The Book Of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer is the name given to a number of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion and by other Christian churches historically related to Anglicanism. The first prayer book, which was published in 1549 in the reign of King Edward VI of England, was a product of the English Reformation following the break with Rome. The work of 1549 was the first prayer book to include the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in English. The 1549 book was soon succeeded by a 1552 revision which was more ‘Reformed’ but from the same editorial hand, that of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was used only for a few months, as after Edward VI’s death in 1553 his half-sister Queen Mary I restored Roman Catholic worship. Mary died in 1558 and, in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I reintroduced the 1552 book with modifications to make it acceptable to more traditionally minded worshippers and clergy. In 1604, King James I ordered some further changes, the most significant being the addition to the Catechism of a section on the Sacraments and this resulted in the 1604 Book of Common Prayer. Following the English Civil War, when the Prayer Book was again abolished, another revision was published as the 1662 prayer book. That edition remains the official prayer book of the Church of England, although throughout the later twentieth century alternative forms (which were technically supplements) have largely displaced the Book of Common Prayer for the main Sunday worship of most English parish churches. Various permutations of the Book of Common Prayer with local variations are used in churches within and outside the Anglican Communion in over 50 countries and over 150 different languages. In many of these churches, the 1662 prayer book remains authoritative even if other books or patterns have replaced it in regular worship. Traditional English-language Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian prayer books have borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer and the marriage and burial rites have found their way into those of other denominations as well as into the English language. Like the King James Version of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, many words and phrases from the Book of Common Prayer have entered common parlance.

Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), editor and co-author of the first and second Books of Common Prayer.

Only after the death of King Henry VIII and the accession of King Edward VI in 1547 could revision of prayer books proceed faster. Despite conservative opposition, Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity on 21 January 1549, and the newly authorised Book of Common Prayer was required to be in use by Whitsunday (Pentecost), 9 June. Cranmer is credited with the overall job of editorship and the overarching structure of the book, though he borrowed and adapted material from other sources. The prayer book had provisions for the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, scripture readings for Sundays and holy days, and services for Communion, public baptism, confirmation, matrimony, visitation of the sick, burial, purification of women upon the birth of a child, and Ash Wednesday. An ordinal for ordination services of bishops, priests and deacons was added in 1550. There was also a calendar and lectionary, which meant a Bible and a Psalter were the only other books required by a priest. This represented a major theological shift in England towards Protestantism. Cranmer’s doctrinal concerns can be seen in the systematic amendment of source material to remove any idea that human merit contributed to an individual’s salvation.

Thomas Cranmer’s prayer book of 1552.

The services for baptism, confirmation, communion and burial were rewritten, and ceremonies hated by Protestants were removed. The 1552 prayer book removed many traditional sacramentals and observances that reflected belief in the blessing and exorcism of people and objects. In the baptism service, infants no longer received minor exorcism. Anointing was no longer included in the services for baptism, ordination and visitation of the sick. These ceremonies were altered to emphasise the importance of faith, rather than trusting in rituals or objects and many of the traditional elements of the communion service were removed in the 1552 version. The name of the service was changed to “The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion”, thus removing the word ‘Mass’. Stone altars were replaced with communion tables positioned in the chancel or nave, with the priest standing on the north side. The priest was also to wear the surplice instead of traditional Mass vestments. The service therefore promoted a spiritually presented view of the Eucharist, meaning that Christ is spiritually but not corporally present. The burial service was removed from the church. It was to now take place at the graveside. In 1549, there had been provision for a Requiem, prayers of commendation and committal, the first addressed to the deceased. All that remained was a single reference to the deceased, giving thanks for their delivery from ‘the myseryes of this sinneful world.’ This new Order for the Burial of the Dead was a drastically stripped-down memorial service designed to undermine definitively the whole complex of traditional Catholic beliefs about purgatory and intercessory prayers for the dead. The 1552 book, however, was used only for a short period, as King Edward VI had died in the summer of 1553 and, as soon as she could do so, Queen Mary I restored union with Rome. The Latin Mass was re-established, altars, roods and statues of saints were reinstated in an attempt to restore the English Church to its Roman affiliation. Thomas Cranmer was punished for his work in the English Reformation by being burned at the stake on 21 March 1556.

Nevertheless, the 1552 book was to survive, as after Mary’s death in 1558, it became the primary source for the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, with subtle, if significant, changes only. When the accession of Queen Elizabeth I re-asserted the dominance of the Reformed Church of England, there remained a significant body of more Protestant believers who were nevertheless hostile to the Book of Common Prayer. Under Queen Elizabeth I, a more permanent enforcement of the reformed Church of England was then undertaken and the 1552 book was republished, scarcely altered, in 1559. The doctrines in the Prayer Book and the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as set forth in 1559 would set the tone of Anglicanism. The conservative nature of these changes underlined the fact that Reformed principles were by no means universally popular, a fact that the Queen recognised. Her revived Act of Supremacy, giving her the ambiguous title of supreme governor, passed without difficulty but the 1559 Act of Uniformity, giving statutory force to the Prayer Book, passed through the House of Lords by only three votes. It made constitutional history in being imposed by the laity alone, as all the bishops, except those imprisoned by the Queen and unable to attend, voted against it. After these innovations and reversals, the new forms of Anglican worship took several decades to gain acceptance, but by the end of her reign in 1603, 70–75% of the English population were on board. However, beginning in the seventeenth century, some prominent Anglican theologians tried to cast a more traditional Catholic interpretation onto the text as a Commemorative Sacrifice and Heavenly Offering, even though the words of the Rite did not support such interpretations. Thomas Cranmer, a good liturgist, was aware that the Eucharist from the mid-second century on had been regarded as the Church’s offering to God, but he removed the sacrificial language anyway, whether under pressure or conviction. It was not until the Anglican Oxford Movement of the mid-nineteenth century and later twentieth-century revisions that the Church of England would attempt to deal with the eucharistic doctrines of Cranmer by bringing the Church back to “pre-Reformation doctrine.” Another move, the “Ornaments Rubric“, related to what clergy were to wear whilst conducting services. Instead of the banning of all vestments except the rochet for bishops and the surplice for parish clergy, it permitted “such ornaments as were in use in the second year of King Edward VI.” This allowed substantial leeway for more traditionalist clergy to retain the vestments which they felt were appropriate to liturgical celebration. The rubric also stated that the Communion service should be conducted in the ‘accustomed place,’ namely facing a Table against the wall with the priest facing it. The instruction to the congregation to kneel when receiving communion was retained. Amongst Cranmer’s innovations, retained in the new Prayer Book, was the requirement of weekly Holy Communion services. In practice, as before the English Reformation, many received communion rarely, as little as once a year in some cases. Very high attendance at festivals was the order of the day in many parishes and in some, regular communion was very popular; in other places families stayed away or sent “a servant to be the liturgical representative of their household.” Few parish clergy were initially licensed by the bishops to preach and in the absence of a licensed preacher, Sunday services were required to be accompanied by reading one of the homilies written by Cranmer. Many were not alone in their enthusiasm for preaching, which was regarded as one of the prime functions of a parish priest. Music was much simplified, and a radical distinction developed between, on the one hand, parish worship, where only metrical psalms might be sung, and, on the other hand, worship in churches with organs and surviving choral foundations, where music was developed into a rich choral tradition. The whole act of parish worship might take well over two hours, and accordingly, churches were equipped with pews in which households could sit together (whereas in the medieval church, men and women had worshipped separately). Many ordinary churchgoers would own a copy of the Prayer Book, at least, those who could afford one, as it was expensive. There is a story of parishioners at Flixton in Suffolk who brought their own Prayer Books to church in order to shame their vicar into conforming with it! They eventually ousted him. Between 1549 and 1642, roughly 290 editions of the Prayer Book were produced but before the end of the English Civil War (1642–1651) and the introduction of the 1662 prayer book, something like a half a million prayer books are estimated to have been in circulation. The 1559 Book of Common Prayer was also translated into other languages within the English sphere of influence. A retranslation into Latin was made in the form of ‘Liber Precum Publicarum’ of 1560 and was destined for use in the English universities. The Welsh edition of the Book of Common Prayer for use in the Church in Wales was published in 1567. Then, after his accession, King James I called the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. It was the same meeting of bishops and Puritan divines that had initiated the King James Bible. This was in effect a series of two conferences, the first between James and the bishops and the second between James and the Puritans on the following day. The Puritans raised four areas of concern, these being purity of doctrine, the means of maintaining it, church government and the Book of Common Prayer. Confirmation, the cross in baptism, private baptism, the use of the surplice, kneeling for communion, reading the Apocrypha and subscription to both the Book of Common Prayer and Articles were all touched on. On the third day, after the king had received a report back from the bishops and made final modifications, he announced his decisions to the Puritans and bishops. The business of making the changes was then entrusted to a small committee of bishops and the Privy Council and, apart from tidying up details, this committee introduced into Morning and Evening Prayer a prayer for the Royal Family, they added several thanksgivings to the Occasional Prayers at the end of the Litany, altered the rubrics of Private Baptism limiting it to the minister of the parish, or some other lawful minister whilst still allowing it in private houses (the Puritans had wanted it only in the church) and added to the Catechism the section on the sacraments. The changes were put into effect by means of an explanation issued by the king in the exercise of his prerogative under the terms of the 1559 Act of Uniformity and Act of Supremacy. But the accession of King Charles I (1625–1649) brought about a complete change in the religious scene, in that the new king used his supremacy over the established church “to promote his own idiosyncratic style of sacramental Kingship” which was seen as a very weird aberration from the first hundred years of the early reformed Church of England. He questioned the populist and parliamentary basis of the Reformation Church and unsettled to a great extent the perceived consent of Anglicanism. These changes, along with a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, led to the Bishops’ Wars and later to the English Civil War. With the defeat of King Charles I in the Civil War, the Puritan pressure, exercised through a much-changed Parliament, had increased. Puritan-inspired petitions for the removal of the prayer book and episcopacy, the latter being the role or office of bishop. This resulted in local disquiet in many places and, eventually, the production of locally organised counter petitions. The parliamentary government had its way, but it became clear that the division was not between Catholics and Protestants, but between Puritans and those who valued the Elizabethan settlement. The 1604 book was finally outlawed by Parliament in 1645, to be replaced by the Directory of Public Worship, which was more a set of instructions than a prayer book. How widely the Directory was used is not certain and there is some evidence in churchwardens’ accounts of its having been purchased, but not widely. The Prayer Book was certainly used clandestinely in some places, not least because the Directory made no provision at all for burial services. Following the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, the Prayer Book was not reinstated until shortly after the restoration of the monarchy to England.

Title page of the 1662 Prayer Book.

The 1662 Prayer Book was printed two years after the restoration of the monarchy. Attempts by the Presbyterians to gain approval for an alternative service book failed. Their major objections were firstly that it was improper for lay people to take any vocal part in prayer (as in the Litany or Lord’s Prayer), other than to say “amen” and secondly that no set prayer should exclude the option of an extempore alternative from the minister. Thirdly, that the minister should have the option to omit part of the set liturgy at his discretion and fourthly that short collects should be replaced by longer prayers and exhortations. Finally, that all surviving ‘Catholic’ ceremonial should be removed. The intent behind these suggested changes was to achieve a greater correspondence between liturgy and scripture. The bishops gave a frosty reply. They declared that liturgy could not be circumscribed by scripture, but rightfully included those matters which were generally received in the Catholic church. They rejected extempore prayer as apt to be filled with ‘idle, impertinent, ridiculous, sometimes seditious, impious and blasphemous expressions.’ The notion that the Prayer Book was defective because it dealt in generalisations brought the crisp response that such expressions were “the perfection of the liturgy”.

A Collect for 5 November in the Book of Common Prayer published in London in 1689, referring to the Gunpowder Plot and the arrival of King William III.

All the way between 1662 and the nineteenth century, further attempts to revise the Book in England stalled. On the death of Charles II, his brother James, a Roman Catholic, became King James II. The latter wished to achieve toleration for those of his own Roman Catholic faith, whose practices were still banned. This, however, drew the Presbyterians closer to the Church of England in their common desire to resist ‘popery’, so the talk of reconciliation and liturgical compromise was thus in the air. But with the flight of James in 1688 and the arrival of the Calvinist William of Orange, the position of the parties changed. The Presbyterians could achieve toleration of their practices without such a right being given to Roman Catholics and without, therefore, their having to submit to the Church of England, even with a liturgy more acceptable to them. They were now in a much stronger position to demand changes that were ever more radical. By the nineteenth century, pressures to revise the 1662 book were increasing and following a Royal Commission report in 1906, work began on a new prayer book. It took twenty years to complete, prolonged partly due to the demands of the First World War and partly in the light of the 1920 constitution of the Church Assembly, which it seems some wished to do the work all over again for itself. In 1927, the work on a new version of the prayer book reached its final form. In order to reduce conflict with traditionalists, it was decided that the form of service to be used would be determined by each congregation. With these open guidelines, the book was granted approval by the Church of England Convocations and Church Assembly in July 1927. But it was defeated by the House of Commons in 1928 and the effect of this failure resulted in no further attempts being made to revise the Book of Common Prayer. Instead, a different process, that of producing an alternative book, led to the publication of Series 1, 2 and 3 in the 1960s, the 1980 Alternative Service Book and subsequently to the 2000 Common Worship series of books. Both differ substantially from the Book of Common Prayer, though the latter includes in the Order Two form of the Holy Communion a very slight revision of the prayer book service, largely along the lines proposed for the 1928 Prayer Book. Order One follows the pattern of the modern Liturgical Movement. As for me, having not attended regular church services for a few years I was unaware of these Common Worship changes. But we still pray to the same God.

This week…turn a blind eye.
This is often used to refer to a wilful refusal to acknowledge a particular reality and dates back to a legendary chapter in the career of the British naval hero Horatio Nelson. During 1801’s Battle of Copenhagen, Nelson’s ships were pitted against a large Danish-Norwegian fleet. When his more conservative superior officer flagged for him to withdraw, the one-eyed Nelson supposedly brought his telescope to his bad eye and blithely proclaimed, “I really do not see the signal.” He went on to score a decisive victory. Some historians have since dismissed Nelson’s famous quip as merely a battlefield myth, but the phrase “turn a blind eye” persists to this day.

Click: Return to top of page or Index page

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: