Jan 08, 2021A Beginner’s Guide to The Book of Common Prayer

A Beginner’s Guide to The Book of Common Prayer

Or – Things I wish I’d been told when I first became an Episcopalian

Gary Allman Six-minute read.   Resources
Daily Devotions Image Credit: Gary Allman

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP as it is often affectionately referred to) is a great resource for all Episcopalians. Not only does it set out the order of service for Communion (with several versions to choose from). It also has Morning Prayers, Noonday Prayers, Evening Prayers, and Compline — a service to close the day, suitable for groups of people of all sizes to use. There is also a set of daily devotions that are great for individuals and families, providing short prayers to be used in the morning, at noon, in the evening, and at the close of the day.

There are many collections of prayers spread throughout the book – it’s good to browse through the pages and find a prayer (or more) that suits your mood and needs. We post prayers taken from The Book of Common Prayer on our Facebook page every evening at 8:25 p.m.

The Book of Common Prayer 1979

… The Book of Common Prayer can appear quite daunting at first. The good news is that with regular use it becomes very familiar.

This is by no means a comprehensive or scholarly guide, but hopefully, it will be of help to anyone encountering The Book of Common Prayer for the first time.

The Book of Common Prayer is ordered around ‘Life’; after the daily prayers we have Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, birth, sickness, and then, appropriately, death. After that, the rest of The Book of Common Prayer is mainly devoted to reference material and Episcopal housekeeping! Not forgetting The Episcopal Church’s own translation of the psalms.

If you are looking for information on the history of The Book of Common Prayer take a look at this Wikipedia article.

With over a thousand pages of fairly dense print, The Book of Common Prayer can appear quite daunting at first. The good news is that with regular use it becomes very familiar. Most of the content is given in two forms. One version is in traditional language, and the second a contemporary language version. You’ll notice that a lot of the content is labeled ‘I’ or ‘II,” indicating respectively traditional or contemporary language.

Yes, you read that correctly. Lay people can lead an Episcopal service.

In the original version published in 1549, instructions to the Officiants — the clergy or lay people leading the services — were printed in red. Modern copies use italics to identify instructions.

Yes, you read that correctly. Lay people can lead an Episcopal service. However, a layperson cannot give a blessing, or, without special training and a dispensation from the bishop, provide Holy Communion. If you are ever called upon to lead prayers for a small group or your family, when you come to a blessing, simply change the wording from ‘you’ to ‘us.’ The best advice is to take it slowly, and, of course, it gets easier with practice.

How do people use the Prayer Book?

Everyone uses it differently. Some like to use it during church services, and others rely on their memory and the prompts in the bulletin. Some people will browse through looking for a passage or prayer to suit their needs. Others follow the Daily Devotions. And some people, of course, will hardly ever pick up a copy — each to their own.

Getting Started

The best way to get to know The Book of Common Prayer is to just dip in! Here are some favorites:

The Daily Devotions starting on page 137, and the Prayers and Thanksgivings can be found starting on page 815 (there’s a useful list of the prayers on page 810). After that, try random pages. Got a sick friend? Try page 458, and should you ever need it, there’s also a prayer for a sick child to be found at the bottom of the page.

Contents

Here’s a quick run through the Prayer Book.

Daily Prayer & Devotions

Pages 37-140. There are two versions of the Morning and Evening Prayers and a single version of Compline – the service held at the end of the day. The daily devotions on pages 137-140 are very short, a page each for the morning, noon, evening, and close of day.

Collects

Pages 159-261. A collect is a short prayer made up of an invocation, petition, and conclusion. There are collects covering all sorts of occasions and events, including Holy days and the celebration of the lives of the Saints. 

Liturgies for Special Days

Pages 264-295. The special days are: Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and The Great Vigil of Easter.

Baptism

Page 298-313. In the Episcopal Church, it is common to be baptized as a young infant – though adults can be Baptized too. The Prayer Book provides a form of words to be used when someone is not sure if they’ve already been baptized (Conditional Baptism), and even an Emergency Baptism, which can be performed by any baptized person (both can be found on page 313)

Holy Communion

Pages 323-382. The celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for us, by the partaking of bread and wine. Several variants of the Holy Communion service are provided. One, Eucharistic Prayer C starting on page 369, is often referred to as the Star Trek Communion because of its reference to ‘… the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, …’

Confirmation 

Pages 413-419. Confirmation is performed by the bishop of the diocese, and represents the adult acceptance and reaffirmation of their Baptismal vows.

Marriage 

Pages 423-437. The complete marriage service. If you wish to be married at an Episcopal church, the service is set out here. You can find your local Episcopal church here.

Thanksgiving for a Child

Pages 439-445. Prayers for the birth or adoption of a child.

Ministration to the Sick

Pages 453-461. Prayers for the sick, their caregivers, for those in pain, and those recovering from illness.

At the Time of Death

Pages 462-467. Prayers to be used at the time of death.

Burial

Pages 469-507. The details of the burial service.

Episcopal Service

Pages 510-579. All sorts of celebrations, including the ordination of the clergy, and the dedication and consecration of a church.

The Psalter

Pages 582-808. A complete set of 150 psalms – the ‘hymns’ or poetry, if you prefer, included in the Old Testament of the Bible.

Prayers and Thanksgivings

Pages 810-841. An excellent resource of prayers for all occasions.

An Outline of the Episcopal Faith

Pages 844-862. If you want a really definitive definition of the Episcopal Faith, this is where to look.

Historical Documents

Pages 864-878. All sorts of interesting things if you are into details (or as one priest I know suggested, a sufferer of insomnia), including the preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer and the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral — a statement of the basis of the Anglican faith (The Episcopal Church is a part of the Anglican Communion), which was devised to find and define common ground with other faith communities, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches.

Tables & Lectionary

Pages 880-1049. Many tables and dates tell us who should be celebrated when, and what scripture should be read on any given day. Some of this has been amended over time; I’d recommend consulting the Forward Movement – Daily Prayer page for up to date information.

Other Worship Resources

There’s a calendar near the beginning of the The Book of Common Prayer, and the websites listed below are also very good.

The Book of Common Prayer 1979

Find an Episcopal Church Near You

Gary Allman is Communications Director with The Diocese of West Missouri.

This is an adapted and updated version of an article that was originally published in 2014.

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