Reading Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer

“‘Our liturgy,’ observed Crawford, ‘has beauties, which not even a careless, slovenly style of reading can destroy; but it has also redundancies and repetitions which require good reading not to be felt. For myself, at least, I must confess being not always so attentive as I ought to be’ (here was a glance at Fanny); ‘that nineteen times out of twenty I am thinking how such a prayer ought to be read, and longing to have it to read myself.’”—Mansfield Park, Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram discuss how the liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer should be read in church services.

Jane Austen, and her characters, worshiped with the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP).  A clergyman “read prayers” to and with the congregation on Sunday morning and evening. Families like the Austens might also read morning and evening prayers daily at home from this prayer book.

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Henry Crawford of Mansfield Park reading aloud dramatically. He and Edmund agreed that the liturgy in the prayer book should be read distinctly and energetically.

In Mansfield Park, the wealthy Rushworths have a private chapel in which a chaplain used to read morning and evening prayers daily, but the practice had been discontinued.  Worldly Mary Crawford considered that an improvement, but the heroine Fanny Price disagreed. Jane Austen probably thought, like Fanny, that “A whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer is fine!”

What did it mean to “read prayers”?  Prayers were read aloud from the BCP (“the prayer-book”). (Non-Anglican denominations usually encouraged spontaneous prayer instead.) The BCP includes services for Holy Communion, Baptism, Weddings, and other special services, as well as the Catechism giving the basics of the faith. But mainly it gives the liturgy for morning and evening worship.

Morning Prayer
  • Confession and Absolution

The clergyman reads a verse about sin and repentance and a call to the congregation to confess and repent with a “humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart.” The congregation kneels and reads a “general Confession” together. The clergymen reads a prayer pronouncing God’s forgiveness for those “that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel.”

Marianne’s repentance in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility follows the pattern of the general confession; see my article “Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance, Willoughby’s ‘Repentance,’ and The Book of Common Prayer” in Persuasions On-Line, Winter 2018.

  • The Lord’s Prayer and Responses

The clergyman and congregation say the Lord’s Prayer together (“Our Father which art in heaven . . .”) followed by some short responsive prayers. Laura Mooneyham White estimates that Jane Austen said the Lord’s Prayer about 30,000 times during her life. (Jane Austen’s Anglicanism). It is prayed twice in each morning and evening service.

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  • Praise

I love reading Psalm 95, which begins “O come, let us sing unto the Lord; let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving; and shew ourselves glad in him with psalms” . . .

Then the Psalms for the day are read; all the Psalms are read each month. They are from the Coverdale translation of the 1500s (before the King James version). The Gloria Patri follows each Psalm:

“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son; and to the Holy Ghost;” “As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.”

  • Old Testament Reading

Usually one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening. The BCP prescribes daily Bible readings that cover most of the Old Testament in order (including the Apocrypha, extra books accepted by some Christians though not by others).  In the plan Austen would have followed, some sections are skipped including some prophecy, Song of Solomon, some ceremonial laws, detailed lists of people and places, and I and II Chronicles, which include repetition of earlier books.

  • More Praise

A long prayer of praise is read aloud.

  • New Testament Reading

Usually a chapter from the Gospels/Acts in the morning, and a chapter from the Epistles in the evening. The whole New Testament was read three times each year, except for the book of Revelation, which was considered too difficult. Particular passages are prescribed for Sundays through the year and for holy days such as All Saints’ Day (Nov. 1).

  • And More Praise

Either Zechariah’s prayer of thanksgiving for God’s mercy and light (Luke 1:68-79) or Psalm 100 (“O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands”).

  • Statement of Faith

The Apostle’s Creed (“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth …”)

  • Final Prayers

The Lord’s Prayer, various responses, and the Collect prayers.

The first collect changes through the year; with a new one each Sunday, and special ones for holy days.

The second collect is a lovely prayer for peace which reminds us to trust God.

The third collect asks God for the grace for this day.

Prayers follow for the king or queen, the royal family, and the clergy and people.

The Prayer of St. Chrysostom asks God to answer our prayers, and a final blessing closes the service.

The prayers that Jane Austen is believed to have written follow the pattern of the collect prayers and echo many of the themes of the prayer services.  They were probably written to use in shorter family worship services at home.  (See “’A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art” by Bruce Stovel in Persuasions 1994 and Rachel Dodge’s lovely devotional based on the prayers, Praying with Jane which I reviewed in November.)

  • Sermon

The sermon might be preached at the end or at another time in the service.

Hogarth Apprentice Prayer Book - 1
Sharing a Prayer Book in Church (possibly to sing a Psalm)
  • Music

After the third collect, an anthem might be sung “in Quires and Places where they sing.” The Apostle’s Creed and certain prayers might also be sung, particularly in large churches with choirs (“quires”). In Austen’s country churches, a group of Singers might sing one of the Psalms, but there was rarely congregational singing. Hymns were only gradually making their way into the church at this time.

Evening Prayer

Evening Prayer is very similar to Morning Prayer, though some of the prayers and readings are different. I love the third collect:

“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”

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Reading Prayers Myself

In the past year I attempted to read morning and evening prayer daily from the BCP, and follow the daily Bible readings. I ended up reading just once a day, and shortened the service considerably. It seems families reading prayers at home commonly did the same.

The Psalms are bound into most copies of The Book of Common Prayer (I bought a small BCP from a used bookstore in Britain).  I enjoyed reading them in less-familiar archaic language, with beautiful imagery. I also appreciated becoming more familiar with the Psalms by reading them daily; but it was a lot to read.

In reading daily from the BCP, I came to appreciate the emphasis on praise and joy. The prayer of confession also helped me to focus both on sins of omission and commission—what I had done and what I had left undone. The collect prayers were often expressions of deep truths.

I was not always comfortable, though, with everything in the services. Sometimes there was a strong emphasis on works. I agree that good works are an important expression of our faith, but to me, alongside that, there always needs to be an emphasis that faith in Christ is what saves us. It is helpful, though, to also be reminded of the importance of doing good for others; Evangelicals of Austen’s day were known for their good works.

Also I found that it was easy to stop thinking about what I was saying, as I read the same prayers every day. A combination of my own personal prayers and prayers read aloud seemed a good compromise for me.

The Lectionary has you reading a lot of Scripture each day: about five Psalms, two chapters from the Old Testament, and two chapters from the New Testament.  Sometimes it was good to read so much and see the big picture, but sometimes I found myself just trying to finish rather than really interacting with what I read. I think this coming year I will focus more on reading short passages and delving into them more deeply, as a balance to this past year.

What do you like about the pattern of worship above? It includes confession of sins, praise, Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, a statement of faith, Old and New Testament readings, and set prayers for ourselves, for peace, for Christian leaders, and for those in authority. Are there any of these that you would like to add to your own daily worship?  

Online sources for The Book of Common Prayer

1762 edition (To get a pdf copy, under Ebook-Free go to Download pdf, then hover over the lower part of the pdf to get a download icon.) You’ll find a schedule of daily Bible readings in the “Calendar with the Table of Lessons” near the beginning. The Psalter later in the book gives Psalms to read on each day of the month.

(Other editions of the BCP are also available from archive.org and from google books.)

Today’s Anglicans may worship from the Book of Common Prayer or use the modernized Book of Common Worship. The Daily Prayer app will give you daily prayers and Scipture readings from either the BCP or the Book of Common Worship.

3 thoughts on “Reading Prayers: The Book of Common Prayer

  1. I appreciated this post, thank you. I am sorry about arriving late to comment, I’m terribly behind due to holiday prep, family get-togethers and company over the holidays. So all for good reasons. Not being from England, but raised in a different Protestant denomination than Anglican I appreciated your guidance to TCBOP. I purchased one some years ago, and wanted to find in it different prayers but could not understand how to find what I was looking for. My book is still packed away in boxes from our last move and why they aren’t unpacked is too long a story here. But now I’m eager to find it and look at it again. What I wanted were biblical prayers for certain situations, as opposed to modern takes on prayer, which have their place but don’t speak to me in the same way.

    I have a question, (and I understand I’m taking the easy way out here since I have not done a search) have you discussed Austen’s writings of the clergy in her works? In the many blogs I read that is something I have yet to see discussed, whether it because it is not of interest among readers here in the states (and I realize that Austen fandom spans a huge age range) or that the subject, like politics, is a risky topic to broach.

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  2. Hi, Michelle! No problem, feel free to comment on any post at any time!
    Basically at the beginning of the BCP you will find Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, to be read any day. There are also schedules for the Scriptures to read along with those daily services. They have parts for the clergyman to read and parts for the congregation to read; I mostly read the congregational parts, when I am reading by myself. There’s also an app called “Daily Prayer” that will give it all to you already together, either in traditional language or more modern language.
    There are also some prayer services for other occasions; you can look through the table of contents and see what they are.
    I have done some blog posts on the church and clergy in Austen’s work, and there will be more in the book that I’m working on. Go to the top of the site, just under the title and my name, and you’ll see a row of topics in grey print. Click on Faith, and go down to Church and Clergy in Austen’s England, and click on that. It will give you posts that I think you will find interesting! Irene Collins’ book, Jane Austen and the Clergy, will give you much more information specifically related to the clergy; you can find it on amazon.
    Thanks for your feedback and questions!

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