6: Tools of the Trade 2: The Book of Common Prayer

During the English Reformation, there were a number of world-historical transformations that shaped the landscape of Christian religious life thereafter. One of the most crucial—and often overlooked—elements of this development is the Book of Common Prayer.

The contents of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) were revolutionary at the time when it was composed and produced. The BCP was a child of the printing press, and as a result the degree of standardization it implemented was unprecedented. The BCP contained a standardization of liturgical practice that was to be implemented throughout the Church of England with far reaching effects.

Prior to the reformation, there were a variety of books containing the liturgical and other information. These included:

  • the Missal, the manuscript text used by medieval priests to celebrate the mass,
  • the Bishop’s book which contained various services needed for a Bishop (ordination, coronation, etc.), and
  • there were a variety of vernacular devotional tracts used by laypeople during mass to interact with the structure of the Missal, among other texts.

With the advent of the Book of Common Prayer, all of the functions of medieval liturgical books were combined and standardized in a single text, which through its vernacular rendering and widespread printing, was placed in direct contact with clergy and laity.

The BCP came into being as an instrument of control. With the widespread vernacular translation of the Bible, medieval checks and balances on the interpretive inspiration of scripture broke down, and a chaotic potential was released. Whatever we think about the motivations of the medieval church, their concerns were precisely on point. The Book of Common Prayer constituted the English state and church response to this problem. The prayer book—composed by bishops, commissioned by the monarchy, and implemented by parliament—staked its claim to authority in an entirely different sphere than the Bible.

Despite the intention of control, the BCP is a complex and multivalent text. An important part of what we need to understand when examining the prayer book’s history, is that as well as being an instrument of control, the prayer book provided a platform which fostered the development of the early modern English subject. Hence there is a paradox in the character of the prayer book, at the same time that it fostered the coercive ideological frame of the early modern state, it also was written in poetic language, allowed for imaginative apprehension of spiritual experience, and provided space for individual as well as collective encounters with the divine.

I. Development of Editions

Thomas Cranmer as Composer of the Book of Common Prayer

One man in particular deserves a significant amount of credit as author of the Book of Common Prayer, and this despite the fact that it is fundamentally a liturgical text. Liturgy forms part of a heritage and tradition, it is altered and passed down and is collectively authored. Yet Thomas Cranmer’s (1489-1556) influence on the character and the prose of the BCP cannot be overlooked.

Portrait of Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke, Cranmer commissioned this portrait of himself and he is portrayed with the books of St. Paul and St. Augustine. (Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke
Cranmer commissioned this portrait of himself and he is portrayed with the books of St. Paul and St. Augustine. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cranmer was an influential English reformer. Schooled at Cambridge, he was not one of the early Lutheran sympathizers. However his involvement with Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) divorce and subsequent appropriation of the English Church to his sole command marked Cranmer’s break with traditional theology. He was also married in secret on the Continent, since it remained illegal for clergy in England, demonstrating his commitment to a new kind of clerical life.

Cranmer was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533 until his death in 1556. During this time he had a profound influence on Anglican devotion, which can still be in today’s church. Cranmer is a complex figure and the particularities of his life’s story fall somewhat outside the scope of our investigations here. However it is important to note that despite a reformed theology, Cranmer remained sympathetic to traditional liturgical practice and was characteristically English in that he worked to mediate between those commitments.

During Henry’s reign, traditional religious forces remained strong. It was after the accession of his son Edward in 1547 to the throne that the work of reform could really take off. Cranmer was given sweeping powers to reform the church, which he deployed thoroughly but cautiously.

The First Edition of the Prayer Book

Cranmer had already written a reformed Litany in 1544, which came to be included in the Book of Common Prayer. The first Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549 (for the full text, see here), and its use was enforced throughout the realm by parliament. Its motivations were:

  • Doctrinal, with an attempt to put reformed teachings into praying words;
  • Social, as an attempt to spread the use of the vernacular; and
  • Liturgical, as the book sought to bring together the hitherto disparate services of the reformed Church of England.
Title page of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer
Title page of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer

The first BCP displays Cranmer’s caution as it attempted to mediate between extremes and as such was immediately attacked from all sides. For the traditionalists it was disconcertingly reformed, for it did away with the Latin mass and displayed a distinctly reformed theology. For the radical Calvinists, it didn’t go far enough, and maintained far too many Roman Catholic vestiges.

The controversy was centered on the rite of Communion, as Cranmer’s prayer book significantly altered the Catholic mass, hoping to dispel the doctrine of transubstantiation, which he considered superstitious. Traditionalists wanted to maintain the doctrine, while Calvinist reformers wanted to eliminate any remnants of the old practice that might imply the sacramental theology of the medieval church.

The Short-Lived Second Edition of the Book of Common Prayer

These debates led to a second edition of the prayer book being proposed and then carefully composed. The subsequent 1552 publication did away with some of the ambiguous language that allowed for a sacramental interpretation of the eucharistic rite. Kneeling during communion, which Cranmer supported but Calvinists strongly opposed, was maintained. This led to the addition of the famous Black Rubric, a detailed document written by Cranmer explaining the specific theology of communion, and the dangerous nature of worshipping the elements. It was printed after the 1552 prayer book and so was added on a separate sheet to each individual copy.

The Black Rubric
The Black Rubric

The 1552 Book of Common Prayer (for the full text, see here) was used for only six months. Thereafter King Edward VI died and his sister Mary rose to the throne and reestablished the medieval mass. After an abortive attempt to oust Mary through an alternate succession, many prominent reformers fled England for the Continent. One might have expected Cranmer to do the same, but for whatever reason, he stayed. He administered the funeral service for King Edward after the fashion of his own new prayer book. Then he was taken into custody by Mary, tortured and forced to recant his views. However, as he was led to the stake to be burned, he first dramatically reclaimed his evangelical views by reaching out and burning his own hand that had signed the recantation.

The execution of Thomas Cranmer, 21 March 1556. From John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563)
The execution of Thomas Cranmer, 21 March 1556. From John Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563)
(Wikimedia Commons).

The Accession of Elizabeth and the Prayer Book Reinstated

Cranmer became one of the most prominent martyrs of the English Reformation, and did not live to see the republication and institution of his prayer book. When Elizabeth succeeded Mary to the English throne in 1558, she made it clear that she had humanist and reformist sympathies, and would be continuing the English program of reform.

Elizabeth was particularly fond of the 1549 prayer book, and was a moderate when it came to religion. However, her Calvinist advisors recommended that she update Cranmer’s 1552 version for her official prayer book. This was done, although Elizabeth removed the Black Rubric, the references to the overreach of papal authority, and returned some of the ambiguous language around the interpretation of communion.

Elizabeth’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer (for the full text, see here) did more than any other to consolidate English worship. The stability of Elizabeth’s reign allowed the prayer book to percolate throughout the population. According to Alan Jacobs: “Cranmer’s somberly magnificent prose, read week by week, entered and possessed their minds, and became the fabric of their prayer, the utterance of their most solemn and their most vulnerable moments.” (A.Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, 59.)

Title page of the Book of Common Prayer, 1559 edition.
Title page of the Book of Common Prayer, 1559 edition.

II. Model for Collective Worship

Formation Through Collective Liturgical Practice

The changes and doctrinal disputes that shaped the Book of Common Prayer are occluded by the text itself. It claims a kind of permanence, and there is nothing to notify the reader that the various prefaces and services were collected at different times. This is an important aspect of the Book’s function. It is meant to inculcate obedience and trust.

The public worship proscribed by the Book of Common Prayer was intended to form and shape worshippers through its practice. The private prayers common in medieval times thanks to devotional manuals were strongly discouraged. The focus was on liturgy as a collective act of worship and self-fashioning. This surprised continental reformers, who noted the lack of focus on preaching and education, which were hallmarks of their own reform.

The New Communion Service

In the old service, the taking of communion by parishioners was rare, occurring as it did only once a year. In the new prayer book service, communion was fundamental. Cranmer’s decision to omit the lifting of the elements from the service struck at the heart of the medieval mass. While English communion had been instituted before the prayer book, it took on a new significance and was the subject of fierce debate as to its theological meaning. Cranmer maintained that communion was meant to transform people not things, and for this reason his service opposed the medieval mass.

Title page of the Coverdale Bible, compiled by Myles Coverdale and published in 1535.
Title page of the Coverdale Bible, compiled by Myles Coverdale and published in 1535. (Wikimedia Commons)

The English Coverdale Bible was printed in 1535 (for the full text, see here), and was subsequently a requisite element of every English church service. Scripture readings were all done in English. Thus by the time of Cranmer’s 1544 litany (for the full text, see here) which would come to be included in the Book of Common Prayer, the English people were growing accustomed to hearing the vernacular in their services. Nonetheless, few chose to take communion with the frequency the prayer book recommended, thereby demonstrating that there was a lack of understanding amongst the common people as to the specific eucharistic theologies that were being employed.

Resistance to Reformed Worship

Resistance to the new vernacular forms was strong. In 1549 in the west of England there was an uprising in Devon and Cornwall (areas of traditional Roman Catholic religious loyalty) among people who already felt unfairly subjected to the English crown. The imposition of the English language liturgy on their traditional forms of worship was considered too much, as many of them did not understand English. Although they did not understand Latin either, at least their occupiers also did not understand it, and it allowed them to see themselves as part of a church that was larger than their oppressors. The uprising was met with brutal repression, and as many as five thousand rebels were killed. Thus we can clearly see the role of the prayer book as an instrument of control.

Suppression of the prayer book rebellion in Devon and Cornwall, 1549 (Wikimedia Commons)
Suppression of the prayer book rebellion in Devon and Cornwall, 1549 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Prayer Book and the Character of English Religion

Diocesan and provincial articles, worked out by various bishops as they tried to implement and interpret the prayer book, acted as a barrier to both Roman Catholic influence and advanced Calvinism. The emerging prayer book religion and the retention of an ornamental context in worship gave the Church of England its distinctive character as opposed to the Reformed churches on the continent.

Prayer book liturgy was intended to change the behaviour of participants. The idea was that publically and collectively living out the laws of Christ would transform society.

III. Basis for Doing Theology

Calvinists and the Queen

In 1559, Calvinism was in the ascendant. It was the theology de jour amongst high-ranking clerics. But Elizabeth’s 1559 prayer book remained in many ways a conservative document. In addition, the episcopacy of Mary’s time remained intact. When the Marian exiles returned to England they were surprised by this state of affairs. Though many of them took on roles in the episcopacy, they believed the measures were temporary, to assure good order, while more radical reform was forthcoming.

Image of a 1596 printing of Elizabeth’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer (Wikimedia Commons)
Image of a 1596 printing of Elizabeth’s 1559 Book of Common Prayer (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet they would eventually find themselves disappointed, and the liturgical elements of Elizabeth’s church would endure beyond the strong affinity for Calvinism in the 16th century. Elizabeth’s Thirty Nine Articles of Religion (for the full text, see here) were a conservative victory, and she maintained the priestly vestments and ornamental context of medieval religion to a degree Calvinists found highly distasteful.

Elizabeth’s 1559 Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity legislated this religious settlement and imposed a single form of worship across the kingdom, which was neither Roman nor in continuity with Genevan reform, but was distinctly English. The queen was advised to pursue gradual change, and this policy allowed space for her own high church preferences to influence to settlement as well.

The Episcopacy and Prayer Book Religion

In the 1560s the Church of England was in disarray. Different bishops with different religious beliefs and commitments interpreted the prayer book very differently, and documents detailing the specifics of how it should be implemented proliferated.

Matthew Parker (1505-1575) was the first archbishop to be ordained according to Elizabeth’s prayer book. He took it upon himself to defend and to clarify Elizabeth’s religious program. In 1566 he wrote The Book of Advertisements which outlined in specific detail the vestments of priests in order to quell confusion.

Opposition to and Defence of New Forms of Worship

During the 1560s both traditionalist and Calvinist parties demonstrated their objectives by dissenting from the Elizabethan settlement. Stone altars and basins were dragged from their hiding places in barns at the same time that vestments and kneeling during the Eucharist were abandoned.

While opposing parties refuted the prayer book, and the common people felt confused by its theologies, not everyone was opposed to its dominance. The Book of Common Prayer had powerful defenders, and over the years as it continued to shape English religious practice, theologies developed out of that experience.

Although Calvinism remained a powerful force in English society, the English church retained its ornamental context and its liturgical practice. These elements of English religion allowed for an enduring continuity with the medieval church despite attempts to abolish its practices. The enduring power of these elements allowed for a theology to be built up around them. This model of liturgy as the basis of theology was unique.

Richard Hooker and Emerging Arminianism

One defender of the Elizabethan prayer book worship was Richard Hooker (1554-1600). Hooker was an Elizabethan archbishop who offered powerful defences of prayer book worship. The fifth book of his treatise Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1597) was the first theological commentary on The Book of Common Prayer. He was certainly not the first prayer book defender, but he was one of the most crucial, as he wrote at a time where the influence of Calvinism had begun to wane. Hooker understood Cranmer’s intentions in the prayer book and argued that the book was valuable as it presented scripture doxologically.

Richard Hooker author of Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (Wikimedia Commons)
Richard Hooker author of Of the Laws of ecclesiastical Polity (Wikimedia Commons)

Hooker was part of an emerging group who came to be known as the Arminians. Theologically they denied the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination, drawing on earlier accounts of salvation to defend the necessity of this life to one’s salvation. They also defended the ornamental style of English worship, citing the psalmist’s exhortation to worship God in the beauty of holiness.

Hooker stressed God’s love and mercy. He viewed prayer book religion as establishing a salvific rhythm of praise and contrition, whereby people become available to divine grace and are changed from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and from brokenness to wholeness. It is a form of prayer and praise offered in response to the God who forgives our sins and gives to us new life. In this worship the saving story of God's dealings with creation is rehearsed again and again, drawing the faithful into it so that the saving story becomes their story.

One proto-Arminian writer named Benjamin Carrier claimed that the Book of Common Prayer and Calvinism could never mix. Certainly the Book of Common Prayer helped defend a liturgical church against Calvinist onslaught. However, it was part of a whole devotional apparatus which emerged from the 16th century transformed but not destroyed. Even the continued use of Gothic churches subtly militated against Calvinist theologies by dividing out the nave from the chancel and the sanctuary, buttressing a sacramental style of worship.

Given the theologies generated by the liturgical practice of prayer book religion, the gradual evolution towards conformity with the Genevan style of reformed church Calvinists hoped for, never materialized. Instead the church’s gradual evolution reflected a synthesis of Protestant theological commitments and Roman ornamental church practice, whose splendour and grace influenced the English religious imagination.

IV. Conclusion

The understanding of prayer book religion so vividly depicted and passionately defended by Hooker meant that as time wore on The Book of Common Prayer was the centerpiece of the English Reformation. More than any individual person or set of beliefs, it provided the basis for uniformity in religion. In corporate worship the people heard the word in scripture read and preached, they affirmed their faith in the catholic creeds (Apostles' and Nicene), and they did so in the context of their praise toward God, with freedom to further understand and express their convictions in diverse ways.

Most importantly, all English people lived out their lives going to church, participating in services of worship, however superficially, however reluctantly, and were affected by it. A. L. Rowse commented: “It is impossible to over-estimate the influence of the Church's routine of prayer and good works upon that [Elizabethan] society: the effect on imagination and conduct of the liturgy with its piercing and affecting phrases, repeated Sunday by Sunday” (The England of Elizabeth, New York, 1950, 433). Its influence is apparent in the plays of Shakespeare and the poetry of Donne and Herbert as well as in the development of the English language in the golden age of Elizabethan literature.

Cranmer envisioned all of the people of a given community coming together to hear the word of God and gathering around a common table, partaking of the body and blood of Christ with penitent hearts, regarding one another physically present, one's best friends and one's worst enemies, both. He could hear them joining in their hearts and minds in the prayer after Communion:

    “We now most humbly beseche thee, O heavenly father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship [the church / the commonweal], and do al such good workes as thou hast prepared for us to walk in: through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the holy ghost, be all honor and glory” (The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI, Ratcliff, ed., 390).

What was meant here was expressed by Cranmer in another place when, thinking of partaking of bread and wine at the one table, together, he said:

    “Surely, they have very hard and stony hearts, which with these things be not moved; and more cruel and unreasonable be they than brute beasts, that cannot be persuaded to be good to their christian brethren and neighbors, for whom Christ suffered death, when in this sacrament they be put in remembrance that the Son of God bestowed his life for his enemies” (Works, vol. 2, 42–43).