INTRODUCTION TO THE PRAYER BOOK CATECHISM
By Jordan Lavender
The Prayer Book Catechism has served as a foundation for millions of Anglicans around the globe for over four centuries, since its original manifestation in the 1549 Prayer Book, later modified to its present form through the subsequent revisions of the Prayer Book. It is one of the least edited texts in the Prayer Book, having only been edited significantly once, in 1604, when the last section on the Sacraments was added to the text. The original text remains, in its entirety, in the present edition of the Book of Common Prayer, and also in various local adaptations of the same.
Catechisms have a long history in the life of the Church, beginning with the catechumenate of the early Church, whereby new believers spent up to three years in preparation for their baptism at the Easter Vigil. However, Martin Luther devised the system of catechism that we are most familiar with, that being, the format of questions and answers, with the publication of his Large and Small Catechisms (Hefling and Shattuck, 500ff). All Catechisms, and the Prayer Book catechism especially, are meant to be popular guides, that meaning they are intended for everyday folks and not specialized theologians, which contain therein a basic guide to Christian doctrine and practice.
The rubrics accompanying the Catechism imply that it was to be “learned” or memorized by persons before being confirmed by the bishop also evident in its placement within the rite of Confirmation until the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book. The problem being that religious instruction was minimal in the medieval Church except the ability to say the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, and the Ten Commandments. The expanded material included in the questions and answers was intended to give some exposition to these key texts. The original text of the Catechism is usually attributed to Dean Alexander Nowell, although there is some contention over this, and Dr. John Overall, later bishop of Norwich likely composed the section on the Sacraments, in consultation with the section on the same subject contained in Nowell’s Middle Catechism of 1560 and Shorter Catechism 1572.
The Minister of the parish had the duty of catechizing his parishioners. The rubrics order that catechizing take place on Sunday evenings at Evening Prayer, likewise on Holy Days or other occasions, which seem more fitting, an order which is echoed in Canon 59 of the 1604 edition of the Canons of the Church of England. First, we note the rubric contained within the Catechism itself and subsequently the canon enforcing its usage:
The Curate of every Parish shall diligently, upon Sundays and Holy Days, or on some other convenient occasions, openly in the Church, instruct or examine so many Children of his Parish, sent unto him, as he shall think convenient, in some part of this Catechism.
Every Parson, Vicar or Curate, upon every Sunday and Holy-day before Evening Prayer, shall for half an hour or more, examine and instruct the Youth, and ignorant Persons of his Parish, in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief, and in the Lord’s Prayer: and shall diligently hear, instruct, and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. And all Fathers, Mothers, Masters and Mistresses, shall cause their Children, Servants and Apprentices, which have not learned the Catechism, to come to the Church at the time appointed, obediently to hear, and to be ordered by the Minister, until they have learned the same. And if any Minister neglect his Duty herein, let him be sharply reproved upon the first Complaint, and true Notice thereof given to the Bishop or Ordinary of the Place. If after submitting himself, he shall wifully offend therein again, let him be suspended. If so the third time, there being little hope that he will be therein reformed, then Excommunicated, and so remain until he will be reformed. And likewise, if any of the said Fathers, Mothers, Masters or Mistresses, Children, Servants, or Apprentices shall neglect their Duties, as the one sort in not causing them to come, and the other in refusing to learn as aforesaid; let them be suspended by their Ordinaries, (if they be not Children) and if they so persist by the space of a Month, then let them be Excommunicated.
It is the duty of parents to send their children to church to be catechized and to reinforce their learning in the home. An important point to note is that originally the Catechism was indeed intended mainly for children, as it indicated in the title to the text. However, at the 1662 revision, the word “child” was changed to “person”, giving the Catechism a more universal function to all persons desiring confirmation, perhaps reflecting the neglect of confirmation during the Interregnum of the English Civil Wars and the necessity of confirming older persons at that time. It is also important to note the severity of punishment for failing to catechize in the parish – excommunication.
It seems that ours is not the first generation to struggle in following this rubric. F.C. Mathers notes the laxity in keeping the canon in the 18th century Church of England. He notes the presence of various issues that hindered the faithful catechizing of the children in the parishes. Many clergy complained that the rubric was not realistic because it presumes there will always be persons in need of catechizing, which is a valid issue to raise. Moreover, other problems seemed to inhibit the practice beyond the presence of persons in need of catechizing. A rather serious problem was the issue of illiteracy, clergy wondered how they were to catechize if their parishioners could not read. Many developed repetitive techniques to aid in catechizing illiterate parishioners. Sadly, over the course of the 18th century, the practice of catechizing declined substantially in the Church of England, despite efforts to keep it alive. Mather notes that the most probable cause of its decline was the changing social atmosphere and the presence of industrialization. Many parents desired for their children to have a “day of rest” on Sundays as they were working in the factories during the week (279ff).
The Prayer Book Catechism in North America
Briefly, something must be said of the history of the Catechism in the Anglican Churches of North America.
Considering the United States of America, at the adoption of the Prayer Book of 1789, the Prayer Book Catechism was adopted with a few changes. The line, “To honour and obey the King [or Queen], and all that are put in authority under him [or her]” was deleted. In the question about the inward grace of the Lord’s Supper, the phrase “verily and indeed taken and received” was changed to “spiritually taken and received”, probably a manner of clarifying the teaching on the sacrament. The Catechism was unaltered in the 1892 revision, however, in the 1928 revision of the book, the Catechism was nearly struck out, in favor of the so-called “Offices of Instruction” which contain the teaching of the Prayer Book Catechism, plus additional materials concerning the nature of the Church, confirmation, and the episcopal ministry, re-worked into a prayer service for corporate instruction. However, the Prayer Book Catechism was kept at the end of the book in its altered format (that being the alteration previously mentioned). The most recent service book, approved for use in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, deletes the Catechism altogether, instead replacing it with “An Outline of the Faith, Commonly Called the Catechism”, which is meant to replace the traditional Catechism. This “Outline of the Faith” is not meant to be memorized like the older Catechisms and the teacher is given some flexibility in the rubrics to depart from the printed words, in order to teach the material.
The Canadian Church, in its 1918 revision of the Prayer Book, maintains the Catechism in its original form, without alteration. However, in the 1962 revision of the same, the Catechism is “expanded” with additional questions. Additionally, there is a section entitled “Supplementary Teaching” which contains the same questions included in the American “Offices of Instruction” and some additional questions about the nature of the Bible as the Word of God and additionally an exhortation for Christians to keep a rule of life.
In North America, as in England, catechizing from the Prayer Book within the parish church is no longer a common practice. Though the Prayer Book of the Church of England still appears in the Canadian Prayer Book, and is still required by rubric to be used on Sundays, Holy Days, or at some other convenient time, its use is not being practiced as envisioned. As the Prayer Book Catechism is missing entirely from the 1979 book, used in many parishes in the United States, parish priests will need to introduce copies of the historical catechism independent from the liturgy if the traditional catechizing is to take place in those parishes.
The General Teaching of the Catechism
The Catechism lays out succinctly the basics of the Christian faith, as confessed by the Church of England. It is an introduction to the faith and contains all the things that one should know, in order to be confirmed, and express the beginnings of an adult faith. As with other Anglican formularies, its virtues are its brevity and attention to focus on primary issues and to leave secondary issues to the side.
The basic outline of its contents is based around the three key texts that every Christian should know: 1) the Creed; 2) the Decalogue; 3) the Lord’s Prayer. However, before engaging with these texts, the Catechism outlines what is called the “baptismal covenant” or “baptismal vow” (by various authors in the 17th and 18th centuries). This is the promise that was made on behalf of the Christian by his sponsors at baptism. The intent of catechism and subsequent confirmation is that the believer will make these promises on his own at this point. This promise entails the rejection of sin and the devil and a striving to do that which is righteous in the sight of God, of course by his grace.
The first section deals with the Creed, the basic articles of the Christian faith, essentially telling the story of who God is and how he has chosen to relate to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. The articles of this Creed speak of the three Persons of the Trinity respectively and the Church. The questions that follow the Creed briefly summarize the teaching of the Creed. The Creed is equally an important text for the Christian to have memorized due to its frequency in the Liturgy of the Church.
The next section in the Catechism is the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. The Creed can be thought of as expounding orthodoxy, or right belief. The Decalogue, then, presents what is called orthopraxy, or right practice, those actions that we should strive to do if we accept the truth contained in the Creed.
The next section in the Catechism deals with the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that was given to us by our Lord Christ. This prayer is not only a form – which it is and one that is employed frequently in the Prayer Book, at least once in each service – but it is also a model for our own private prayers. The prayer is divided into an address, several petitions, and a doxology. The address is to God as our Father, the basis of our requests to him and the manner in which we can approach his throne of heavenly grace. The requests are first that God be glorified, the true nature of our relationship to Him. Then, we ask for our bodily and spiritual needs in the next two petitions. Finally, the prayer closes with a doxology that acknowledges the glory of God.
Finally, the section on the Sacraments deals with a basic understanding of the Gospel sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This section was added in 1604, as previously mentioned, at the request of the Hampton Conference. The Sacraments are both symbols and instruments of our beginning the Christian life and our maintenance in the same by God’s good grace. The Catechism notes that these are signs, given by God, consisting of two parts, an outward visible sign and an inward invisible grace (“thing signified”). Obviously the signs associated with Baptism and Holy Communion are water and the bread and wine. The “thing signified” by these Sacraments is “a death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace” and “the Body and Blood of Christ, which are verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful in the Lord's Supper.” The only requirement to receive these benefits is to approach the Sacrament in humility and repentance. As the Catechism says of Baptism, to receive the grace, all that is required “Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and Faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament” and likewise of the Lord’s Supper, all that is required is “To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of his death; and be in charity with all men.”
Proposals for Using the Catechism in the Parish Church
The purpose of this writing is to campaign for the actual use of the Catechism in the Church, both in the faithful home and in the parish church. Religion must begin and end in the home, where its continued existence is sustained, to be nurtured and strengthened by the corporate gathering of believers to hear the Word preached and the Sacraments duly administered. In this sense, the work of catechizing, and the primary catechist in the life of a Christian, is the father, in his role as a sort of “priest” for the home. This is not to discredit the role of the parish priest in catechizing his parishioners but noting simply the reality that the work of catechizing must extend beyond Sunday. However, it should take place in the parish church, wherein the Christian man can hear the truth of the Gospel from the Church’s ministry, this is firstly for the encouragement of the faithful and their proper instruction in the Christian religion, yet, equally it is binding on clergymen to catechize by the historical tradition of the Church as set forth in rubric and canon.
Ideally, the use of the Catechism should follow the system envisioned by the Prayer Book and enforced traditionally by the Canons, that being that catechizing should take place on Sunday evenings in Evening Prayer and on Holy Days. The rubric explains where, in the service, this should occur, that being that it should take place after the Second Lesson at Evening Prayer, often times a place dedicated to the sermon in some places.
It should be explained at this point that there are two traditional methods of “catechizing”, and when one uses the word, he should have in mind that either of these approaches can be used, obviously each with its own benefits. These two methods can be called “examining” and “lecturing”, when referring to catechizing. “Lecturing” refers to a discourse, much similar to a sermon, given by the minister after the Second Lesson at Evening Prayer. In this approach, the congregants remain seated in their respective places as what would typically occur during the Sunday sermon. This would involve an expanding upon the text in the Prayer Book Catechism by consulting Holy Scripture and perhaps other secondary sources to provide a full explanation of the text. In this sense, the lecture on the Catechism replaces the evening sermon, if there is one typically. “Examining” refers to the other general method of catechizing, which is a more active approach for the laity. In this examination, it was once the practice of congregants to leave their seats so that the minister can “examine” them and their knowledge of the Catechism, utilizing the question and answer format provided for in the Catechism itself.
It would be greatly beneficial to include both a session of catechizing and a sermon in one of these evening services; the latter need not be exceedingly long. Likewise, this should be able to be done without needlessly extending the length of the service. Perhaps this could be used as an opportunity to read one of the authorized homilies of the Church or a homily from one of the Anglican divines. King James I ordered that there be a sermon at Evening Prayer on Sunday and that that sermon be preached on one of the headings of Catechism (Hefling and Shattuck, 504). However, the focus should be on properly catechizing the congregation and especially its children, and if something should be sacrificed it would be the evening sermon, provided that there is adequate instruction in the form of a lecture on the text of the Catechism.
The Canons and rubrics set some instruction as to how the catechizing of the parish should take place, a half hour should be dedicated to catechizing in the evening service. It seems appropriate in a catechizing session that the priest dedicates some of the time to the actual rehearsal of the questions and answers with the children and parishioners, as the answers were to be memorized by the confirmands. The priest should explain the meaning of the text as he examines the candidates. This rehearsal could lead to a more “informal” style of service, by which I mean that the children (and others learning the Catechism) could practice rehearsing the questions and answers with each other in the service. The memorization of the text instills in the believer a succinct answer to the basic questions of the faith. The minister should determine if their knowledge of the Catechism is sufficient so that they can be presented to the bishop for confirmation. This presents an excellent opportunity for Christian parents to incorporate the Catechism at home throughout the week, where they can practice the question and answers with their children, perhaps around the dinner table or in their own service of Evening Prayer.
The catechizing of the parish can take place at many times according to the rubrics and Canons, however, it seems that a Sunday observance is in mind here with the importance given to a regular occurrence. For the sake of convenience, if Sunday evening cannot be utilized for catechizing, it is better to seek another time to hold these sessions than to forego them altogether. The context for catechizing in the parish church should be during the daily prayer services. If the parish does not hold daily prayer services, perhaps catechism could be the catalyst for starting an evening prayer service. Of course, all of these suggestions can equally apply to the home, if services in the parish church cannot be held. A Christian family can gather for Evening Prayer on Sunday, or some other convenient time, and the father can examine his own children accordingly. Even if catechism is held in the parish church on Sundays, it would still be profitable for the Christian family to rehearse the Catechism at some convenient time in the home.
The Prayer Book Catechism is a succinct explanation of the basics of the Christian faith. It should be the beginning of our learning of the Scriptures, not the end, but in that regards it is an excellent beginning into the knowledge and love of God. Moreover, the Prayer Book Catechism is meant to be a communal activity, as well, in the parish church, whereby the people of God learn the Scriptures together through this guide. The Prayer Book Catechism will provide Anglicans in North America with a basic expression of the Christian faith, which can serve as the foundation for further exploration of the Anglican tradition and in our continual pursuit in knowledge and love of God.
Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1662).
Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1928).
Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada (1962).
Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1979).
Canons Ecclesiastical (1604). Church of England.
Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. Harper: San Francisco, 1995.
Hefling, Charles and Cynthia Shattuck. The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey. Oxford University Press, 2006.
Mather, F.C. “Georgian Churchmanship Reconsidered: Some Variations in Anglican Public Worship 1714-1830.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1983.
Neil, Charles and J.M. Willoughby. The Tutorial Prayer Book, 1913.
Nowell, Alexander. A Catechism written in Latin, together with the same Catechism translated into English by Thomas Norton.