Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

The Living Prayer Book: A Review of Alan Jacobs' The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

by The Editors

jacobs BCP biographyBy Jacob Stubbs

Alan Jacobs’ The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography serves as a fascinating introduction to the often contentious life of the Book of Common Prayer. Jacobs handles many years of complex British political relations and party politics as they manifested themselves in the established Church of England. Additionally, Jacobs demonstrates a deep knowledge of the theological implications of the English Reformation and the historical development of the Book of Common Prayer. This review of Jacobs’ work will focus primarily on the Book of Common Prayer in its historical contribution to the faith and practice of Anglicans rather than on Jacobs’ scholarship and methodology. In looking at Jacobs’ work in this light, I hope to illustrate the importance of the Book of Common Prayer for defining the faith and practice of the Anglican Communion today.

While the stage for the development of the Book of Common Prayer was set by the rule of King Henry VIII, the actual writing of the BCP came during the rule of King Edward and his council of regents. According to Jacobs, this council allowed Cranmer to make changes to the “doctrine, worship, and structure of English Christianity as he saw fit to make” (p. 12). Jacobs describes the outcome as seen in the BCP and in the Book of Homilies, written by Cranmer to improve the poor preaching found in the Reformational church:

The principles of evangelical theology are in neat sequence here: Read the Bible and you will learn of the “misery of all mankind,” that since Adam’s fall all suffer under the power of sin; you will also learn that God has made one plan for ‘the salvation of all mankind’ in the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ; and you will further learn that the only way to grasp this salvation is by having a “true and lively faith” in Christ as your Savior. Moreover, “good works” do not lead to this faith, they follow from it: a genuine faith will “break out and shew itself by good works,” but salvation is by God’s grace alone and again, this grace is appropriated by the believer through faith alone.

Since the Book of Homilies expounds the theology of the Book of Common Prayer, Jacobs believes that it is the means by which the theology of the BCP should be understood. Cranmer’s reforms to English Christianity concerned “implementing standard liturgies” as a vehicle through which “the Bible could be more widely and more thoroughly known” (p. 27). Through the BCP, Cranmer reformed the “private devotion” of medieval worship into a public worship, centered on unity in Scripture and Sacrament.

Throughout the history of the British Commonwealth, the Church of England lost its status as the one church of the English people. Because of this, the identity of the Anglican Church began to shift from being rooted in the BCP to being more centered in an aesthetic ideology.  The rise of Church parties, as we will see in the work of the Anglo-Catholics, started to shift the use of the Book of Common Prayer from theological to aesthetic reasoning. This process began as the Anglican Communion began to develop different liturgies, which originally stemmed from the influences of the Scottish Kirk and the American Episcopal Church. At a certain level, this makes perfect sense, as Jacobs notes that it would be strange for the American Episcopal priests to take the Oath of Supremacy.

With the influence of Bishop Samuel Seabury and the many different Scottish prayer books, the Anglican Communion attempted to define Anglicanism in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which stipulates the recognition of the “Holy Scriptures” as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” “the Apostle’s Creed as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith,” “the two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself – Baptism and the Supper of the Lord,” and “the Historic Episcopate, locally adapted […]” (p. 122). Jacobs argues that this definition of Anglicanism does not contain any mention of the Book of Common Prayer, which is “startling” given that “there had perhaps never been a church to which the motto lex orandi, lex credendi […] has been more applicable than the Church of England.” Jacobs states, “Nothing defined the Church of England more specifically or practically than the Book of Common Prayer. But in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral it is not mentioned as a necessary component of Anglicanism.”

Two resolutions from the Lambeth Conferences of 1878 and 1888 show that Jacobs overplays this absence of the Book of Common Prayer in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Recommendation 7 from the 1878 Lambeth Conference states, “The Book of Common Prayer […] has been the principal bond of union among [bodies of Christian men].” Similarly, Resolution 19 of the Lambeth Conference of 1888 states:

That, as regards newly constituted Churches, […] it should be a condition of the recognition of them as in complete intercommunion with us […] that they hold substantially the same doctrine as our own, and that their clergy subscribe articles in accordance with the express statements of our own standards of doctrine and worship; but that they should not necessarily be bound to accept the entirety of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Under Jacobs’ reading, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral does not include the Book of Common Prayer; however, other resolutions from these conferences clearly show that the mode of Anglican unity is to be found, first and foremost, through “communion in worship.” From these resolutions, however, it appears plausible that theological agreement could now be placed secondary to the role of worship in the definition of Anglicanism.

In the nineteenth century, Church parties began to form. At a certain level this makes sense in any theologically diverse environment. While the above Lambeth resolutions demonstrate that Anglican unity is to be found in the BCP, their account of a certain level of theological diversity suggests an attempt to appease the different Church parties. We can see the rise of Church parties and the shifting placement of the Book of Common Prayer first appear in the work of the Tractarians.

Bishop John Henry Newman and the Tractarians took up a strong defense of the historical Prayer Book, warning against the “temper of innovation.” For the Tractarians, Jacobs writes, the Prayer Book served as a guide toward unity in worship. Changing the Prayer Book would lead to much division and alienation within the Anglican Communion. As Jacobs notes, “One abuses one’s reason by employing it to shine a critical light simply because one can, not because one must” (p. 128). The changing of the Prayer Book, for Bishop Newman, would represent an “abuse of reason,” for it would cause a loss of reverence and rise in skepticism toward the Prayer Book and its role in the Anglican faith.

Ironically, however, Jacobs notes that Bishop Newman’s desire to preserve the Prayer Book did not include submitting or confessing belief in its teaching. Rather, Jacobs notes that Bishop Newman’s argumentation for the preservation of the Prayer Book served as a testament to its cultural heritage and aesthetic beauty rather than any specific teaching. As Jacobs demonstrates, these ideas led to an aestheticism that privileged impressionistic expressions and experience over dialectical ways of knowing truth.

Following in the steps of Bishop Newman and the Tractarians, Bishop John Mason Neale resurrected the “Ornaments Rubric” to help give the Anglican Communion a more “high church” aesthetic. The “Ornaments’ Rubric,” Jacobs notes, served as “the key to the aesthetic renewal of the Liturgy” (p. 142). Neale’s movement began to take shape through the “Ecclesiological Society,” which inspired a revival of Gothic architecture and ritual within Anglicanism. For Jacobs, this ultimately “limited the words of the prayer book to an ancillary role,” and shifted the modus operandi of Anglican worship away from “Cranmer’s […] insistence that priests should enunciate their prayers clearly and ‘in a loud voice’” (p. 147). By looking toward the “high church” aesthetic, Bishop Neale and the Anglo-Catholics “transformed Cranmer’s powerful words into a kind of ambient music […] received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding.”

This shifting away from the BCP found its culmination in the scholarship of Dom. Gregory Dix, an Anglican, Benedictine monk with Romish sympathies. Jacobs gives a synopsis of Dom. Dix’s argument concerning the “Shape of the Liturgy,” explaining that the “form” or “shape” of the Eucharistic Prayer is much more important than the actual words therein. Jacobs explains this “shape” as follows: “Taking the bread or wine, praying over it, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples. Or, in the terms of liturgical structure, the offertory, the invocation, the fraction, and the communion proper” (p. 171). By providing this argument, Jacobs states that “it is impossible not to think that [The Shape of the Liturgy] was written precisely in order to dethrone Cranmer [and] repudiate his work […]” (p. 170).

Through Dom. Dix’s arguments, Bishop Neale’s aesthetic understanding of the Prayer Book was finally made complete. Later iterations of the BCP, be it Common Worship or the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, have followed Dom. Dix’s shape; but in doing so, have taken the focus of Anglican worship away from “one book” for “one people.” While the traditional Book of Common Prayer is an option, Jacobs notes that the loss of commonality helped feed the “spirit of innovation” in the Anglican Communion. Jacobs notes the irony of the Star Wars Prayer (pp. 360-372 of the 1979 Prayer Book) being considered orthodox under Dom. Dix’s theology, even though it clearly follows his “shape of the liturgy.” Because of an unbridled “temper of innovation,” Jacobs comments, liturgical incoherence has become a prominent fixture in the Anglican Communion.  While the Book of Common Prayer had at one point been venerated as that which was fit in word, doctrine, and practice for Anglican worship, liturgical innovation, Anglo-Catholic aestheticism, and Dom. Dix’s scholarship removed the BCP from the pedestal on which it once was placed.

Toward the end of his book, Jacobs begins to discuss the full breadth of the historical development of the Book of Common Prayer. In doing so, he comments on the way in which books “learn,” or how they “shape themselves to the contours of different cultural environments” (p. 193). Certainly, as Jacobs shows, many books have this ability; however, many “religious book[s]” are limited in their scope, because the goal of a religious book is “to teach.” He explains, “A prayer book especially wants its teaching to be enacted, not just to be absorbed. It cannot live unless we say its words in our voices. It can learn from us, but only if we consent to learn from it.”

The importance of the Book of Common Prayer comes from our acceptance of it as a teacher – as an authority in the matters with which it is concerned – and our interaction with that authority on a daily and regular basis. Jacobs comments, “[The BCP’s] goal – now, as in 1549 – is to be living Prayer Book words in the mouth of those who have a living faith.” If the Book of Common Prayer served for centuries as a means for Christian formation and unity through public worship, how much more important could such a means be today in the fractured Anglican Communion? Perhaps by returning a traditional Prayer Book, our Anglican identity can find a new “life” to guide our faith and practice.

Jacob Stubbs will be attending Yale Divinity School in the fall. He is a former fellow at the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia, PA, and currently researches at a state-level policy organization.