By David Ney

Contrary to popular opinion, America was not founded by Puritans. It was founded by many religious groups, including Anglicans. Indeed, the Church of England was the first denomination to plant its foot in the New World. Anglican services were held in North Carolina and California in the 16th century, and Anglicanism established itself for good in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. As David Holmes puts it, the Jamestown colony followed the liturgical and ceremonial directives of the Book of Common Prayer:

The colony required morning and evening prayer daily, two sermons each Sunday, and the administration of the holy communion every three months. During the difficult early years of Jamestown, the Prayer Book office for the burial of the dead was used frequently. (Holmes, A Brief History, 20)

Virginia was founded as an Anglican colony, and the General Assembly soon legislated for the church, supported it through taxes, and protected it against dissent. Yet this strength couldn’t conceal the fundamental problem of colonial Anglicanism: it was episcopal without episcopacy. It functioned as an extension of the Diocese of London. It lacked its own bishop, and it was thus beset by a perpetual shortage of clergy.


There was, you might say, an ecclesial vacuum, and this vacuum was filled with the one key form of English Anglicanism the colonists did have: the prayer book. Lauren Winner identifies the role that the prayer book had in the lives of everyday colonial Virginians. She recounts, for example, that a certain Jesse Lee recalled with fondness that as a child he was “summoned to church on Sunday” and would “seat himself in his pew, with his prayer book in his hand, and repeat the service in a manner which did credit to one of his age” (A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, 100).

While lay Anglicans opened their Books of Common Prayer in Church, they did so at home far more often. There was thus a shift in emphasis in relation to the Church of England. As Edward Bond notes, “Unlike English divines who treated private devotions as a form of preparation for the church’s public worship, ministers in Virginia reverse this sequence, placing greater emphasis on private devotions than on public and communal prayer” (Damned Souls, 269).

For much of Anglican history Anglicans wrote their private devotional thoughts and prayers in little notebooks, called commonplace books. One of the extant commonplace books we have from colonial Virginia is that of Maria Carter of Cleve. On the last page she wrote:

Almighty God, the Fountain of all wisdom, who knowest my Necessities before I ask, and my Ignorance in asking; I beseech thee to have Compassion upon my Infirmities, and those things which for my Unworthiness I dare not, and for my Blindness I cannot ask, vouchsafe to give Me for the Worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ, my Lord & Saviour. amen.

This prayer comes from the Book of Common Prayer; it is one of the Collects from the order for Holy Communion. It is intended to be said by the entire congregation and is cast in the first-person plural. As Winner puts it, “Carter recast the prayer in the singular, absorbing the liturgical we into her personal I. She made the prayer book’s public, performative language her own” (A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, 108-109).

So we see from the personal use of the prayer book that the corporate use of the prayer book, whether in church or in homes, was seen as a complement to personal, extemporaneous prayer, and, to take things one step further, that the personal use of the prayer book, and thus so-called liturgical prayer, was not impersonal to begin with.

The prayers offered corporately were internalized and expressed individually by colonial Anglicans. Today young Christians in America continue to discover in the Prayer Book a powerful resource for their personal devotional lives.  But we might question whether it can teach them to read “in common” as a personal devotional guide. In America the prayer book quickly came to be identified primarily as a tool to help you personally find God. And in this new context, the distinction between Anglicans and non-Anglicans became a matter of choice; whether you believed liturgical prayer, or extemporaneous prayer, was the surest path to individual spiritual formation.

By the middle of the 18th century, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist immigrants were shifting Virginia’s religious landscape. They found that one of the most effective ways to stake out ground for themselves in Anglican Virginia was to discredit liturgical prayer. The dissenting minister Samuel Davies warned against all prayers that came from tongues rather than the bottom of hearts. For Davies, “thoughtless, unmeaning prayer” was akin to blasphemy and would bring punishment, not blessing, on those that uttered it. In response to such accusations, Virginian Anglicans heroically defended the prayer book. They lambasted “Tumults and Distractions … Discords and Confusions” of the unruly ejaculations of the “newfangled Methodist Enthusiasts,” and they inadvertently reinforced the false binary between personal and liturgical prayer (Winner, A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith, 97).

The context for Anglicans in New England was obviously very different from Virginia, but it often proved merely to be a different theater in the same war. In 1722, the proudly Congregationalist institution Yale University was rocked by one of its greatest scandals: the Yale apostasy. Six tutors, all Congregationalist ministers, led by Samuel Johnson (1696-1772), declared their intention to become Anglicans. Johnson had to go all the way back to England to make good on his promise. He returned to America as an SPG missionary and founded King’s College in New York (which became King’s College in Halifax after the Revolution).

Johnson fought heroically to make the case for the Anglican understanding of the gospel in a Congregationalist context. In one public discourse in 1733, he offered an analytic defense of Anglican principles and extended a plea to his non-Anglican neighbors to put aside their insults and come back to the bosom of the Church of England and enter the Ark to enjoy true Christian communion.

In this discourse, Johnson lists elements that he thinks mark Anglican superiority. He complains that the Congregationalists’ churches do not demand the regular and ordered reading of Scripture in worship: “You jostle out the reading of God’s holy word through your conceited promotion of what you call your gifts,” he complains. He also complains that Congregationalists choose whatever they want to preach on whenever they want: they return, in their sermons, to the same texts again and again, and the people are therefore barred from hearing the whole counsel of God.

Johnson’s underlying concern, it seems, is that his denominational opponents have rejected the Book of Common Prayer. He decries their extemporaneous prayers and reminds his readers that the problem is that the prayer book is designed to ensure that prayers are scriptural. Johnson boasts that Anglicans offer their scriptural prayers to God unanimously, a unanimity further embodied in gestures that symbolize the submission of the whole people to a common obedience before God.

As a convinced Anglican, I am deeply sympathetic to many of Johnson’s arguments. It comes as no surprise, though, that even his best arguments were merely fuel for the fire. His Congregationalist, Quaker, and Baptist opponents redoubled the old Puritan polemic against liturgical prayer, arguing that to pray liturgically was to perform hypocritically, by duplicitously separating words from affections. In the second half of the 18th century, these groups condemned liturgical prayer as merely performative, artificial, boring, and repetitious. Only free-form prayer was authentic because only free-form prayer captured the cries of the human heart.

As he states in his preface to the 1549 BCP, Thomas Cranmer wanted his little book to draw all people toward a common center, the Word of God, in order to create a scripturally ordered commonwealth. In the religious free market of colonial America, this is something it could not do.

For the committed Anglican, the goal is always to gather the people of God through Common Prayer. But there is a crucial, if subtle, difference between calling Christians to Common Prayer as an insistence upon Anglican superiority and calling them as an invitation to gather around the Word of God. What would happen if Episcopalians and Anglicans started to see liturgical form not as that which distinguished them from other Christians but as that which could gather the baptized around the Word of God? What if we were known throughout the land as the great gatherers? At the heart of Cranmer’s vision for a scriptural commonwealth is a simple request: “Drop what you are doing, and come with me to listen to the Scriptures.” As conceived it thus has far more in common with the Muslim call to prayer, which bellows throughout the neighborhoods of Islamic states, than it does with the modern devotional manuals that it has often been forced to emulate.

It is not obvious that Americans should have been unresponsive to Cranmer’s request. Perhaps we have found ourselves too busy to invest in those we might invite to common prayer. Perhaps we have so exacerbated our differences that it has become impossible for us even to listen to the Scriptures we supposedly hold in common together.

Probably the fault lies as well with those that have asked others to gather, together, around the Word of God. They have, like Samuel Johnson, stood over and against us. They have inadvertently weighed down their simple request with loads that even they have been unable to bear. They haven’t made it easy on us to comply. But perhaps that is the point. The invitation to common prayer is not disembodied. It is an invitation that comes from a particular person, with a particular history and particular sins. And that is perhaps the real barrier: the person into whose fellowship you are being invited.

If I hear someone calling out, “pick up and read,” as Augustine so famously did, it will perhaps be enough for me to believe that the book is worth my time. But if someone calls out, “pick up and read with me,” I will also have to decide whether they can be trusted. That is the great challenge that common prayer puts before us, one which exposes all the more clearly our failures to embody this vision and obey the summons: the same issued to us by Christ the Lord.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as associate professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

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One Response

  1. C R SEITZ

    Thank you. Well wrought.

    (For what it is worth, the disposition you encourage in Anglican/BCP users toward other bodies of faith, is what I believe our RC brothers and sisters ought to encourage as well, toward others.)


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