Vol II No. 5
Theology & Liturgy

Prayer Book or Instruction Book? 

by D. N. Keane

In contrast to medieval liturgy, the Prayer Book contains many exhortations in which the presider instructs the assembly. This feature has sometimes been criticized for shifting focus from prayer to instruction, from liturgical action to doctrinal knowledge. This critique aligns with an account of Protestantism as an interiorizing movement, trading symbolically laden ceremonies and reassuring actions for abstract knowledge. Even the Comfortable Words in the Communion liturgy, poignant as they are, have sometimes been read in this way. Are they not simply words about forgiveness, rather than a pronouncement of forgiveness? 

This account does not do justice to the Prayer Book. Its exhortations (didactic though they are) do not emphasize merely conceptual knowledge or interior reflection; nearly all of them bid the assembly to do something. In the Sunday morning sequence from Morning Prayer to Holy Communion, two exhortations are read. The first bids the assembly to confess their sins (in Morning Prayer); the second (the Communion Exhortation) bids them to either come up from the nave into the chancel to receive Communion or else to depart from the church to engage in the requisite preparation for receiving Communion. Both prompted a public liturgical action that did not have a close parallel in the liturgy the Prayer Book replaced.

The absolution in the Communion service (addressed only to communicants) differs from the earlier one in Morning Prayer. The earlier confession describes the terms of forgiveness and leads – ‘wherefore let us…’ – into saying the Lord’s Prayer. By the time of the later confession in the Communion service, communicants have relocated to gather near the Holy Table in response to the bidding ‘draw near with faith.’ It uses more subjective, affective language – ‘the burden of them is intolerable’ – than the objectively-toned daily confession of sin – ‘there is no health in us’. The absolution in Holy Communion both describes the terms of forgiveness – ‘hearty repentance and true faith’ – and uses second person plural pronouns to pronounce God’s forgiveness ‘Almighty God… Have mercy upon you; pardon and deliver you… confirm and strengthen you… and bring you to everlasting life’. That provides more than instruction about forgiveness.

The Comfortable Words that follow this pronouncement are action focused. At this point the worshiper, still conscious of her failings, may worry, ‘Have I repented heartily enough? Is my faith true faith?’ The Comfortable words drive one out of such inner anxiety with the imperatives ‘Hear…’ ‘Come unto me…’ ‘Hear…’ ‘Hear…’ and then – without any break in the liturgy – ‘Lift up your hearts’. The exhortations, lessons, prayers, and sermon have been working at softening those hearts from the Venite – ‘Today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts’ – until this moment in the ‘upper room.’ ‘Hear…’ ‘Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden…’ ‘Lift up your hearts’!

 The Comfortable Words, with their emphatic imperative verbs, sum up the transition from what is sometimes called the Liturgy of the Word, which ‘putteth Christ into our ears’ (as Cranmer said in his Defense) to the Liturgy of the Table, in which (quoting Cranmer again) ‘bread and wine, joined to God’s word, do, after a sacramental manner, put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.’ The triple ‘hear’ of the Comfortable Words not only gestures back towards the lessons but points forward to the dominical words of institution about to be heard – ‘Take, eat… Do this…’ ‘Drink ye all of this… Do this…’ Upon hearing the Lord’s words the assembly immediately do just that. The action prescribed here, using Christ’s own words, demands more active, bodily participation from the lay assembly than the medieval liturgy had. All of them take, with their own hands, both the bread and the cup. 

While it is true that the Prayer Book contains more verbal instruction than the liturgy it replaced, the overall effect of this design does not sell the birthright of praying for the pottage of listening to instruction about prayer. It facilitated quite the opposite. The verbal participation of the laity in a confession of sin, in saying the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, giving alms and offerings as an act of worship, entering the chancel, holding the bread and the cup in their own hands, communing in both kinds – none of this had a parallel in the liturgy the Prayer Book replaced. The Prayer Book transformed the laity from viewers of liturgical action into active participants in the liturgy.