Using the Book of Common Prayer and Other Prayer Books

How were you taught to pray?

I wasn’t so much directly instructed on how to as much as I watched how others prayed at church, before meals, and often before class. Spontaneous prayer was a frequent choice and sometimes the Psalms were used. People usually spoke from their heart and used common phrases of gratitude and names for God.

Another form of prayer was introduced to me in college through the Book of Common Prayer, which I describe more below. I wasn’t sure why it was being used or where it stood compared to scripture but I was intrigued. Could you really pray while you were reading the words from a page?

I soon discovered prayer books don’t replace scripture, nor do they replace spontaneous prayer or induce a “scripted faith” — they simply offer ways to draw closer to God through community. You may read the prayers alone or corporately. Either way you’re connected to the communal liturgy and broader (sometimes ancient) worship of the church. Sometimes I don’t have all the words to express how I’m feeling or what I’m sensing; a prayer book invites me into the prayer of another and reminds me I’m not alone.

photo: Lilian Dibbern

Here are a few I’ve picked up over the last couple years.

Book Of Common Prayer

This book shapes most of our regular Sunday services in our episcopal parish. There are many other churches who use prayers from this book, too. Perhaps this is one of the most popular, oldest prayer books out there and for good reason, no doubt. There are morning and evening prayers, daily devotionals, collects, creeds, Psalms, prayers for confirmation, baptism, marriage, ordination, sickness, thanksgiving death, church planting, and more.

Although somber, one of the most meaningful prayers for me is one we pray corporately every Sunday.

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in though, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

— Book of Common Prayer, pages 359-360

(There is an album where some of these prayers are sung. It’s lovely.)

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

This is a beautiful collection of art, songs, and prayers. This prayer book also includes morning and evening prayers, as well as occasional prayers, but what is special about this particular book is one’s ability to use it as a daily devotional. It begins at the start of the liturgical year, the first day of Advent in December. Each day is a liturgy with prayers, a scripture reading, a brief paragraph on someone in church history, a space to pray for others, the Lord’s Prayer, and some include a song. (The sheet music is included in the back!) Each month has a theme and piece of artwork.

“May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you : wherever he may send you; may he guide you through the wilderness : protect you through the storm; may he bring you home rejoicing : at the wonders he has shown you; may he bring you home rejoicing : once again into our doors.”

— Common Prayer

(Someone created a playlist with all the songs used in this prayer book.)

Every Moment Holy

This might be my current favorite. There’s a prayer for everything; the artwork is stunning. You’ll find occasional liturgies as well as prayers during the loss of electricity, for those who feel awkward in social gatherings, and a table blessing for each day of the week.

I’ll allow it to speak for itself. This is an excerpt from A Liturgy for Changing Diapers I:

“…I am not just changing a diaper. By love and service I am tending a budding heart that, rooted early in such grace-filled devotion, might one day be more readily-inclined to bow to your compassionate conviction — knowing itself then as both a receptacle and a reservoir of heavenly grace… So take this unremarkable act of necessary service, O Christ, and in your economy let it be multiplied into that greater outworking of worship and of faith, a true investment in the incremental advance of your kingdom across generations…”

— A Liturgy for Changing Diapers I, pages 53-55

Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants

This one doesn’t have the same visual beauty as the last two books, but it does have a thorough devotional quality. Its outline follows the rhythm of the liturgical calendar with various scripture readings and quotes from authors, artists, and theologians. The general focus is geared towards those who serve in the church but I think most anyone would benefit from it if they enjoyed the style.

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions

This prayer book was given to us by a dear friend. The style is more traditional than the other books mentioned here but it could appeal to a variety of traditions. It lists short prayers by topic or emotion, and also includes morning and evening prayers. The book itself is small and leather-bound, which makes it handy to slip into a backpack or purse for everyday use.

“…May the truth that is in him illuminate in me all that is dark, establish in me all that is wavering, comfort in me all that is wretched, accomplish in me all that is of thy goodness, and glorify in me the name of Jesus… Uphold my steps by thy Word. Let no iniquity dominate me…”

— “Truth in Jesus,” pages 308-309

Prayer: Forty Days of Practice

Again, art and prayer are means for inspiration and reflection. Created by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson, this is a small, but powerful, book. These prayers are shorter, maybe a few lines or half a page, but they certainly give you enough to think on. I’ve shared many of Erickson’s pieces on my Instagram in the past.

“May it be enough for me to see God in the world.”

— Prayer 35

How do you pray? Do you use a prayer book?

Our First Year in the Episcopal Church

For someone like me who grew up in a non-denominational, charismatic church, the Episcopal church*, along with other denominations, were synonymous with secular culture. I wasn’t totally sure what they believed. Do they believe in grace? Are they spirit-filled? What do they really think of Jesus?

In 2015 I moved from a moderately sized, non-denominational community to a Sunday morning gathering with meditative music, scripture readings, prayers from a book, and a guy who wore a white collar. Drawn to this style of worship, I began appreciating the value of ancient liturgy, the church calendar, and the Book of Common Prayer. Although not an official Episcopal community, it offered a gentle introduction. 

Even though I loved the liturgy and studied some social justice in college, it took some time before I was ready to consider the Episcopal tradition home. At times it felt “too out there.”

In 2018, I came home one evening from a seminary class. The entire course discussed intersectionality and theology, and this particular session had presented a fork in the road, so to say. After plopping my backpack on the floor and taking a seat across from Aaron at the dining table I said something like “we need to make a few changes.” Luckily he was interested and we started talking. 

The very next Sunday we walked right through the front doors of our current parish, unsure of what we would find. We were completely surprised by how many faces we recognized as we sat down. It was a bit of a (calculated) risk but one we’d take again. We’ve settled in this past year, taking it all in, and getting to know new friends and old hymns. 

Flowers we brought home from our Easter service.

If you’re curious what we like about it, here’s a few things that have stood out to me this past year, in no specific order. (Obviously these elements are not exclusive to the Episcopal tradition, many other communities share similar practices or thoughts.)

Embracing Ancient Mystery & Modern Questions

This was what initially drew us to the Episcopal tradition. The more I studied theology and considered all the “answers” I had stored away, the more I realized I had harder and bigger questions. I craved a space that appreciated the ambiguity of scripture and allowed room for discussion and contemplation. My questions are welcomed and given no easy answers. Neither my intellectual instincts or my past mystical experiences are shamed. The Episcopal church is often called a “big tent” which means a variety of theological beliefs and convictions (progressive and conservative, republican and democrat, army and navy, etc.) are hosted in one tradition. 

We begin each service with a prayer to love God and love others. We hear scripture read aloud and taught by both women and men. Corporately, we confess sin and pray for others. We say the Nicene creed. We “pass the peace” to those around us and take communion. Simple, meaningful, holy.

“Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.” 

— Ben Irwin, 11 Things I Love About the Episcopal Church

Worship as a Lifestyle

There is so much to say on this topic. I’ll keep it brief.

I had wrongly assumed the worship and community would be stale and outdated, not realizing how much I craved the depth and reverence of the liturgy. And how much I needed the weekly wisdom of those who have lived a little longer and differently than me! We sing songs or scripture throughout the entire service, sometimes standing up and other times sitting down. I really love this approach, even though I can appreciate the contemporary concert-style every once in a grand while, too. The hymns are rich and beautiful. (Aaron sings them way better than me.) There is a whole art form to sacred music that I’m beginning to learn about.

Yet, we know worship isn’t just singing. The Episcopal tradition especially, believes worship happens each day through acts of faith and love. The Gospel isn’t limited to evangelism or a sermon, it’s a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Often this results in efforts to pursue justice for those with their “backs against the wall” as Howard Thurman wrote. The “prophetic” is approached from a different angle. I appreciate how our community, locally and globally, advocate for social initiatives such as food pantries, homelessness, climate change, interfaith issues, racial justice, art and music, LGBTQ+ equality, international partnerships, academia, military chaplaincy (a ministry close to our hearts!) and so much more.

Eucharist Every Week

Communion is a double edged sword for me. I think it’s one of the most mysterious and generous practices given to universal church. We devote almost half of our weekly service to the eucharist. It’s a beautiful sacrament we share together. (This video is a good one.)

Whether or not the bread and wine are a symbol or whether you believe that they are the literal body and the blood are up to you. I believe they have enormous power to change hearts, attitudes, lives, tear down prejudices, bridge gaps, and bring peace. I believe that in most cases, the elements speak louder than any sermon or hymn or prayer. Something mysterious and unfathomably beautiful happens at the table. It’s a place where any person, no matter what belief system or background they come from can come and receive the God of peace.

— Lindsey Hart (Link to original post no longer exists, sorry!)

On the other hand, it can stir up a few hard feelings for me. At one point in my life I could not kneel at the altar to take the bread and wine. My body would not let my knees touch the altar; I preferred communion served standing up. The power dynamic between the male clergy and myself, in a position of vulnerability, was too much for me. I felt anger and fear bubble up inside me. (Read some research on this.) These feelings have faded (healed?) for me as women have served at the altar and as I’ve grown in self-understanding, among other things. Still, I cannot take communion from Aaron when he assists in serving the eucharist. I’m not sure if I can fully articulate why. I make sure to place myself on the opposite end of the altar or simply attend an adult formation hour instead.

At this point in our lives we love our church community. By no means is it perfect but it does offer us ample space to be nourished and challenged to grow. We’re about to step into a hefty discernment process in 2020 as Aaron discerns the priesthood. It’s about a year’s worth of meetings and prayer to confirm his desire to be ordained in the Episcopal tradition. And so the adventure continues.

These are just a few brief thoughts as we continue to explore the body of Christ via the Episcopal church. I’d love to hear what you love about your place of worship!

Curious? Confused? Here’s a few other experiences: 

*Christianity is very diverse and includes hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations (or flavors) of the Christian faith all over the world. The Episcopal tradition is one flavor in the larger Anglican Communion, which is another tradition. 

A Graduation & a Confirmation in the Episcopal Church

May has been a pretty exciting (and also exhausting, chaotic, and full) month for us.

The morning after my last final exam we packed up our on-campus apartment and moved a few minutes down the road to a quiet neighborhood apartment. Our new space brought us a few new quirks but we’re settling in day by day.

About a week after we moved, I graduated with a Masters of Arts in Religion with a concentration on social ethics and spiritual formation. I chose these concentrations because I couldn’t justify their separation; ethics and spirituality are intricately linked and layered. Together they shape our behaviors and thoughts. Most of my courses and professors were amazing. There were a couple that gave me a headache. My favorite classes included church history, racial/gender justice, and various topics in the Old Testament.

Seminary was hard. As they graciously warn you, I left with more questions than answers. In the past 2 years, Aaron was away from home for 6+ months, in which I managed a multiple day power outage and shoveled out several feet of snow by myself. I took a summer intensive course for Hebrew 1 and 2. We changed churches a few times. We saw a marriage counselor. I got angry. Angry about the world, the church, and my own weaknesses. Burnout happened and I wanted to give up multiple times. Relationships disappeared. Our theology shifted. I cried, a lot.

But even when seminary cut deep, these past two years offered an unexpected healing. I was able to put words to my experience as a woman in the church and I was encouraged in my ability to think theologically, as a woman. I met women and men from around the world, friends and those who we now consider family, who laughed and wept with us and strengthened us when we couldn’t see the other side. I learned so much in class and through reading, but even more from those we lived and served with in our seminary community.

This month was significant again for another reason. Aaron was confirmed in the Episcopal church. If you’ve been following the progression of our faith, you know we’ve explored a few different traditions. We were hesitant to approach the Episcopal tradition because we had both grown up hearing episcopalians don’t really love Jesus. (What a lie.) The beauty of this tradition (and the body of Christ) is in it’s diversity in thought and community.

You’ll also notice only Aaron was confirmed. We’re both very satisfied in this new space, but since he wants to attend an episcopal seminary and pursue ordination in the coming years it was more important for him to take this step sooner than I might. Aaron affectionately calls me a crockpot or “turtle” and in many ways that’s very true. I tend take my time to simmer and think on something. When the time is right, I’ll think about the next step. For now, I’m still soaking up every bit of our Sunday services. (If you have questions about the Episcopal tradition or the progression of our faith, I’m happy to answer them.)

And finally, I turned 24 this month. My birthday began with an early morning walk around our new neighborhood and ended with gelato with Aaron and my parents. I’m not sure what this next year holds but it’s sure to be a good story.

Any fun milestones happen in your life recently?