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SPG mission publicationsHallo again to all.

It occurred to us recently that the concept of a covenant amongst the churches of the Anglican Communion isn't a novelty. We had one for nearly 300 years, called the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Consider: Use of any other book was effectively prohibited in churches in what became the British Empire.

From the harsh wildness of the Australian outback to the majestic Canadian Rockies, in the thick jungles of Nigeria to the neat Quaker squares of Philadelphia, the cadences of Elizabethan English bounded the liturgy and shaped the understanding of the Church of England's theology. Close by the 1662 BCP was the Authorised Version of the Bible — more popularly known these days as the 'King James' Bible — and that 1611 translation of Holy Scripture that remains arguably the most influential text in the world.

At first glance, it's easy to dismiss this concept of BCP-as-covenant as a conceit: really, some will say exasperatedly, the 1662 BCP was book of liturgy, not a covenant. But within a empire that crossed continents and oceans, where postal mail took months and news could be delayed by years, it was theological framework of the 1662 BCP that shaped the understanding of English Christianity. The two great sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist — as well as the lesser sacraments — were defined within an Anglican understanding. Their definition was sufficient for most to read, mark, and inwardly digest. The catechism was the school book for millions of children — and what is the catechism other than a theological FAQ? The rubrics, if not quite canon law, were observed diligently for the most part and provided additional theological guidance. Lex orandi, lex credendi was perhaps truer during the hegemony of the 1662 BCP than it can ever be again.

We might now argue that the use of Elizabethan English in, say, the Sudan was absurd; part of a misguided, wrong-headed attempt to 'civilise' the world and produce Victorian gentlemen and ladies rather than promote the spread of Christianity. But English Christianity was spread by Victorian (or Elizabethan, Jacobean, Carolinian, or Regency) gentlemen, by word and sometimes weapon. And the vector* was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. All these little oases of English Christianity — Elizabethan thees and thous in the Mongolian desert, 'The Day Thou Gavest' heartily sung in Delhi, clergy dressing for dinner in Zanzibar — eventually joined together in strangely named dioceses such as Mashonaland and Ruwenzori and became the building blocks of the Anglican Communion. But the ties that bind were pages of the 1662 BCP bound in morocco, cloth, or paper. They held the communion together before any covenant was a glimmer in any disaffected bishop's eye.

Illustration from Abbeokuta: or, Sunrise within the tropics: an outline of origin and progress of the Yoruba missionBut surely the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was translated devotedly into indigenous languages? This in fact proves the point: The translated texts were more for use in teaching than for use in liturgy. The numbers of priests, for example, who could have managed a full Morning Prayer in Mohawk was remarkably small. The Elizabethan language of the 1662 BCP — an English that was fading away even as it was being revised in that 1662 edition — engrossed the theology of the English Church. And that text-bound theology served well as the framework for a remarkable experiment in Catholic Christianity called the Ecclesia Anglicana. The net of words and prayers that bound the churches of the empire needed no further explication. No legal contracts nor covenants were required.

Was it the triumph of the white man's prayer book? In some sense, yes, of course. Did it impose a strange language on churches in other lands? Indeed. Did it promote more the image of English ideals rather than the idea of Christ? Some would unhesitatingly answer 'yes'. We suggest the answer is more ambiguous.

The movement towards Prayer Book revision and the gradual alteration of liturgical texts to cultural context is understandable and, realistically, unstoppable. In the present world, it would no longer be sane to insist that new Anglican Christians in, say, Polynesia grasp this:

O GOD, merciful Father, that despisest not the sighing of a contrite heart, nor the desire of such as be sorrowful; Mercifully assist our prayers which we make before thee in all our troubles and adversities, whensoever they oppress us; and graciously hear us, that those evils which the craft and subtilty of the devil or man worketh against us be brought to nought; and by the providence of thy goodness they may be dispersed; that we thy servants, being hurt by no persecutions, may evermore give thanks unto thee in thy holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

That is undoubtedly beautiful. But it is, for most of the world, barely comprehensible. We regret the loss of a formal, stylized beauty; we recognize the need to let it go. Yet we realize the power — the unspoken covenant — that lay behind the use, for centuries, of a common text. Now that the text is fractured and fragmented into hundreds of languages, the power of common worship is dispersed, and the church throughout the world perhaps richer and truer for it.

Whether it's wise to replace the vanished net of the 1662 BCP with a covenant of theological understanding and juridical process is a question for another time. If we've got to have one and it's got to be termed a covenant, we'd prefer it in Elizabethan English.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 25 October 2009

*It's hard to determine whether the BCP would be more properly considered a shuttle vector or a viral vector.


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