Vol I No. 7
History & Theology

Prayer Book Commentaries

by Ben Crosby

If you spend time in the dustier corners of Anglican theological libraries, you will often encounter a set of thick volumes on the prayer book, with long titles beginning with words like “Exposition” or “Rationale.” These books are members of a genre that is largely forgotten today, the prayer book commentary. In their heyday, these books were not only important compendia of Anglican doctrine and historical-liturgical research but also encouraged personal engagement with the text of the prayer book both to strengthen people’s private devotional lives and enliven their experience of public worship.

The prayer book commentary genre had its beginnings in defenses of the prayer book in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church of England against those who wanted to see more dramatic changes to the English liturgy. Clerics like John Whitgift and Richard Hooker devoted considerable attention to justifying the Book of Common Prayer, with Hooker especially commenting on a great deal of the text in Book V of his Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The first single book devoted to explaining the prayer book was Dean of Canterbury John Boys’ An Exposition of Al the Principal Scriptvres vsed in our English Liturgie, or The Minister’s Invitatorie, first published in 1609. In it, Boys sought to show the prayer book’s conformity with Scripture, patristic example, and the broad Reformation consensus (for more on Boys, see Drew Keane’s piece here).

From these beginnings, the genre exploded in popularity during what scholars call the long eighteenth century, roughly from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 to the beginning of the Oxford Movement in 1833. In my work on this genre, I’ve suggested that it can be fruitfully divided into three basic categories: descriptive, historical, and biblical commentaries; devotional commentaries; and annotated prayer books. The first of these, exemplified by texts like Anthony Sparrow’s Rationale Upon the Book of Common Prayer and Charles Wheatly’s A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer, continued the earlier tradition of prayer book defense. These texts were concerned with defending and explaining the prayer book, typically by stressing its conformity to Scripture and patristic precedent. The second category, then, is more straightforwardly devotional in character, encouraging people to use the text of the prayer book (as mediated through devotional commentaries) in private devotions as well as in public worship. Thomas Comber is a particularly important – and particularly prolix – author in this category; his seventeenth century commentaries on the prayer book were reprinted in seven volumes by Oxford University Press in the nineteenth century! His nearly four-hundred page commentary on the communion service, which can be found here, provides a good introduction to his approach. The third type, then, the annotated prayer book, applies a format familiar to us in today’s study Bibles to the prayer book itself. That is, the text of the prayer book is printed along with extensive notes, sometimes written by the edition’s editor but more often excerpted and compiled from the other categories of prayer book commentary. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a more-or-less standard list of commentators stretching all the way back to Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century included in these annotated prayer books. Richard Mant’s 1820 annotated prayer book is perhaps the most fully developed example of this genre.

The genre that flourished until the early nineteenth century, however, came to be transformed – although not done away with – by the rise of the Oxford Movement. From the perspective of mid-nineteenth century Anglo-Catholics, both eighteenth-century patristics research and the eighteenth-century goal of vindicating the 1662 prayer book came to seem dusty and outmoded. John Henry Blunt’s The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, perhaps the most important late-nineteenth-century text on the prayer book, maintained the form of the old annotated prayer book genre but explicitly differentiated itself from this older tradition of writing on the prayer book. This older tradition came to be condemned as lacking in liturgical sense and insufficiently catholic in theology – but even so, the practice of prayer book commentary continued.

What did largely end this tradition, however, were the liturgical upheavals of the second half of the twentieth century. As new liturgical books with a minimal relationship to the older prayer book tradition came to be authorized, there simply was no longer a stable text to comment upon. You could not have a coherent tradition of liturgical commentary stretching back hundreds of years if the liturgies in question changed every few decades! While some explanatory commentaries continued to be published (for example, Marion Hatchett’s A Guide to the American Prayer Book), devotional commentaries and annotated prayer books largely disappeared.

Fortunately, however, the old commentary tradition can still be profitably used in private devotion or to enrich one’s public worship, whether or not one is at a church using the 1662 prayer book. One particularly exciting project, “The Scriptural BCP,” provides a new digital interface for accessing such commentaries, reproducing the old annotated prayer book format in an online medium. What’s more, commentaries upon the 1662 prayer book are still being written: Gerald Bray’s A Companion to the Book of Common Prayer was published last year and Drew Keane and Samuel Fornecker are working on a commentary as well. I have seen the core spiritual insight of the prayer book commentary genre, namely, that careful engagement with the liturgy enriches both one’s public worship and private devotion, bear great fruit in my own life. I am confident that a look back at this genre will do the same for Anglicans today eager to uncover the forgotten riches of our tradition.