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  • Writer's pictureSt Giles Online

A Prayer Book Lent

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

For this month's newsletter, parish intern Edward has written a reflection on the distinctive approach that the Book of Common Prayer takes towards the season of Lent.

This month, I began the formal process of discernment to ordained ministry within the Church of England. For those considering their sense of calling, the Diocese of London lays on a series of lectures. Monday evenings on Vauxhall Bridge Road, not exactly, I imagine, how most people would be keen to start their week.

But I have been pleasantly surprised. After only three weeks, there has been a serious attempt to engage with the formularies of our Church: the Thirty-nine Articles, the Ordinal and the Books of Homilies. In our discussions there has been a genuine interest and curiosity in the Prayer Book. Our historic liturgy is appealing not only for its style and linguistic register, but also for its serious understanding of a daily pattern of prayer grounded in Holy Scripture.

In preparation for this series of lectures, I read All Things Anglican by the Rev’d Dr Marcus Throup, Principal of St Mellitus College, a theological college here in London. The book attempts to provide a short but comprehensive introduction to Anglicanism in the widest possible sense, charting churchmanship and liturgy, global history, architecture, governance, prayer and sacraments, &c. On the one hand, it was refreshing that Throup had clearly sought to avoid adopting any one line on the divisions within our Church today. On the other hand, I was disappointed that he devoted so little space and attention to our Book of Common Prayer.

I suspect I am not alone in being irritated by the idea that the various modern liturgies of our Church were devised merely as an attempt to revise language, to bring clarity, to modernise. It is quite clear that there is something distinctive about the Prayer Book that goes beyond matters of style and register, something that has been lost in, or rather deliberately revised out of, newer texts.

In this article, then, I want to set out a few of my thoughts on the distinctiveness of the Prayer Book. With Ash Wednesday now only three weeks away, I will consider the BCP and its approach to Lent.


The Gesimas – Septua, Sexa, Quinc

Mean Lent is near, which makes you think.[1]

John Betjeman, Septuagesima

The Prayer Book takes as a given that Lent will be a season of fasting, prayer and self-denial. Lent is not “a gentle stroll”, but rather “a hard race”.[2] As with any race, we need time to prepare. Lent is as much a physical as a mental exercise. The Gospel for Ash Wednesday opens with the declaration, “When ye fast…” In other words, Lent is not merely a state of mind. The disciplines and practices of Lent to which we are called by the Prayer Book place a heavy burden on us.

This, then, is the great wisdom in the gentle movement of the Gesima Sundays. This Sunday is called Septuagesima. It is the first of three Sundays following Epiphany-tide and preceding Lent.[3] In his re-ordering the English liturgy, Cranmer preserved this ancient, liminal season. In the late-20th century, however, following the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Church abandoned their ancient calendar. Along with the Sunday next before Advent, out went Gesima-tide. For their part, the very clever liturgists within our Communion were only too keen to follow.

This has given rise to a curious situation. We who use the Prayer Book and follow its calendar of collects, epistles and gospels can count ourselves among those few Christians who still follow the ancient calendar of the Western Church. This is a reminder that the English Reformation was not a wholescale rejection of the traditions of the western Church. When we gather on Sundays, we follow in the footsteps of Christians of all generations. The church fathers, the renaissance humanists, John Wycliffe, Calvin and Luther, the Wesley brothers, Newman and Keeble: they knew the Gesimas.

Our sister churches in North America, the Protestant Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada, have jettisoned the Gesimas altogether. In their place, the Sundays after Epiphany stretch all the way to Ash Wednesday, a heavy, and quite-frankly listless, slog through the darkest months of the new year. The Church of England’s Common Worship introduced Sundays before Lent. Surely this was some recognition of the purpose of the Gesima Sundays? Indeed, the new provision is not without some merit. The Common Worship collect for the “Sunday next before Lent” is a good example…

Almighty Father, whose Son was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross: give us grace to perceive his glory, that we may be strengthened to suffer with him and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The modern collect clearly has Lent in its sights. Bearing in mind his redeeming sacrifice on the cross, we are called to suffer with Christ, the living Son of God. Crucially, it is in the cross that we are to be strengthened. There is no mention of prayer or fasting. In other words, the modern liturgy anticipates a service of ashing on the first day in Lent, something alien to the Prayer Book tradition.

This is a very different sequence to the Prayer Book Lent. Compare this collect below…

Almighty and everlasting God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hopefully, it sounds familiar. It is the Prayer Book Collect for the Sunday next before Easter, the sixth Sunday in Lent. There are clear similarities with the modern collect. It is their timing, however, that is important. The emphasis in the BCP collect on patience is telling. After five weeks of fasting and prayer, the Prayer Book collect sustains us as we draw to the natural culmination of Lent on Good Friday.

In addition to the usual midweek services of Mattins and Holy Communion, this Ash Wednesday we will hold a service in the evening. The Litany will be sung and then we will pray together the “Commination”.[4] It is a service which has enjoyed something of a revival in the past few years. Last year, I was heartened to see its use at Lambeth Palace. In the words of His Grace the Archbishop, “It's not for the faint-hearted, but it speaks profoundly of our need for God’s mercy”.[5]

We could here dwell longer on the numerous theological and ceremonial reasons for the shift I had begun to draw out in Anglican liturgical practice. But surely this is the heart of it: there is no reference to ashing in the Prayer Book collects because the ritual simply does not belong. As Samuel Bray puts it, “Ashes symbolise mortality and death, but that is not a theme of the Commination service. [The Prayer Book] presents sin, not death, as the central issue”.[6]

I am planning to write a further piece on this service. I feel it deserves our special attention. In the meantime, may I commend to you “the General Supplication”. It is appointed to be said at the end of the Commination service with the people and their priest, kneeling together.

TURN thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned. Be favourable, O Lord, Be favourable to thy people, Who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying. For thou art a merciful God, Full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity. Thou sparest when we deserve punishment, And in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy. Spare thy people, good Lord, Spare them, and let not thine heritage be brought to confusion. Hear us, O Lord, for thy mercy is great, And after the multitude of thy mercies look upon us; Through the merits and mediation of thy blessed Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I find it a very useful discipline in preparing for Communion. Charles Wheatley puts it thus, “And the people being now prepared and revived by these importunate addresses, are allowed to open their lips for themselves, and to plead for their own pardon in so moving a form, that if it be presented with a suitable devotion, it cannot miss of prevailing.”[7]

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