The Book of Common Prayer and other uncommonly beautiful words

The Book of Common Prayer and other uncommonly beautiful words

In   1549, the Church of England adopted the Book of Common Prayer. From thence to the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and other Reformed (i.e., Protestant) churches, the influence of the Book of Common Prayer extended through the church and into English literature and the language.

It’s as close as the title of one of P.D. James’s great detective stories, “Devices and Desires.”

“Almighty and merciful God,

we have erred and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep.

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

That’s from the General Confession. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations actually doesn’t include that part, but I’ve prayed it enough to know it. What Bartlett’s does include is  a another passage from the same confession, which sums up just about everyone’s week, every week:

“We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;

and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

Another quotation, this from the Collect (or prayer) for the Second Sunday in Advent, might even be a motto for Bartlett’s itself:

“Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.”

I got thinking of this section of Bartlett’s (most of two pages in my copy) and the longer section of biblical quotes along with it after I got jarred at church by a modern translation: “the least of these my brethren” had become “the least of these who are members of my family.”

Oh, come now. I know what brothers are. Beside that, I can remember learning a lot about words on Sunday afternoons. Where else is anyone going to hear a beautiful old word like “brethren,” anyway? (I wonder if even the Supreme Court still uses it, now that three female justices might feel excluded.)

When phrases like “the least of these my brethren” slip into general use in literature and the rest of the language, do they need translating? Explaining, perhaps, but not editing!

When we are tempted to debase the language instead of explaining it, an Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer says it best:

“Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord!”

Come on, when’s the last time you even thought of doing any beseeching?


For more fun with words, stop by the Margaret Serious page on Facebook.

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  • "Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest." I had my students add this to their quote notebooks. I love its conciseness.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you. I love the idea of quote notebooks. This category of the blog is becoming my digital version of one.

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    Did you read the two articles James Fallows wrote about the BCP? ( and

  • In reply to Catherine Salmon:

    No, I haven't read them -- yet. Thank you for suggesting them, and of course thanks for stopping by!

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