The RUBRICS of the Book of Common Prayer (abbreviated BCP) are those directions and instructions, usually italicized and in small print, provided for the proper ordering, conduct, and celebration of the various services contained in that venerable book. The rubrics are found interspersed throughout all the liturgies as a guide to the minister as he plans and leads the service, whether it be the Daily Offices, Holy Communion, Holy Baptism, or any of the other Rites and Ceremonies. In many older editions of the prayer book, the rubrics are actually printed in RED, which reminds us of why they are termed RUBRICS, this being a word derived, either directly or via the French, from the Latin word for the colour red.
Throughout my some 30 years of using the Book of Common Prayer in both public and private worship, I have come to appreciate the rubrics for what they are, namely, rules for the proper, decent, ordered, and dignified conduct of the service. But I have also come to value them as sources of real insight into the minds and purposes, and even into the vision, of our brave English Reformers, who compiled, translated, ordered, arranged, edited and, in part, composed our Book of Common Prayer, one of the greatest treasures of the Christian Church. The rubrics are really a treasure-house of information and wisdom, in spite of their seemingly humble purpose.
As an example, I need only point to the rubrics supplied for the office of Morning Prayer found in the 1552 version of the BCP. The reader will most likely know that the first complete English edition of the Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549 during the reign of young Edward VI, when Thomas Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury. This first book was superseded in 1552 by the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI, the book which became, with minor variations, the BCP of 1662, the version which has the right to be called the basic pattern of all later variations and editions of the book. Although it is necessary to note here that some modern "variations", which are still called the BCP, no longer bear any real, faithful, theological, or linguistic resemblance to 1662, the 1979 "BCP" of the Episcopal Church of the USA being an example. There are also bishops of the liberal, apostate Anglican Communion, personally known to me, who feel free to create their own liturgies, rites which bear far more doctrinal and linguistic resemblance to the modern Roman Mass than to the BCP, which resemblance is entirely deliberate. These are usually the same bishops who have severe allergic reactions to the 39 Articles of Religion.
First of all, we should notice in the 1552 book that the service is entitled "An Order for Morning Prayer Daily Throughout the Year". This often comes as a surprise to folks who are accustomed to experiencing Morning Prayer only as the main Sunday service in their local parish, complete with hymns, sermon, and offertory. But it is clear that Cranmer and the other Reformers intended that it be a daily service, that it was to be said or sung in the local church, with the minister of the parish ringing the bell each day at the time of service. The same is, of course, true of Evening Prayer. It was to be a daily service in each local parish, with the minister ringing the bell to call the people to prayer and to hear the Word of God. In our 1928 American BCP, in use in the Anglican Orthodox Church, the service is still entitled "The Order for Daily Morning Prayer".
Perhaps most striking in the rubrics for Morning Prayer in the 1552 book, however, is the clear emphasis on making sure that the people can actually HEAR the Word of God. For example, we read ...
The morning and evening prayer, shall be used in such place of the Church, Chapel, or Chancel, and the minister shall so turn him, as the people may best HEAR.
That is, the service is to be said in that part of the church where the people may best hear what is being said, and the minister is to place himself for the accomplishment that same purpose. Likewise we read, referring to the penitential Scripture sentences that open the service, that
at the beginning both of Morning Prayer and likewise of Evening Prayer, the minister shall
read with a LOUD VOICE some one of these sentences of the scriptures that follow.
Also, when we come to the first Our Father, we read that
then shall the Minister begin the Lord's Prayer with a LOUD voice.
When we come to reading of the two appointed lessons after the Psalms of the day, the rubric reads,
Then shall be read two lessons distinctly with a LOUD voice, that the people may hear ...
the minister standing and turning him so as he may best be heard of all such as be present.
And another rubric then adds,
And to the end the people may the better hear, in such places where they do sing, there shall the lessons be sung in a plain tune after the manner of distinct reading, and likewise the Epistle and Gospel.
After the Creed, when the minister calls the people to prayer with the Mutual Salutation (The Lord be with you, etc.), he is again instructed to pronounce this "with a LOUD voice". At the second Our Father we read
Then the Minister, Clerks, and people, shall say the Lord's Prayer in English, with a LOUD
It appears that there are at least two things going on here. One, we see evidenced a deep concern that the service be intelligible to the ordinary man. Archbishop Cranmer and his colleagues wanted the people of England to be able to hear the Word of God, the Holy Bible, the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Gospel, and to hear it read to them in a language they could understand, namely, English. But he also wanted to ensure that it would be read to them in such a FASHION that they would be able to understand that English clearly. There was to be no mumbling of the lessons, no reading of the lessons from some obscure corner of the church where nothing could be heard. The minister was so to position himself and so to use his voice that the people would hear and understand the Word of God. The Reformers were very aware, therefore, that "faith cometh by hearing" (Romans 10 17). No doubt, we have all been frustrated by hearing lessons read very poorly on a Sunday, whether by a minister or by a lay person, who seems to assume that faith cometh by "making unintelligible". It is always possible to tell whether or not the reader has taken the time to prepare himself for the reading, by the starts and stops, the stumbling and bumbling that goes on, or not. But we all know that a good, clear, faith-filled reading of God's Word can be a great and powerful blessing to those present. Cranmer was supremely aware of this and the rubrics of Morning Prayer reflect his awareness.
These same rubrics also implicitly impress upon the minister the weight of the responsibility of his most important function, and that is actually to be a minister of the Gospel. He is to be no longer a mummer, an actor, a false, sacrificing priest. He is to proclaim to the people under his care the pure Word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That this remains our task I trust no one reading this will doubt, while we note again that it is the simple but wise rubrics of the prayer book which remind us of this great duty and privilege.
Secondly, it is of real significance that the people themselves are being encouraged, by the rubrics of the BCP, to participate fully and heartily in the service. They are to say the prayers with the minister with a LOUD voice. This, too, is a privilege and a great responsibility. It is to be their service as well as the minister's. Gone now the habit of each individual worshipper whispering his private devotions while the liturgy goes on around him. Now all voices join together in the ancient and beautiful words of the Our Father and the Creed, or in the saying or singing of the Psalms and the great scriptural canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer. And it is to be done with a LOUD voice, that is, unashamedly, openly. "O Lord, open thou our lips". For if we are ashamed to confess our faith in God loudly and clearly when we are in midst of the congregation, it is not likely that we shall confess Him very readily in the public square.
Sadly, I have often noticed that many worshippers are accustomed deliberately NOT to say the common prayers on a Sunday. They are there and they are worshipping but they DELIBERATELY do not participate in the prayers. On various occasions I have simply asked the reason for this and am often told that they find it helpful to their worship to say the prayers to themselves or in just a very quiet voice. Sometimes, their silence may be due to the presence of liturgical bullies, either lay popes or clerical ones, who push the prayers at such a rate that no one can possibly keep up with them. And personally, I would rather not say the Lord's Prayer at all than run through it at such a rate that I cannot even catch my breath. One of the most beautiful customs of the aboriginal Cree people of Canada is their habit of saying the Lord's Prayer very calmly, very slowly, and very thoughtfully. How I love to recall the sound of their voices ... Notawenan kitchekesikok ayayan ... Our Father which art in heaven ....
Generally, when prayers are being said in unison, such as the Lord's Prayer or the Creed or the General Confession, the minister ought to allow the people themselves to set the pace of the prayer. He can take control again if there is no unity, due to the presence of bullies, or simply to a lack of leadership and confusion among the voices. But that everyone should participate in the common prayers seems only too obvious. We are not there primarily to conduct our own private little conversations with the Almighty, although we come to be personally in His presence, to sense His presence, to hear His voice, and to lift our voices to him. There may and should be times in the service where we can, in silence, utter our own private prayers to Him, but the common prayers are meant to be just that. We are not there alone. We are there as members together of the same Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people and, as I have often reminded my listeners, when you lift up your voice and I hear it, when I hear you say "I believe in God", that encourages me in my faith, perhaps on a day when it greatly needs encouragement. In worship, we should all work hard at making the common prayers truly common, being prayerfully aware and deeply sensitive to the presence of those around us, striving to speak to God in one voice.
Thus, dear friends, there is great wisdom to be found in the humble rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer. Take the time some Sunday to read them over before the service begins. There is much there to feed our sense of devotion and worship and much to help us better to understand this great, deep, rolling river of Christianity into which, solely by the grace of God, we have stepped, for even as we wade in the shallows of that river, we may often hear echoes of the deepest depths.