Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

A Nation at Prayer?

by The Editors

In Comment magazine, Joan Lockwood O’Donovan has published a review of Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. She writes:

This is a concise history of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer over 450 years, from its genesis and reception in the English Reformation to its supersession by the proliferation of alternative Anglican liturgies in the second half of the twentieth century. The history traverses the successive versions of the BCP, the controversies and contests (ecclesiological and political) issuing in and from them, the shifting emphases of English worship, the cumulative and changing cultural and spiritual impact of its liturgies on the people of Great Britain, her colonies and ex-colonies, and finally, the subversion and eclipsing of these liturgies by modern developments.

The backbone of Jacobs’s “biography” is the original prayer book of 1549 and its revision of 1552, both largely the work of Thomas Cranmer who, as Archbishop of Canterbury in the minority reign of King Edward VI (1547-1553), was primarily responsible for producing a single liturgical order in English for the reformed worship of the church in the king’s territories. Replacing the multiple books required by the various Latin rites of the Roman church, Cranmer laid out, under the cover of one book, liturgies for all the services of the English church: notably, for Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany, Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation (with Catechism), Matrimony, Visitation of the Sick, Burial, the Ordering of Deacons and Priests, and the Consecration of Bishops.

It is because these foundational books, and their successors of 1559, 1604, and 1662, conveyed a good deal of linguistic and theological coherence and continuity that they could sustain the church’s preaching, teaching, pastoral, and sacramental ministries over the generations, while regularly attracting fierce dissent. Equally, however, certain discernible tensions within and among the early books operated to fan the flames of controversy and division among clergy and laity. Precisely because liturgies are not theoretical treatises but forms of devotional worship, they are highly vulnerable to diverging theological and aesthetic interpretations and assessments, bound up in varying degrees with partisan ecclesiastical and political loyalties. Jacobs strives in his historical account to give due weight to both the continuities and tensions within and among the Tudor prayer books and, as well, to the part played by ecclesiastical and political partisanship in their ongoing reception.