both the minister and the people prayed together. According to former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, “The fundamental purpose of celebrating common prayer is this: to help the church as a whole to pray together daily in a reflective and structured way.”

Prayer stands as a force that unites all of us as the church. By praying with the common prayer tradition, we find that we never really pray alone. Whether we are alone in a room or gathered with others in a small group, our prayers are united with believers both past and present. This is what theologian Scot McKnight described in Praying with the Church when he distinguished between praying in the church and with the church. Common prayer unites us with other believers around the world who are praying the same cycle of prayer throughout the day. The body of Christ has always been and will always be a praying church.

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Winfield Bevins has a passion for equipping others to spread the gospel in their own context. He serves as the Director of Asbury Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. As a seasoned practitioner, he has used his experience to train leaders from diverse backgrounds on three different continents. He frequently speaks at conferences, churches, seminaries and retreats on a variety of topics. He is the author of several books, including Plant: A Sower’s Guide to Church Planting. He and his wife Kay, have three beautiful girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline.

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