How to Use the Book of Common Prayer: A Guide to the Anglican Liturgy (IVP, 2023)


“We can learn these prayers by heart. We can say them while we are walking, bicycling, or driving. We can remember them when we sit with a dying friend. And what is learned by heart can be shared across the generations.”

Each week, hundreds of millions of Christians all over the world go to church. There are some constants. In almost every church, Christians are praying, reading the Bible, hearing sermons, singing songs, and sometimes receiving the Lord’s Supper. There are also differences. Some churches are more liturgical. That word can mean a lot of things, but we are using it to mean that the words said by the people and the minister (except for the sermon) are written down in advance, and the words usually don’t change from service to service. When they do change, it happens on a fixed, predictable schedule. Liturgy is scripted, not improv.

Most Christians attend liturgical services. If you’re Ethiopian Orthodox or Swedish Lutheran, if you’re a Roman Catholic in Mongolia or an Anglican in Nigeria, then on a typical Sunday you almost certainly go to a liturgical service. That’s been true for most Christians throughout history. But for several generations, many Protestant churches in the Western hemisphere have been running in a different direction. They emphasize novelty and spontaneity, and they are making a sharp turn toward technology-saturated worship. Meanwhile, in the last few years, there has been a growing interest among Protestants, especially among young evangelicals, in liturgical worship. These two trends are not a coincidence. If you are tired of always chasing something new, and of following celebrity pastors and worship leaders, then liturgical worship can offer you a path of peace, a distinctive rhythm for how to be taught by Christ and abide in him. Different churches have different liturgical “scripts.” Since the Reformation, the one that’s been the most widely used and influential in English-speaking churches is the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. We invite you to walk through the Book of Common Prayer, into these liturgies that have shaped the lives of so many millions of Christians — from Jane Austen to the martyrs of Uganda, from John Wesley to the martyrs of Papua New Guinea. If you struggle to summon up the right emotions and words, these pages offer another way. Here is soil that’s good for putting down roots. Here is a bench to sit down on and rest awhile — a place to stay put.

Why Liturgy?

People are drawn to liturgy for varied reasons. And the reasons you’re attracted to it may not be the same as the reasons you stick with it years later. After all, when you first participate in a liturgical service, you are learning what to do and might feel lost. You may even wonder what the point is. So here are eight reasons to be drawn to liturgy — and to stick with it.

1. Liturgical prayers allow you to pray not only by yourself, but with other Christians.


2. Liturgical prayers give us words to say when we have none. 

Everyone encounters grief, loss, and despair, and when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), we need prayer more than ever. When we struggle to find the words to say, liturgical prayers can come to the rescue.

3. Liturgical prayers allow us to say “Amen” with confidence. 

Our prayers say things about God. What we say should be true — but what if it isn’t? Our prayers also ask God for things. These petitions might be wise, but they might not be (Ps 106:15). Liturgical prayers can let us know that what is being prayed is theologically sound and prudent. 

4. Liturgy helps us remember that worship is serious business.

In worship, we approach the king of the universe, the holy and omnipotent God. To worship him means to offer what he is worth, to render to him what he is rightly due. 

5. Liturgy is a framework for hearing the word of God.

In fact, we are never closer to the original setting of the Scriptures than when we hear them read in the liturgy.  The Scriptures themselves show that liturgical worship is the natural setting for reading the Bible. And, by scripting appropriate responses to the Scriptures read aloud, liturgy shows us that God speaks in order to prompt action. His word is living and active; blessed are those who hear the word and obey (Heb 4:12, Luke 11:28).

6. Liturgical prayers offer protection for the laity. 

Clergy are human, after all, and that means it is easy to have favorite topics for prayer and preaching. What seems to the minister like a valuable emphasis can easily seem to the people

like a private agenda or a hobby horse. Even when the prayers are written down, if they are not fixed but are changeable at the whim of the minister, the people may be subjected to innovations that are more eccentric than edifying. 

7. The best liturgical prayers have a simple, sturdy beauty. 

God can hear and answer prayers in our own words (thank goodness!), but as those words tumble out, I might mutter things that are vague or circuitous — maybe distracted — with fits and starts and hesitations. I may want to ask God for something but be uncertain what to ask for. Maybe the words I say never fully amount to what I mean. Still, God knows. As one of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, we are approaching “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.” The words of liturgical prayers can be focused, concentrated, rich beyond what I can cobble together on the spot. Especially in public services, liturgical prayers help ensure that everything spoken will build up the whole congregation (1 Cor 14:4). And whether the prayers are spoken in public or private, these words, beyond our own ability to compose, can draw our hearts along a well-traveled path of devotion toward God.

8. Liturgical prayers can become inscribed in our memories. 

The prayers in the Book of Common Prayer effectively deploy repetition, rhythm, and other rhetorical devices.

We can learn these prayers by heart. We can say them while we are walking, bicycling, or driving. We can remember them when we sit with a dying friend. And what is learned by heart can be shared across the generations. Liturgical prayers are like great hymns, such as “Rock of Ages” and “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” — they express gospel truths, with words that etch themselves into the memory, words that connect father and son, grandmother and granddaughter. What we memorize and meditate on will change us, becoming part of who we are (Ps 1:2-3).

To be sure, not all liturgical prayers are well-crafted. Some are disposable and will not be handed down from generation to generation. It’s not clear whether the most recent batch of liturgical prayers, especially many written since the late 20th century, will stand the test of time. But all eight of the reasons just given for using liturgy apply with full force to the classic Book of Common Prayer. It gives us words when we have none: words drenched in Scripture, reverent words, words that draw in old and young and that draw on the experience and wisdom of the broader church, words that are beautiful and memorable, trustworthy words.


Adapted from How to Use the Book of Common Prayer by Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane. ©2023 by Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.