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 Issues | Book of Common Prayer | Ryle Thoughts

Thoughts on the Prayer Book : J.C. Ryle
The Usefulness of a Liturgy

John Charles Ryle, the first Bishop of Liverpool, lived from 1816-1900. He was a prolific writer of both Devotional and Doctrinal books and tracts. This present booklet is an edited version of the ninth paper in his book “ Principles for Churchmen” which was published in 1884, four years after his consecration. The book is sub-titled “A Manual of positive statements on some subjects of controversy “.

Church Book Room Press - Ryle Reprint Series 1962

Thoughts on the Prayer Book

It is probably true to say that there is no book in existence, apart from the Bible, which is so well known. and yet so little appreciated, as the Book of Common Prayer. Every Sunday a very large number of people throughout the world, hold it and use it, and yet probably very few have ever really considered what an immense value there is in a liturgical form of worship. Even fewer. no doubt, have realised the excellencies and principles of the Church of England liturgy.

The Usefulness of a Liturgy

Let us first of all, then, examine the general usefulness of forms of prayer in public worship. Now it must be admitted that Christians are not entirely of one mind on this point. Some Churches hold that no prepared form of prayer ought ever to be used. It is left entirely to the minister, and the Spirit is trusted to guide him aright, on the grounds that prayers should always be extempore. This is, of course, the opinion of the Scottish Presbyterians and most Nonconformists.

On the other hand, other churches maintain that it is best to have a fully prepared form of worship, which the minister must use. He is left with no discretion in the matter, but must use the form of prayer provided. The Church of England is among these denominations.

The question which we have to answer then, is, “Which of these two plans is the better form of public worship?” “Which is the more edifying, wiser and profitable for the Christian?” As a minister of the Church of England, I obviously think that a set form is better than extempore prayer. But before giving reasons for this preference, it must first be stated that this is not a matter which is necessary to salvation. It is not claimed that there can be no acceptable public worship without a prayer book. Nor is this, at the moment, a special defence of the Church of England Prayer Book as such. The immediate question concerns what is the most useful manner of worship; and whether it is good to have any liturgy at all. At present the aim is to give some general reasons why forms of public prayer appear to be preferable to extempore prayer.

Let us look for a moment at some of the disadvantages of extempore prayer, without a prayer book. Firstly, it makes the congregation dependent upon the minister's health, circumstances or feelings. If he is sick, or depressed in spirit by some matter, then the devotions of the congregation are bound to suffer. A minister is only a man, and if he prays extempore, his feelings must of necessity colour his prayers.

Secondly, the worship becomes dependent upon the minister's memory. He may forget many things which he ought to pray for, and which he intended to pray for. But again, he is a man, and liable to forget.

Thirdly, the congregation becomes entirely dependent upon the minister's doctrinal beliefs. He may be moving away, gradually, from the true faith ; adding to, or taking away from the Gospel. If this is happening, the people are bound to suffer, for his unsoundness will become apparent in his prayers.

Fourthly, extempore prayer makes it almost impossible for the congregation to join in public worship. They cannot know what the minister is going to pray for. They must concentrate very hard to avoid loosing the thread of the prayer. Indeed, sometimes they may not understand him because of his language.

Lastly, it must be added that, after a time, extempore prayer becomes as much a form to most congregations, as any form of prayer ever written. After a few years the congregation knows well the phrases, expressions and order of the petitions of the minister. Sometimes they can make a shrewd guess how long the prayer will last, and when it is nearing its end. When this is the case, it is just as formal to pray extempore as to pray from a book.

All of these reasons indicate how much more useful is an ordered form of worship. Indeed, these problems do not arise when a book is used. It is very easy to say that an ordered worship is formal and bondage, and to claim that extempore prayer is more spiritual. But it is far more easy to make such claims than to prove them, and so often they are made without any real thought.

Before we go on to think particularly concerning the Prayer Book, there are a few general remarks which must be made.

1. Salvation does not depend on being a member of a Church which uses a prayer book form of worship. Nor does it depend upon belonging to one which uses extempore prayer in worship. The way of salvation is for each person to be born again, repent of sin, believe on Christ, become a new creature and live a holy life. Without this, it will not make the slightest difference what was thought about form of worship.

2. Extempore prayer may sometimes be very solemn, spiritual, soul-exalting and heart-edifying. Sometimes Church of England clergy pray, extempore, so beautifully that nothing better could be desired. If all men prayed always as some men do sometimes, there would be nothing better than extempore prayer. But all ministers are not highly gifted, and the question to be considered is, what mode of worship is most likely to be carried on effectively and profitably to a congregation, by the average run of ministers? Taking the broad view of clergy, it is better for most to pray from a book.

3. Liturgical prayers may be spoilt by the bad reading of the minister. Through speed, bad tone, or irreverence he may do no good to the congregation ; he may even weary and disgust them. But forms of prayer cannot be judged by the reading of careless or unconverted ministers. Before any judgment is made, they should be heard when read reverently, carefully and audibly, with the congregation joining in. It will then be discovered that forms may be read spiritually, quite as easily as extempore prayers may be used formally.

4. Let anyone who is used to the Prayer Book, but who says he is tired of it, attend no other worship for a while than " extempore ". He will hear many good prayers, no doubt, and sometimes be much edified and pleased. It must be remembered that, for example, the Presbyterian church has many clergy who would benefit any church on earth. But at the end of a few months, most sensible churchmen will return, convinced that there is nothing so useful for a congregation as a good liturgical form of worship.

The church that has good, sound Scriptural fervent extempore prayer does well. But the church that has a well-composed, well-arranged Scriptural liturgy does far better. The way of " forms " in public worship, is better than the wav of ''extempore" prayer.


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