Stirred by a Noble Theme: The Book of Common Prayer

My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer. (Psalm 45:1 NIV)

In January 2002, standing alone in the small chapel of a large church, the worshiper carefully placed his burgundy leather Bible on the communion table. He opened a matching leather book and began to pray out loud.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:2)

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord." (Psalm 122:1)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling. (Psalm 43:3)

The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

He paused, letting the silence search His soul, and then continued.

The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. (John 4:23)

Thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy, "I dwell in the high and holy place and also with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15)

As the worshiper continued to pray from the little leather book, he repented of his sins and received God's forgiveness. Picking up his Bible, he prayerfully read from the Psalms and from the Old and New Testaments. Then, with ancient words from the other little book, he poured out his praise and his adoration to the Lord. Next he rehearsed the revelation of who God is with the Apostles' Creed. After praying the Lord's prayer, he put the little leather book down. With his prayer list before him, he interceded for his family , friends, church, and country with extemporaneous prayers as the Spirit led. His prayers began to sound strange to the human ear, but clear to the hosts of heaven as a heavenly prayer language began to well up from his heart. The Lord's presence filled the little chapel. After a season, He picked up the little book again and concluded his prayer time with carefully crafted prayers for his country, for the church, and for a lost world. Finally, he concluded with this benediction.

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20, 21)

The little chapel was at Suncoast Cathedral in St. Petersburg, FL. The worshiper was I, and the little leather book was The Book of Common Prayer[1]. After three decades of public ministry, I was skilled at public worship, but I struggled secretly and shamefully with private worship. I never figured out how to minister to the Lord in the "secret place." I lacked the very thing I supplied those I led in public worship--a service! Doctoral work in worship studies connected me to the historic church, and through the leading of the Holy Spirit, I discovered The Book of Common Prayer.

But what business does a Pentecostal preacher have using a prayer book?

Isn't this second-class spirituality? Didn't "we" come out of "them"--those whose prayers were rehearsed, dry, dull and boring? Aren't these the oldest of old wineskins? Can the move of the Spirit today be found in such ancient methods? Good questions, all. And they were my questions as I sought to understand where the Spirit was taking me. Before we deal with The Book of Common Prayer, let's reason out the whole idea of written or "fixed" prayers.

Fixed prayers are biblical. The Bible is replete with fixed prayers, including the book of Psalms. The epistles contain several examples of confessions and hymns[2] thought to be well known to the readers, much as our songs are today. It is likely that in addition to prayers made up on the spot and prayers in the heavenly prayer language, the disciples prayed fixed prayers. In Acts 3 Peter and John were going to the temple at the fixed time for evening prayer. In Acts, chapter 13, the Bibles says they "ministered to the Lord and fasted." The word used here is leitourgeo (li-toorg-eh'-o) meaning to "worship, obey, relieve."[3] The same word is used again in Hebrews 10:11 in reference to the functions of the priests in the Temple[4]. In other words, these New Testament, Spirit-filled, holy-royal priests were ministering to the Lord just as the Old Testament priests had. It is likely they used fixed prayers as well as spontaneous prayer and prayer in tongues. Perhaps this is Paul's idea when he told the Ephesians to pray with "all kinds of prayer." It is interesting to note that Jesus gave them a prayer when asked by the disciples for a lesson in how to pray.

Fixed prayers are historical. By the middle of the second century the Didache, among the earliest of second century documents, recommended that the Lord's Prayer be prayed three times each day[5]. While historical documents do not carry the authority of Scripture, it is clear that the prayer the Lord gave was used as a fixed prayer. But, can it be "Pentecostal" to recite a prayer? If what we mean by "Pentecostal" is to be led and empowered by the Holy Spirit--yes! We must remember that the church of the first few centuries was a Pentecostal church. Current scholarship is revealing the hidden history of signs and wonders, gifts of the Spirit, miracles and healings in the early church. Leaders in these centuries, called the Patristic period--the time of the Church fathers--have much to say to us today. The Holy Spirit used them to raise up believers in a hostile, pagan, relativistic world. Sounds like our world, doesn't it? To them we owe the canon of Scripture and the doctrines of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. How did these pastors raise up disciples of Jesus in such a hostile climate? One of their methods was fully apostolic daily prayer: fixed prayers, extemporaneous prayer, and prayer in the spirit.

Fixed prayers are contemporary. Our services are full of fixed prayers. We even argue about them with some of us preferring the old ones and others wanting the new ones. But no one says they are second class spirituality or that they are too "catholic" or whether they should be in our "liturgy."[6] Why? Because these fixed prayers are called songs. The only real difference between reciting "Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever..."[7] and singing "How Great Thou Art" is the music. Should music make that much difference?

The Book of Common Prayer. We also owe much to the Reformation fathers. They were empowered by the Holy Spirit to throw off the corrupt hierarchy of Rome, to pursue the purity of scripture, and to re-establish Apostolic worship. They took many different paths toward these goals. The one that has most affected the Pentecostal movement is that of the English Reformation. We can thank it, its offshoots, and rebels for the King James Bible, the Sunday school movement, modern missions, the revivalist movement, the holiness movement, mass evangelism, and even modern Pentecost. Prior to these developments, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (1489-1556), supervised the translation of the first English Bible and compiled The Book of Common Prayer[8]. These two books became the foundation of the English Reformation: the English Bible as the source of faith and The Book of Common Prayer as the public and private expression of that faith.

But isn't that too "Catholic" for Pentecostals? Cranmer's purpose in compiling The Book of Common Prayer was to help English Christians pray without being Roman Catholic. There is no worship of Mary, no prayers to the saints, no papal authority and no transubstantiation at the Lord's Table. There is nothing Roman Catholic about The Book of Common Prayer. Cranmer was burned at the stake by Queen Mary, a Catholic.

Pentecostals in the Flow of History

We Pentecostals owe much to those who have gone before us. Contemporary leaders look back to the New Testament Church for answers to today's challenges. And well we should. In the first centuries of Christianity, Spirit-filled leaders grappled with the same problems we deal with today: doctrinal error, false preachers, hostile, relativistic, pagan cultures outside the church, and pride, power, and perversity within the church. A thousand years later, leaders of the Protestant Reformation also sought to re-establish the classical Christianity by seeking out the wisdom and methods of the original Pentecostals. One of their principles was semper refermanda, meaning "always reforming." In other words, to keep doctrines and worship pure, the church must live and work in constant state of reformation, rooting out the influence of man and reaffirming the leadership of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Semper refermanda is at the very heart of twentieth and twenty-first century Pentecost.

Today we have the fullness of Apostolic prayer: written, spontaneous and in tongues. Like the psalmists, the Old Testament priests, the apostles, the church fathers, and the heroes of the Reformation, "My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the King."

[8] Read about Cranmer at http://www.stpeter.org/cranmer.html

Stephen R. Phifer, D.W.S.
Music Pastor, Word of Life Assembly of God
Springfield, VA D. Wendel Cover, Pastor