The Book of Common Prayer gets a glossary

Title page of Book of Common Prayer. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Title page of Book of Common Prayer. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

LONDON (RNS) — It is the book that gave us such immortal phrases as “till death do us part” and “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” But nearly 500 years after the creation of the Book of Common Prayer by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, many people, even priests, find its prose not so much eminently quotable, as mystifying.

Now the Church of England’s trainee clergy are being offered help to understand Cranmer’s more obscure prose through a publication of a glossary. All first-year ordinands – the trainee priests studying at theological colleges – are to be given a copy of the guide together with a free copy of the Book of Common Prayer, an English-language product of the 16th-century break between England and the Roman Catholic Church, where Latin ruled.

The glossary will help students and others come to grips with phrasing such as “the quick and the dead,” which means the living and the dead and has nothing to do with being fast, and explains that “miserable,” for Cranmer, meant “pitiable” rather than feeling depressed.

The guide was written by Fergus Butler-Gallie, a 25-year-old first-year ordinand at Westcott House theological college in Cambridge, and commissioned by the Prayer Book Society, which promotes the Book of Common Prayer.

Though the Anglican Communion has since adopted prayer books in more modern language, the BCP still inspires strong feelings among many of its 80 million-plus adherents, with Prayer Book Society members passionately advocating for what they consider the unsurpassed beauty of Cranmer’s prose.

According to the recently retired bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, the Book of Common Prayer offers timeless qualities that can make it attractive to the younger generation.

“Far be it from me to promote a cult of quaintness, but the power of the Prayer Book to connect with many of those who find the ordinary diet of the church banal should not be ignored. There is now a younger generation who are realizing afresh the importance of complementing the argot of Twitter and SMS (texting) with the majesty of Cranmer.”

Butler-Gallie himself says that many people are so new to Christianity that even the more contemporary forms of worship are alien to them. But with help, Cranmer’s work is comprehensible.

“I’m of a generation where all ‘God speak’ is alien. The idea that Common Worship (a more contemporary Anglican prayer book) is in some way the language of the streets or contains concepts that are somehow more ‘relatable’ is just nonsense,” he said.

“Indeed, the BCP provides considerably more space for the uninitiated — they’re not being dragged out the front to take part in an activity that they may or may not feel comfortable partaking in or having their hands enthusiastically grasped by total strangers. The liturgy has a shape and beauty that can wash over you in a way that creates a space that is actually rather accessible as it allows you to sit in the gap created.”

The Book of Common Prayer contains morning prayer, evening prayer, the Holy Communion service and a litany, as well as services for baptism, marriage and funerals, and epistle and Gospel readings for each Sunday in the liturgical years. It was revised by Cranmer in 1552 and after a break in its use during the reign of Queen Mary, who restored Roman Catholicism in England and had Cranmer executed.

It was revived again during the reign of Elizabeth I. A later edition became the standard prayer book for the Church of England until the 21st century, when Common Worship became the more-often-used prayer book in Anglican Communion churches.

“In this sense it’s the perfect ‘millennial’ liturgy in that it provides not only the roots but also the breathing space so craved by an unsure generation,” Butler-Gallie said of the Book of Common Prayer. “The intricacies actually come later — indeed, part of the purpose of the glossary was to encourage people to think through some of the theology behind that beautiful language.”

Butler-Gallie said younger people from totally unchurched backgrounds have discerned a vocation through encounters with Prayer Book worship. He includes himself in this group.

The Book of Common Prayer was written by Cranmer when he was Archbishop of Canterbury and was first published in 1549 in the reign of Edward VI, after his father Henry VIII’s break with Rome. The glossary includes:

Ghost; Ghostly: from Old English gāst (German, Geist) Spirit; spiritual. e.g. “ … together with ghostly counsel and advice.”

Militant: the Church on earth, those still “fighting the good fight of faith” (from the Latin militans) as opposed to the Church Triumphant in Heaven. e.g. “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church militant here in earth.”

Quick, quicken: living; to make alive, e.g. “the quick and the dead.”

Suffer: to endure pain, to tolerate or allow, as in “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

About the author

Catherine Pepinster


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  • The notorious “church” of England repudiated Christianity a long time ago and their prayer book is a testament to flagrant hypocrisy and blasphemy. Today this phony-baloney “church” is a state sponsored sexually oriented cabal that caters to lust and corrupts public morality. It is not a safe place for children and young people.

  • Interesting….they are going to teach the yungings how to pray to a god, they no longer follow. Sad really.

  • The author is confusing the Church of England and the Anglican Communion with regard to Common Worship. Common Worship is not the more-often-used prayer book in Anglican Communion churches. It is the more-often-used prayer book in the Church of England’s parishes, the church which produced it. Most other Anglican Communion churches have produced their own modern prayer books.

  • Unfortunately, history has shown that no church/denomination can be assumed to be a safe place for children and young adults.

  • By the way, if you’re going to quote the Book of Common Prayer, it might be an idea to do so accurately. “Till death do us part” is in the Roman Catholic rite of matrimony; the BCP version is “till death US DO part”. (Having played the organ at countless weddings, I know which is which.)

  • I suspect your knowledge of the CofE is limited.

    The CofE contains just about every twist and turn of Christianity that men have ever dreamed up. From the silliness of casting out demons (having first ascertained their names* – I kid you not – been there) and issuing a triple shout-out (Jesus is Lord!) to enable the Holy Spirit to break through the demonic ranks (been there), through happy-clappy, jump-for-jesus (been there too), past the blessing of pets/farm animals, via turgid mumbling and some great music to services almost indistinguishable from the RCC (including the fancy dress, candles and bells-and-smells). Apart from, as far as I know, snake-handling the CofE encompasses pretty much every daftness that has ever been admitted to Christian worship.

    This is not to support the CofE – it’s trying to take over education since its congregations are so meagre that, with exceptions, it has almost lost any relevance it ever had as well as quite a bit of the power it never deserved.

    For context – in a recent British social attitudes survey 53% of respondants claimed no religious allegiance, 15% went CofE and 9% RCC.

    According Christianitytoday a survey of over 8000 brits revealed;

    Asked about how often they read or listened to the Bible, 55 per cent of those who described themselves as Christians answered ‘never’ while 14 per cent said at least once a month.

    Twenty-nine per cent said that they never prayed, while 40 per cent said that they did at least once a month, and 18 per cent answered that they did so daily.

    Regarding church attendance, one third of Christians said ‘never’ with 19 per cent saying at least once a month and 14 per cent at least once a week.

    It’s awful slow but we’re getting there folks!

    * I wasn’t told the names of the demons who were causing the lady’s knees to be painful but I suspect one of them was Arthur – Arthur I. Tiss. And no – the “agents for the Holy Spirit” didn’t hang around to find out what happened when the released endorphins stopped being effective.

  • i think the christian book of Revelation, pretty much sums up the churches of today. where the best you can get, is the little church with very little truth. where all the rest, are evil and/or wicked too.

  • You are nothing but a heretical troll just like my Southern Baptist Cult “preacher” brother and are in serious need of orthodox Biblical scholarship. Until & unless you do so take your sacrilegious beliefs, behaviors and statements elsewhere.

  • I don’t need to. They support homosexuality and placing innocent people in the direction of Hell. That, is not Christian.

  • Perhaps “bqrq” – whoever he or she is – is not concerned with tiresome things like facts and can’t cope with them.

  • Actually that is not correct but you apparently rely on your typical sources of information. to come to judgement. But the church as an entire body has spent a significant amount of time considering the issue and ramifications. Each province has to address this in the context of existing laws and make their own determination. There is not even consensus within dioceses of countries where civil marriage is allowed. However, the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution still currently stands but is not legally binding.

  • Revelation was a polemic against the Roman Empire. The author could not write it without being killed rather nastily so he disguised the message. There was a nasty brouhaha about its inclusion in the NT. Reason lost.

  • No hatred here. I’m fighting for homosexuals to receive the same respect from the “church” that everyone is supposed to get.

  • More specifically, Jesus spoke about divorce in the context of marriage between a man and woman. Divorce was associated with having hard hearts in so doing.

  • Have you ever wondered why there are so many different churches, with such widely-varying practices, all claiming to follow the same God out of the same Bible?

  • Style I like – but the BCP has some awful ugliness dressed in pretty clothes.

    IMO the style does not excuse the content.

  • Just curious as to what you see as the ugliness. We often have those proverbial planks in our eyes and need the perspective of another set of eyes.

  • Your response suggests that you know very little – about me, about how basic logic works and about how to write accurately in English.

  • I started to write a lengthy rant – it comes down to this.

    The concepts behind Christianity, behind all religion that I’m aware of, are harmful.

    Harmful to individuals, to families, to groups, localities, nations and humanity.
    Not without any merit in terms of good works etc. but, on balance, harmful.
    (I can, to my own satisfaction at least, justify every stage of that assertion).

    They are predicated on an absence of personal value, the pretence of an immortality which is unsupported by evidence or reason and the acceptance of unsubstantiated and unsubstantiable authority. The result – decent people who are predisposed to being, and often are, led “like lambs to the slaughter”.

    The BCP provides a means to embed that harm in people.

    It says things are true which it has no evidence to support and assumes acceptance – thereby demeaning rational thought and teaching the acceptance of belief as superior to logic and evidence-based reasoning.
    It dresses up the irrationality of faith in soaring language so that people are carried along with the rhetoric and fail to notice the sillinesses and the obfuscations.
    It papers over the cracks in the walls so well that many don’t notice the crumbling edifice it obscures.

    If you heard the late Richard Burton reading aloud the sound was probably beguilingly awesome; rich, warm, evocative and comforting – it was, to me, always thus – even had the text he was enunciating been something that would have been unacceptable read by a lesser mortal.
    To me – that’s the BCP some awesome language cosseting some awful concepts.

    You don’t have to agree!

  • i, do not have to know about you to know what is true and what is not true. with your knowing, nothing about me here in Scripture physically happening.

    and it is highly unlikely that anyone, is going to be telling the truth here in This Story of The Physical Creation again.

    you all, failed twice before here in this same and Only Story of The Physical Creation. why would i expect you to be doing mentally better, in this physical hereafter again?

    and it is more likely, you are going to screw up your last chance in the physical world to come again.

  • Update to my previous comment:

    Your response suggests that you know very little – about me, about how basic logic works and about how to think accurately in English.

  • and i told you, i only have to know the difference in right and wrong. i, can only judge your mentality by your own errant words.

    and the fact is, you do not even know where or how to find me in written scripture or physically here in it again.

    but i, do know,where to find all you subtle talking beast of the fields in scripture. aka: demons.

  • Thanks for your time – I sometimes hear what you are expressing by some of the commenters. here .And I would agree that faith is irrational, which is why it is a struggle for many if they are honest. And I sometimes feel the same way about some of the hymns and contemporary worship music- great music but some awful concepts. .

  • Initially I thought perhaps I was the only person who didn’t understand what you are trying to say.

    I now realise that there are two of us – you and me both – but only one of us is confused enough to believe in demons.

  • well you can deny, that stalin, hitler, mussolini, obama, mao, pol pot, kim jung, ted bundy, charles manson, muhammed, exist or existed all you want. but then demons do not want you to know they exist to aid in their deceiving others.

    so yes i know, what demons look like. nothing like what you, have been taught in deception. when they, can look just like you. the best way to spot a demon, is by their unholy, perverted, lying, and horny attributes.

    i do not expect demons, to announce their presence with – hi i am here from the devil to give you hell on earth with illusions of helping you.

    just the fact that you lie, about the existence of demons makes you look highly suspicious. and is highly unlikely it is the only lie, you have been taught to tell.