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The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) or to give it its full title when published (in modern spelling) “The Book of the Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites of the Church: after the Use of the Church of England” is considered by many to be one of the priceless possessions of the English people, ranking alongside the first printed Bible in English and the plays of the quintessential English playwright William Shakespeare. It has been said, with some justice, that the words of this Prayer Book have been recited by English-speakers far more frequently than the speeches and soliloquies of Shakespeare.
First published in 1549, with authorship credited to the then Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), the book has been utilised by Christians throughout the world since, apart from 2 short periods of time between 1553 to 1558 and 1645 to 1660, having many of its phrases becoming part of our everyday language and still influencing the worship and devotions of millions of Christians today.
The BCP comes to us in a number of guises, and is usually referred to by the year of its introduction. The first book of 1549 was rapidly succeeded by versions in 1552 and then 1559. The final version on which the present book is based is that of 1662. Each of the four versions feature a common layout and are related to each other however the content of each book shows considerable revision and thought in terms of theology, political and intellectual context. In a sense the BCP can be looked on as ‘a wonderful example of a book which contains a whole history within it.’
In order to analyse the impact of the introduction of the BCP some knowledge of the history lying behind the book is essential in order to demonstrate the seismic changes it brought about.
The first version of the BCP was introduced in 1549 during the reign of King Edward VI however its roots were most definitely to be found growing during the reign of Henry VIII and the Protestant Reformation movement that had spread from Europe to Henry’s England and influenced his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Henry was a Roman Catholic and would remain a Catholic until his death in 1547 despite his break from Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and the Act of Supremacy of 1534 which cut the ties of the English Church from that of Rome and made English monarchs the ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’.
Although there was an impetus given by the Reformation movement and Cranmer’s plans for reform, worship in England remained largely catholic, no uniformity of services but with little tinkering’s of the liturgy here and there. There had been suggestions that in the late 1530’s Cranmer was engaged in crafting services but nothing was ever published. A definite ‘tinkering’ though followed after the 1536 sermon by Bishop Hugh Latimer (1487-1555) when he called for the services of matrimony and baptism to be conducted in English.
In 1535 the first English Bible produced by Coverdale was allowed to be used, followed in 1537 by Matthew’s Bible and then Coverdale’s revised ‘Great Bible’ in 1539. On the orders of Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), who was Henry’s Vicegerent in Scripturals and Vicar-general, in 1543 an English Bible was to be placed in every church and chapel in the land from which the clergy were to integrate readings in English into Sunday worship.
Also in 1543 Tudor rationalisation ordered that ‘this realm shall have one Use’, the ‘Rite of Sarum’ from the diocese of Salisbury, that had been amended to remove all references to both the Pope and St Thomas à Becket.
The Sarum Use, which had been in use since the 12/13th century, comprised a number of large service books that the clergy had to use – Breviary, Missal, Manual and Pontifical, along with books such as the Diurnal and the Pie, all of which were necessary in order to give directions to the everyday services. Most significant though was that the ‘Use’ was written and said in Latin and thus these were books largely of the clergy and not the laity.
By the end of the first decade after the Act of Supremacy, of 1534, several key changes had been introduced into the English Church, most notably the purging of all Roman authority and Papal references, integration of the use of English in parts of some worship, a state control over liturgy and in particular a requirement for uniformity and the influence of Protestant elements. An important landmark in this budding tradition is reached in 1544 with the introduction of the first officially approved state liturgy written totally in the vernacular – English. Cranmer’s Litany was revolutionary, taking as it did a processional service designed to whip up both religious and patriotic fervour, in this case as a prelude to Henry’s invasion of France, and not only having it all said in English but incorporating Lutheran reform and omitting the very Catholic invocations of the ‘many’ saints.
Henry’s enforced policy of strict Catholic doctrine and practice made any kind of official advancement towards Reformed liturgical practice move quite slowly, however, the Reform movement continued to apply pressure leading Cranmer to pursue for some further degree of uniformity that would ‘quieten’ reform advocates for a time. This end was achieved by the issue in 1545 of ‘The Primer set forth by the King’s majesty and his Clergy’ simply known as “The King’s Book”, a means of providing one uniform Primer with all others to be withdrawn from sale. Whilst the contents were traditional the primer was available in both Latin and English and was an opportunity from Cranmer to tinker slightly with some of the contents to give them a more Reformed look.
Other small but significant reforms by Cranmer followed, a more conservative Daily Office was drafted and a number of ceremonies and customs were abolished for being ‘superstitious’.
Henry VIII died in January 1547 and was succeeded to the English throne by his 9 year old son, Edward VI. Edward had been brought up in the household of Catherine Parr (1512-1548), the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, and was very influenced by her Protestant sympathies of the New Learning. Due to his young age he was also surrounded, influenced and advised by his privy council who were also Protestant leaning.
With a protestant King now on the English throne the way was now clear for Cranmer to press on with liturgical adaptations and reform that had been stifled under Henry. At the heart of Cranmer’s reforms of the English expression of religion was uniformity thus work began on a number of texts to bring this about and at the same time appease English reformers. One of the first of these texts was the Book of Homilies issued in July 1547, six months after the accession of Edward. This book contained twelve homilies, containing theology most amenable to the Reformation, that by royal decree were to be preached on each Sunday. At the same time a set of Injunctions appeared for a general visitation of the whole country to ensure that directions regarding the use of the vernacular for Bible readings , the use of an official Homily and a whole raft of other Reformed instructions were carried out.
Early in 1548 a significant change was introduced in the form of the ‘Order of the Communion’ which amongst other things required for provision of the Communion in both ‘kinds’ to all, clergy and laity alike, which was a big feature in Reformed theology.
Whilst the country was becoming accustomed to the appearance and use that these reforms and changes brought about in their worship, Cranmer, along with a committee of ‘certain of the most learned and discreet bishops and other learned men’, proceeded apace to work on a new form of consolidated prayer book for the whole kingdom. In 1549 this new book was published and given an ‘into service’ date of Whit-Sunday 1549.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer introduced
The 1549 BCP can be viewed as a logical first step towards a fully English Protestantism although perhaps not a full blown Reformed package of new services. Although influenced by continental reformers this ‘first’ book is very much more a revision of the old service book of the English church. According to Procter and Frere, simplicity was achieved by the omission of a number of the medieval offices and doctrinal changes against, for example, the theory of transubstantiation and other more popular misconceptions; they see this first book as being less of a composition of new material but a reverent, conservative handling of the earlier Uses of which large portions were simply translated and retained.
Chief among the changes introduced was the need to no longer use a multitude of books by the clergy to provide daily and Sunday worship services, everything needed was now contained in one volume except for a copy of the Bible in order to make lectionary based readings, Second, no longer were the congregation excluded from a full participation in the services as all the services, not just parts, were now to be said in English, so whilst the vast majority of the laity were functionally illiterate they could at least hear and understand the worship – gone were to be the days of “Hocus Pocus”.
As well as consolidating all daily and Sunday worship into one book, Cranmer also removed many of the Latin services that he and his Reformer compatriots disliked. Just two Daily Offices were kept rather than the eight of the previous Latin Use, Morning and Evening prayer, joined by the Litany and Holy Communion. The BCP also contained the other occasional services necessary to minister congregations from cradle to grave. These included the orders for purification of women, baptism, confirmation, prayers to be said and Holy Communion with the sick, marriage and funerals.
To complete the book the BCP also sets out all the Epistle, Gospel and Collect readings for each Sunday Holy Communion service ordered by the liturgical calendar, with the Old and New Testament and Psalm readings for daily prayer set out in a tabular form based on the civic calendar.
Reception of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer
The introduction of the 1549 BCP received a mixed reception, and in what could be seen as a shrewd move on behalf of the powers that be in anticipation of possible trouble and problems with its introduction, the Act of Uniformity 1549 that introduced the BCP gave it its legal standing as the sole Use.
Cranmer’s aim for the book to be not just about a uniformity of common worship but a vehicle fitting for its expression, which was always dear to his heart, was to be clearly seen in his Preface which pointed out how the homogenization of worship on a national platform and scale gave rise to an exchangeability of worship, such that anyone attending services outside of their own parish would experience a familiarity with services being said across the land – something not found under the old Latin Uses.
However, the BCP was not universally accepted. There was to be some violent opposition, on the Whit-Monday June 10th, the day after its official introduction date, an uprising began in the West Country demanding, among other things, a return to Mass in Latin, Communion in one kind and only at Easter and restoration of other observances from the time of Henry VIII – “We will not receive the new service, because it is like a Christmas game” they claimed. This sense of opposition from ‘simple peasants’ can be regarded as typical of many in the land who disliked change in customs, traditions and teachings.
For some, for whom the difference between Church and State was minimal, they welcomed a book which did away with the varying diocesan Uses and developed a corporate national feeling. For others, including a number of Cranmer’s Reforming friends, the book did not go far enough such that a leading opponent of reform, Bishop Stephen Gardiner found the book’s Eucharistic doctrine ‘not distant from the Catholic faith’ and would have been prepared to use it had he not been incarcerated in the Tower of London.
An examination of the book leads one to the conclusion that the most contentious element, the Holy Communion, can be interpreted in two completely opposite ways, in a way that most Reformers would agree with, and also, in a manner agreeable to those who are entirely opposed to the Reformation. Use of expressions comfortable to both sides of the divide to describe the same thing such as referring to the Service of Holy Communion as the “Holy Communion” and as the “Mass”, and references to The Holy Table as the “Altar” and also as “God’s board” should not make it surprising that different interpretations could be read into the book.
On balance it is apparent that Cranmer was walking a very narrow tight-rope in trying to bring about a significant reform that would be lasting and, in anticipation of the likely reception of the book from both ends of the religious spectrum, he showed “admirable pastoral wisdom and sensitivity, advocating caution in the task of weaning the English away from what he saw as ancient error, which nevertheless had rooted itself deeply in the collective imagination, and towards the purer landscape of Protestant worship.”
Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 was not reprinted after the year it was issued and a successor was brought forward in 1552. Cranmer, working with Reformed theologians such as Martin Bucer and against sincere Roman Catholics like Bishop Gardiner produce a revised BCP which reveals a decidedly Reformed evolution, no longer a compromise between the old and the new.
Cranmer’s 1549 “The Book of the Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other Rites of the Church: after the Use of the Church of England” can theologically be considered to be a child of the English Reformation, designed as a way of uniting people in worship through liturgy where both clergy and laity throughout the land pray together in a common vernacular tongue and both receive the wonderful mystery that is the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey states, “The fundamental purpose of celebrating Common Prayer is this: to help the church as a whole to pray together in a reflective and structured way,” words one is certain that Cranmer would have said himself.
Carey, G., The Daily Office SSF by Society of St Francis (Mowbray, Continuum International PG, 2010).
Cuming, G.J., A History of Anglican Liturgy (London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969).
Cummings, B., Ed. The Book of Common Prayer: the texts of 1549, 1559 and 1662 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).
Dean, J., God truly worshipped: Thomas Cranmer and his writings (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2012).
Hefling, C., & Shattuck, C., Ed. The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006).
MacCulloch, D., A History of Christianity (London, Penguin Group, 2010).
Procter, F. & Frere, W.H., A New History of The Book of Common Prayer, (London, Macmillan, 1961).
Rosendale, T., Liturgy and Literature in the making of Protestant England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2011).
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 D. MacCulloch, A History of Christianity, (London, Penguin Group, 2010), p.631
 B. Cummings, Editor, The Book of Common Prayer: the texts of 1549, 1559 and 1662, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011), p.xvi
 C. Hefling & C. Shattuck, Editors, The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011), p.22
 ‘Use’ – the liturgy or services
 C. Hefling & C. Shattuck, Editors, The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011), p.23
 T. Rosendale, Liturgy and Literature in the making of Protestant England (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.28 – St Thomas à Becket’s name was removed as he was seen to be a symbol of church resistance to monarchical control.
 G.J. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy, (London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969), p.58
 Primer = A manual of devotions including expositions of the Creed, Decalogue, Graces and prayers.
 G.J. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy, (London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969), p.60 for a more detailed list of visitation requirements.
 ‘Kinds’ – A term to express either Bread and/or Wine
 John Calvin asserted, against Roman Catholic doctrine, Christ is not present literally in the elements, but he is spiritually present. Those who receive the elements with faith can receive the actual body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit which works through the sacrament, a view sometimes known as Receptionism.
 Further information of the members of the committee in – G.J. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy, (London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969) p.66
 The BCP was allowed to be used before this date with Whit-Sunday being the ‘cut-off’ date for introduction
 F. Procter and W.H. Frere, A New History of The Book of Common Prayer, (London, Macmillan, 1961), p.54
 Hocus Pocus – an expression thought to come from a perversion of the sacramental blessing from the Latin Mass, Hoc est corpus meum “This is my body.”
 Eight daily prayer events: Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline, and the night office, sometimes referred to as Vigils.
 J. Dean, God truly worshipped: Thomas Cranmer and his writings, (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2012), p.82
 F. Procter and W.H. Frere, A New History of The Book of Common Prayer, (London, Macmillan, 1961), p.56
 G.J. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy, (London, Macmillan & Co Ltd, 1969), p.96
 J. Dean, God truly worshipped: Thomas Cranmer and his writings, (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2012), p.82
 Martin Bucer (1491-1551) Continental Reformer influenced by writings of Luther. Head of Reforms in Strasburg in 1527 but forced to flee to England following Battle of Mülberg in 1547. Appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University in December 1549.
 G. Carey, The Daily Office SSF by Society of St Francis, (Continuum International PG, Mowbray, 2010), Foreword
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