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Vol I No. 1
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Richard Hooker on The Book of Common Prayer:

by sinetortus

An extract from the “judicious” Mr Hooker’s

Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V,

There is here a notably heavy emphasis upon the priority of corporate over individual prayer, of the importance of the holy place where worship occurs and of the vocation and holiness of the minister/priest who conducts the worship. Extempore prayer in comparison with the written Common Prayer is very much deprecated

Private and public prayer

This holy and religious duty of service towards God concerns us one way in that we are men and another way in that we are joined as parts to that visible mystical body which is his Church. As men, we have choice as to time and place and form, according to the needs of our own private circumstances; but the serv- ice which we do as members of a public body is public, and for that cause must necessarily be accounted so much worthier than the other, as a whole society of such condition exceeds the worth of any one member.

In which consideration unto Christian assemblies there are most special promises made. St. Paul, though likely to prevail with God as much as any one, nevertheless thought it much more both for God’s glory and his own good, if prayers might be made and thanks yielded on his behalf by a number of men [2 Cor. i. 11]. When the prince and people of Nineveh assembled themselves as a major army of supplicants, it was not in the power of God to withstand them [Jonah iv.ll]. I do not differ from the judgment of Tertullian concerning the force of public prayer in the Church of God. He said: “We come by troops to the place of assembly, that being banded as it were together, we may be supplicants enough to besiege God with our prayers. These forces are accept- able unto him.”

The advantages of corporate prayer

When we make our prayers publicly, we do it with much more support than in private, for the things we ask for publicly are approved as needful and good in the judgment of all; we hear them sought for and desired with common consent. Further, if our zeal and devotion towards God lacks energy and diligence, the alacrity and fervor of others serve as a present spur. “For even prayer itself,” says St. Basil, “when it has not the consort of many voices to strengthen it, is not itself.” Finally, the good which we do by public prayer is more than can be done in private, for besides the good that is here procured to ourselves, the whole Church is much bettered by our good example; and consequently, whereas secret neglect of our duty in private prayer is but only our own hurt, one man’s contempt of the com- mon prayer of the Church of God may be and oftentimes is most hurtful unto many.

The Prophet David so often vows unto God the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the congregation [Psalm xxvi. 12; xxxiv.l]. He so earnestly exhorts others to sing praises unto the Lord in his courts, in his sanctuary, before the memorial of his holiness [Psalm xxx.4; xcvi.9]. And he so much complains of his own uncomfortable exile, wherein, although he sustained many most grievous indignities, and endured the want of both pleasures and honors previously enjoyed, yet (as if this were his only grief and the rest were not felt), his speeches are all of the heavenly benefit of public assemblies, and the happiness of such as had free access thereunto [Psalm xxvii.4; xlii.4; lxxxiv.1].

The solemn assembly of men for common prayer

A great part of the cause why religious minds are so inflamed with the love of public devotion is that, from the experience of the reverend solemnity of common prayer, they know that it has virtue, power and efficacy. These help to overcome that feeble- ness and weakness in us, because of which by ourselves we are the less apt to perform unto God so heavenly a service, with such affection of heart and disposition of the powers of our souls as he requires. To this end, therefore, all things appertaining to public worship have been thought convenient to be done with the most solemnity and majesty that the wisest could devise.

However, it is not with public as with private prayer. In the latter, secrecy rather than outward show is commended [Matt, vi, 5,6], whereas common prayer, being the public act of a whole society, requires accordingly more care to be taken of external appearance. The very assembling of men, therefore, unto this service has always been solemn.

The beauty of the house of God

Although it serves for other uses as well, the place of assembly [parish church] has been given pre-eminence in dignity either by the ordinance or through the special favor and providence of God for the purpose of Common Prayer. Our Lord himself pointed to this use when he sanctified his own [Jewish] temple by calling it “the House of Prayer” (Matt, xxi.13).

Further, as the ancient Fathers were persuaded and taught, the house of prayer is a Court beautified with the presence of celestial powers; that there we stand, we pray, we sound forth hymns unto God, having his Angels intermingled as our associates; so much so that the Apostle requires so great care to be taken of decency for the Angels’ sake [1 Cor. xi.10]; how can we come to the house of prayer and not be moved by the very glory of the place itself, so as to frame our affections as we pray, as best suits them, whose petitions the Almighty sits there to hear and his Angels attend to assist?

When these principles were engrafted in the minds of men there was no need of penal statutes to draw them unto public prayer. The warning sound was no sooner heard but the churches were presently filled, the pavements covered with prostrate bodies, and washed with their tears of devout joy.

The vocation of the minister

And as the place of public prayer is a circumstance of the out- ward form of worship which has power to help devotion, so much more has the person with whom the people join them- selves in this action, that is with him that stands and speaks in the presence of God for them. The authority of his place, the fervor of his zeal, and the piety and gravity of his whole behaviour necessarily must both grace and set forward exceedingly the service he does.

The authority of his office promotes public prayer. Because if God has so far received him into favor, as to impart to him by the hands of men that office of blessing the people in his name, and of making intercession to him in theirs, is not his very ordination a seal as it were to us, that the self-same divine love, which has chosen the instrument to work with, will by that same instrument effect that for which he ordained it, in blessing his people and accepting the prayers which his servant offers up unto God for them? It was in this respect an appropriate title which the ancients used to give to God’s ministers, usually calling them “God’s most beloved,” who were ordained to procure by their prayers God’s love and favor towards all.

Again, if there is no zeal and fervency in the minister who offers for the rest those petitions and supplications which they, by their joyful acclamations, must ratify; if he does not praise God with all his might; if he does not pour out his soul in prayer; if he does to take their causes to heart, or fails to speak as Moses, Daniel and Ezra did for their people: how should there be any- thing in them but frozen coldness, when his affections seemed numbed and their souls take fire from him?

Virtue and godliness of life are required at the hand of the min- ister of God not only in that he is to teach and instruct the people (who for the most part are rather led away by ill example, than directed aright by the wholesome instruction of those whose life swerves from the rule of their own doctrine), but also much more in regard of this other part of his function — intercessory, supplicatory prayer. And this is so whether we respect the weakness of the people, who are apt to loathe and abhor the sanctuary when they which perform the service there- of are such as the sons of Eli were; or else consider the inclination of God himself, who requires the lifting up of pure hands in prayer [1 Tim. ii.8] and has given the world plainly to under- stand that the wicked although they cry shall not be heard [John xi. 31; Jer. xi. 11]. Those whose unrepented sins provoke God’s just indignation are not fit supplicants to seek his mercy on behalf of others. Let thy priests therefore, O Lord, be evermore clothed with righteousness, that thy saints may thereby with more devotion rejoice and sing.

The Book of Common Prayer

But of all helps for due performance of this service [of public prayer] the greatest is that very set and standing order itself [the Book of Common Prayer], which framed with common advice, has both for matter and form prescribed whatsoever is herein publicly done. No doubt the order of Common Prayer has proceeded from God. That the Church has always held a required form of common prayer, although not in all things the same everywhere, yet for the most part retaining the same shape and content must be acknowledged by us to be a work of his singular care and providence. So that if the liturgies of all the ancient churches throughout the world would be compared amongst themselves, it may be easily perceived that they all had one original pattern, and that the public prayers of the people of God in well established churches never used any man’s voluntary, extempore prayers.

The excesses of Puritans and Separatists

To him who considers the grievous and scandalous inconveniences whereunto they make themselves daily subject, with whom any blind and secret comer is judged a fit house of com- mon prayer; the many confusions which they fall into where every man’s private spirit and gift (as they term it) is the only bishop that ordains him to this ministry; the irksome deformities whereby through endless and senseless effusions of undigested prayers they often disgrace in a most insufferable manner the worthiest part of Christian duty towards God, who here- in are subject to no certain order, but pray both what and how they feel; to him, I say, who duly weighs all these things, the reasons cannot be obscure, why God in public prayer so much respects the solemnity of places where, the authority and calling of persons by whom, and the precise appointment even with what words or sentences, his name should be called on amongst his people.