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Entries in book of common prayer (5)


The Heart of the Book of Common Prayer According to Cranmer

I recently read this article, a review of Alan Jacobs' The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, from over a year ago. The article is written by a person I would consider to be the world's foremost Thomas Cranmer scholar, Ashley Null. Null has earned the right of being called "foremost" both because he studied under Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose landmark biography of Cranmer set the new gold standard, but also because he is doing something no one else has ever done, painstakingly working through and preparing for publishing Cranmer's extensive collection of notebooks called his "great commonplaces." Null has been living in Cranmer's head and heart for quite a while now.

So despite some quibbles and corrections to the review insisted upon by Jacobs, Null's points are worth reading for anyone serious about understanding the original intent of the Book of Common Prayer. I say "serious" because the over four hundred years of Prayer Book study, revision, and historiography has littered the landscape with a lot of erroneous speculation about the theological center (or perceived lack thereof) of the Prayer Book. Cranmer's supposed intent has been coopted to defend practices and doctrine that Cranmer would not have desired. It's one thing to believe that the Anglican tradition should be wide enough to house all the permutations of doctrinal and doxological expression in today's worldwide communion. It's quite another to summon Cranmer for approval. We need more historical clarity.

I would be so bold as to say that Null is in the midst of proving that Cranmer was a convicted Reformational Protestant, not a confused churchman waffling somewhere between Rome and Wittenberg. Even more, Cranmer intended the Prayer Book to be a Protestant and "evangelical" (in the Reformational, not modern, sense of the term) worship document.

Null's article does a good job getting to the heart of the matter, but I commend a search of and appropriation of his extensive writings, including his dissertation turned publication, Thomas Cranmer's Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.

I leave you with a few of the choice quotes from the article that summarize just what Cranmer was all about with the Book of Common Prayer:

"Cranmer’s prayer books were primarily a missionary means to convert the hearts of English people."

"For Cranmer only divine gracious love—constantly communicated by the Spirit in the regular repetition of Scripture’s promises through Word and Sacrament—could inspire grateful human love, drawing believers toward God, their fellow human beings, and the lifelong pursuit of godliness."

"In short, the heart of Cranmer’s liturgies is moving human affections to serve God and neighbor by the power of the gospel."


Thoughts About the Song "Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)"

If you follow my blog, and if you read my book, you will hear a lot about the Reformational distinction of Law and Gospel. For me, this paradigm is inescapable not only in the Bible but in all of life. It is the distinction that Paul makes in order to exegete the whole Bible in a Christological fashion. From his clear statement in Galatians 2:16, to his developed soteriology in Romans 3, to his exegesis of the Pentateuch in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul testifies that Law and Gospel are the two forms in which the Word of God breaks into creation.

I’m convinced that these two forms of God’s Word speak loud and clear (whether we recognize it or not) in every last one of our worship services, and the more we can discern their voices, the better equipped we will be to plan and lead gospel-shaped, Christ-mediated worship services.

This distinction is heavily at play in the liturgies which emerged during the time of the Reformation. In particular, I observe a strong Law-Gospel filter applied to the way reformer Thomas Cranmer constructed the English Prayer Book. When I first read his 1552 liturgy, I was a little surprised to find a litany with the Ten Commandments at the top of the service. Not only was this not a seeker-sensitive move; it was downright depressing! The 1552 service begins with this dramatic prayer, still a part (in various modifications) of many Anglican/Episcopal services today:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer immediately prefaces a responsorial reading of the Ten Commandments, where, after each commandment is read, the congregation responds, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Think about the impact of opening a service like this. Think about what you would feel as you would enter into God’s presence in this fashion.

Modern worship songs frequently address, either explicitly or implicitly, how in worship we “open our hearts” to God. Our temptation, then, in reading back into Cranmer’s opening prayer is to think that an “open heart” is a positive, feel-good image. But once we realize the context of the Law in which it’s placed, we need to understand this cardiological statement more like “open heart” surgery rather than the lovey-dovey stuff (for Cranmer, and for the Law-Gospel distinction, this comes later). “Our hearts are open” means, “O God, before Your Law, my heart is cut open, and I’m bleeding to death. In Your presence, I am undone.”

Needless to say, I found this move by Cranmer captivating. I began asking: What would it look like in a twenty-first century modern worship service to begin like this? What would it look like to open a worship service with the Law offering a sucker-punch straight to the gut of Old Adam? So we wrote a song. It is neither a full blown recitation of the Ten Commandments nor a verbatim recasting of Cranmer’s glorious “Collect for Purity.” It’s a modern take on capturing the feeling and reaction that Cranmer’s liturgy would have evoked. Perhaps most muted is the fifth commandment, universally applied beyond honoring father and mother as “let loving-kindness flow to all we know.”

The hope with the song is not so much provide a tool for people to recite the Ten Commandments in a worship service as it is to create a context where the Commandments’ weight is palpably felt, where the Law can do it’s appropriate killing and crushing work, and where we can cry out to God, “You’ve cut my heart open! Sew it back together!,” or, in the words of Toplady, “Wash me Savior, or I die.” 

“Almighty God (Our Hearts Are Open)” is intended to be a song for use at the top of the service, or within the first few songs. It really doesn’t fit anywhere else, unless you’re intending to introduce another gospel-structured narrative cycle into the service. I hope it fills a gap in worship songwriting and provides something fresh for those of us with highly sung, song-set-oriented liturgies.

Resources for the Song

chord chart | lead sheet


1. You brought us safe across salvation’s sea
To know no other gods, nor idols seek
Incline our hearts to keep Your Word 

Your holy Name is sacred on our tongues,
Your Sabbath day is rest for restless ones,
Incline our hearts,] to keep Your Word 

Almighty God, our hearts are open
Our secret thoughts are bare before Your eyes
Your presence is the all-consuming fire
Purify our hearts, as we cry:
Lord have mercy 

2. Let lovingkindness flow to all we know
Till anger, lust, and greed we cannot sow
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Your Truth shall silence every lying mouth
And quench the urge to take what is not ours
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word 

Lord have mercy
Perfect glory
Now surrounds me
Overwhelms me

5. My meditation both the day and night
The Law that shows Your perfect will aright
Incline our hearts, to keep Your Word

Words & Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2015
©2015 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP); Julie Anne Vargas
CCLI #7056905

Rewriting Worship Songs Like the Reformers

I've been on a Thomas Cranmer kick as of late, not because I have a secret love affair with the Anglican tradition or because I think liturgy is the be all and end all. In truth, I'm coming to discover that among the Reformers (like Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Bucer), Cranmer probably thought longer and harder than any about the reform of worship. In other words, Cranmer was a Reformation-era worship leader who was stubbornly committed to the idea that the gospel was the key to unlocking worship's power.

More than a theologian, though, Cranmer was also what we might call today a "missional" and "incarnational" thinker. He was a big proponent of enculturating the words and forms of worship so that they were understandable and apprehendable to the average person. Many of us don't realize it, but this contextualizing thinking is why his liturgy is called "The Book of Common Prayer." "Common" meant, "for the average person."

One of the things Cranmer did was to take the Church's inherited worship practices and, in a sense, "hijack" them. I talk more about that in this post. He took people's beloved traditional prayers, for instance, and "edited" them to emphasize God's work and de-emphasize our work. He was intending to overhaul the worship of the church by filtering all its words, prayers, and practices through the gospel of justification by faith alone (sola fide).

Seeing Cranmer in action as a "solifidian" (i.e. sola fide-style) editor got me thinking about why some worship songs feel funny to me and why, over the years, I've been inclined to tweak a word here or there. I think this impulse of Cranmer's is a similar impulse to why I'm always harping on what is called triumphalism in modern worship songs ("Jesus, I'm living for you," "Jesus, I'm giving it all for you," "I surrender," etc.).

To get more to the point, I've written a post over at LIBERATE on why I think Cranmer and the other reformers would have really dug our retooling of the evangelical hymn, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus." I would encourage you to jump over there and read it, because there's something here for worship leaders who care about gospel-centered worship to begin to consider--namely, the infiltration of performance-based thought into our worship songs and practices. Conjuring one of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, it's time to take the power back. For those of you that haven't heard the song, here it is.

Now go read the post!


Infiltrating Bad Worship Practices by Hijacking Forms

Sounds sinister, doesn't it? Sounds like something that Christians...especially worship leaders...shouldn't be a part of. Sounds like the work of terrorists, not pastors. I would tell you, though, that the practice of hijacking and retooling old worship forms has been a part of Christianity for quite some time.

Semper Reformanda

Every era of Christian worship is always in need of reform. Every era has its highs and lows, its blessings and blind spots. Almost five hundred years ago, Christians like Martin Luther and Martin Bucer were assessing those blind spots for Christians in their day, and their influence began to infiltrate the worship practices of England through the thinker and worship architect Thomas Cranmer. I've come to discover that Cranmer was a master at hijacking bad forms and putting them to good use. In fact, one could argue that the entire Book of Common Prayer is nothing short of a distillation of the entire medieval Roman liturgy through the fine-meshed filter of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He kept the shell of worship's practices so that the changes could be manageable and swallowable, but he transplanted its heart. I'd like to give you one specific (and nearly sneaky) example that had me giggling when I read it.

Cranmer Hijacks the Liturgy

Premier Oxford historian and expert on Cranmer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, recounts how Cranmer was "cautiously nibbling away at the edges of the [Roman Catholic] liturgy before a main thrust against the Latin mass." One of the worship practices that irked Cranmer was the superstition-loaded veneration of saints. My good Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters may want to pause here for some qualification, but the best will freely admit that there is a right and wrong way to go about incorporation of saints' days and calendars...and that the medieval Church, on the ground where the people were, had lost their way and gone too far. In any regard, Cranmer knew that the practices associated with the saints' calendar needed a major overhaul, but he recognized that a full-blown elimination of it just wouldn't fly. So he hijacked it.

Cranmer took the saints' calendar and replaced "the staggering array of obscure saints of the early Church [alongside] a more predictable patriotic line-up of English saints" with a roster of Old Testament characters. "This is an example of Cranmer's characteristic strategy of using traditional forms to new and subversive ends; he has tried to provide an unusual scriptural dilution [to the saints' calendar]."* In an effort to conform the worship practices of his day to the Scriptures, Cranmer overhauled a practice to encourage people to engage their Bibles just a bit more. Very, very clever.

Though what Cranmer accomplished ultimately did not have staying power in the future of his tradition, the thought is a brilliant one worth emulating for creative, thoughtful, pastorally-intentioned worship leaders who are serious about the shaping power of worship practices. I'd like to give you one example of what our own application of this might look like.

Hijacking the Song-Set (How this Might Look Today)

If you're a thoughtful, sober-minded evangelical worship leader, you probably itch at some of the things that characterize our Church's "liturgy"--the block of songs, followed by the sermon. The presupposition about that block of songs is that they journey believers from the "outer courts" to the "inner courts," from "praise" to "worship," from "celebration" to "intimacy." This trajectory--the movement from high energy pomp to humble passion--is the general framework that many of us are working in today. 

Let us now ask the same question that Cranmer asked (though maybe not precisely in these words): How does the gospel speak into this worship form? Something immediately becomes apparent. Where is the place in this scheme for the critical moment that prepares the people of God to hear the earth-shattering, soul-igniting news of God's grace? Where is our confession of sin? Where do we, like Isaiah after encountering the presence of God in raw praise, stop and say, "Woe is me! I'm undone! I'm a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips!"

What if we sacrificed NOTHING of the beloved form of the block-of-songs-set but began to always make room for confession by infusing moments, prayers, or songs of confession, woven seamlessly into the neverending tapestry of musical flow? Perhaps, as in many of those "worship leader talks" we're known for, instead of figuring out what inspiring extemporaneous words we're supposed to use in that moment, we lead our people in praying something like this:

We're standing in your presence, God, and we've become painfully aware that we don't deserve to be here. We think back on this week, and we know that we haven't lived up to Your expectations. We're rebellious, stubborn sinners. And it gets worse, Father. Not only have we sinned in the things we've thought, said, and done. We've actually broken Your heart over the things we've left undone. What can we say? We're broken before You.

Or we can choose a song of confession. A few more popular ones that get there are Matt Maher's "Lord, I Need You" or Audrey Assad's "I Shall Not Want." Though they're not full-blown confessions, they get congregations used to the idea of saying, "God, I'm messed up," or "God, I'm in need." This is the confessional posture.

Any way we go about confession, we can then lead out of that by singing and praying about God's grace in Christ through his atoning death and meritorious life. Think of all those great, cathartic anthems we sing that glory in the cross and Jesus' finished work. 

And, notice that we've left the form intact but hijacked it with an impulse to be more faithful to the gospel we profess. This is a beautifully subversive way to move your song sets toward biblical faithfulness and to bless your people with life-giving, Spirit-filled worship (read more about what I mean by "Spirit-filled worship" here).

Emulate the Bearded Bishop & Proto-Hipster

And if all this weren't good enough, if you're a hipster-wannabe like me, as we sit at the end of the "Decem-beard" that no-shave-November produced, you can revel in Cranmer's lengthy lower locks and let your explorations toward emulation start there. Happy New Year, everyone.

*Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 332-333.

Confession Song Based on the Book of Common Prayer

I want to share with you a little bit about what drove us to write and record "Most Merciful God" off our EP, His Be the Victor's Name. (You can listen to the song below.)

When I arrived at Coral Ridge, one of the things that I and the other leadership began to discover is that God was leading us into a season of expanding our worship vocabulary. Particularly, we discerned that our church needed to be able to have a wider range of expression for the way that we confessed our sin and lamented the brokenness of the world. 

In the immediate years prior, Coral Ridge had not had much regular language for confession, and we knew that for some people from some backgrounds the idea of confession in a worship service would feel foreign and maybe even a little too "spooky-turgical." Over the years, I've discovered a consistent bridge that modern worship leaders can employ when they get the bug to introduce content into the worship that may be a bit foreign: make it a song. Sing that element.

Why We Must Confess

Time and again, I've seen people's guard come down when they are able to sing it. Perhaps this is because singing bypasses some of the normal filter-processes and goes straight to the heart. In all honesty, I do think that one of the regular "oughts" of a worship service is Confession of Sin, but I also know that some traditions have fostered the (ultimately soul-killing) idea that worship is supposed to be happy, joyful, and uplifting. I don't disagree with that idea. In fact, worship's uplifting, joyful nature is another "ought" for me. But the big question I have is, "How does the Bible say we get there?"

How do we get to a place of true joy in worship? When will our worship services feel most uplifting? It happens most accutely when worship is Christ-centered in the deepest sense...which means that it is Christ-mediated. We must come to the end of ourselves to recognize that we can't mediate our own worship. We can't usher ourselves into the service. We must be brought in by the covering of Another. Christ must stand in the gap. The end-of-myself moment in worship happens when we confess our sin, when we say, "I have no right to stand before You in worship, God; in fact, the one thing I deserve now is your righteous judgment and wrath." As long as we hang on to a sense of worthiness and fitness, we've come to worship with far too much bravado. (I discussed this idea in a post a few months back, "Do I Qualify for Worship?")

Coral Ridge, being a church that champions the message of the Gospel--God's free grace for train-wrecked sinners--recognized that we needed to more fully embody the Gospel in our worship. We knew we needed to come confessing.

The Beauty of the BCP's Confession

One of the standard confessions of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP, the liturgical guide-book used by Anglicans and Episcopalians for worship) functions for confession in a similar way to how the Lord's Prayer functions for praying. From an early age, I was taught that the Lord's Prayer was a model-prayer, designed to walk us through the various aspects of prayer (e.g. worship, kingdom-oriented entreaty, individual-oriented supplication, etc.). The BCP's confession has functioned very similarly for me. Its headings help me to understand the ways I can sin ("thought, word, and deed") and how I can sin ("by what we have done...and left undone").  It helps me to understand what my sin ultimately boils down to (neither loving God nor my neighbor) and how to feel while confession ("we are truly sorry"). Sometimes, when I feel like I'm stuck in my own personal confession, I will walk through the BCP's confession in my own mind to prime my confession pump. It almost always does the trick of excavating things I hadn't thought about. That's the beauty of the BCP's confession.

Our Song

So it seemed fitting that one of the first confession songs that Coral Ridge would learn to sing in this new dawn for our church would be an adaptation of this prayer. And that's precisely what we did. I tried to keep us as close to the text as possible while allowing it to be singable and memorable. I also added a very Anglican-like litany at the end, moving us out of confession into asking for mercy to be the kinds of people we should be under grace. But even then, those prayers are a kind of confession themselves, because we know we're not those things.  This song is in regular rotation at our church. Take a listen to it, and feel free to grab some of the free resources below. I think the melody is very adaptable to different situations, from choir-led traditional services, to uber-hip ambient-indie services.

Most Merciful God

chord chart | lead sheet


1. Most merciful God
We confess that we have sinned
In our thoughts and words and deeds
We’ve broken Your law
By the things that we have done
And the things we’ve left undone

Have mercy
Have mercy 

2. We have not loved You
With the fullness of our heart
Nor our neighbor as ourselves
We lack the goodness
To feel sorrow as we should
To repent and turn to You

Have mercy
Have mercy

For the sake of Your Son
Have mercy on us
For the sake of Your Son
Have mercy on us 

May we joy in Your will
Have mercy on us
May we walk in Your ways
Have mercy on us

May we love as You love
Have mercy on us
May we weep as You weep
Have mercy on us

May we serve as You serve
Have mercy on us
May we speak as You speak
Have mercy on us

May we go as You go
Have mercy on us
May we care as You care
Have mercy on us

Make us one as You’re one
Have mercy on us
Father, Son, Holy Ghost,
Have mercy on us

Words: Zac Hicks, 2013, based on the Book of Common Prayer
Music: Zac Hicks & Julie Anne Vargas, 2013
©2013 Unbudding Fig Music (ASCAP), Julie Anne Vargas