Music Cues: The Book of Common Prayer
November 27, 1999

audio button The Book of Common Prayer is 450 years old this year. But it is constantly updated by the Episcopal and Anglican Churches, which may help keep its pertinence resonant.

Episcopalians may regard the words as gifts from God. But they understand that those gifts are constantly remade by men and women who make earthly adjustments.

The Book of Common Prayer is as much a work of inspired literature as theology. The 16th Century English monarchs who pulled away from the Catholic pope needed a new prayer manual. In 1549, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, translated Latin Catholic liturgy into English, and infused the prayers with Protestant reform theology.

He also created prayers to be savored aloud. What we think of now as traditional wedding vows, in which husbands and wives pledge, "to have and hold, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish," are from The Book of Common Prayer.

The Book became one of the first works to be reproduced by the printing press. It made the stately cadences of English into a world language and, like all great works of literature, carried the seeds of insurrection.

The English missionaries who took the book to the new American colonies saw the prayers that encouraged a personal relationship with God as inspiration to make their own government. Many slaves who read the prayers felt empowered to see themselves as equal to any other human being in God's light.

There have been many revisions over the years -- most recently to change "man" to "humankind" and to make God "the Father" into God "the Spirit." There are even committees meeting to discuss proposed wording for same-sex marriage ceremonies.

But this weekend of Thanksgiving seemed a good time to recall words that were added in 1789 to reflect the rise of a new American faith:

"Almighty God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage: we humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry,sound learning, and pure manners.

"Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues.

"Endure with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In times of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness ... and compassion for all infirmities."