The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography -- A Review

THE "BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books).  By Alan Jacobs.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2013.  Xii + 236 pages.

Note:  Reposted from Englewood Review of Books

           I was born, baptized, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church (though today I am a Disciples of Christ minister).  When I was confirmed at the age of twelve at St. Paul’s in Klamath Falls, I received my own copy of the Book of Common Prayer (1928), which I still have with me.  This Prayer Book would be supplanted in 1979, but by then I had departed for other parts of the body of Christ.  Although it has been many years since I was last a member of the Episcopal Church, my own spiritual life has been indelibly influenced by the liturgy I grew up with, a liturgy that was bound up in this venerable book.  I should note, however, that even prior to my departure St. Paul’s was making use of alternative Eucharistic liturgies that were more in tune with the times.  That is, less beholden to more traditional forms of language.  

The Book of Common Prayer that I grew up with was the descendent of those original creations of Thomas Cranmer, the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII and Edward VI.   Cranmer’s vision, as Alan Jacob’s shares with us, was to create a common book of worship for the entire nation.  Prior to the English Reformation the liturgy was celebrated in Latin, a language that few worshipers understood.  When Cranmer introduced first an English litany under Henry VIII and then the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552, the focus was on making the worship understandable.  While we might look at the Book of Common Prayer today as being a literary masterpiece, for Cranmer the liturgy was designed to teach the newly reformed faith.  Cranmer’s vision of one book for one nation has given way to a great diversity of worship expressions.  The Church of England, for instance, doesn’t have an official Book of Common Prayer, beyond that issued under the authority of King Charles II in 1662.  You might say that politics has prevented England from providing an official update, though there are a number of unofficial alternatives.  That is, even though the alternatives have church approval, they lack Parliamentary imprimatur.  The 1662 BCP may be England’s last official Prayer Book, time and space has led to a plethora of Prayer Books developed by churches that are part of the global Anglican movement.  Because these expressions of Anglicanism are disestablished they have had the freedom to develop their own culturally appropriate expressions of Cranmer’s original text. 

The story of the Book of Common Prayer is rather fascinating.  Its influence on spirituality is matched by its influence on the English language itself, ranking with Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  It is fitting then that the story of the Book of Common Prayer be told as part of Princeton University Press’s series “Lives of Great Religious Books.”  The author, Alan Jacobs, is both professor of the humanities and a member of the Anglican tradition.  He writes as one who loves the English language and the religious tradition that produced this great book of worship, a book that was designed for the purpose of giving English Christians appropriate words to offer praise to God.  As Jacobs puts it:
For it was surely congregational worship that Cranmer had primarily in mind when shaping the words of this book:  his English is meant to find its fullest life when said aloud, in unison, the vox populi made the organ on which this verbal music shall be played” (pp. 63-64). 
            This book of worship is revered by many, but it has also had its opponents.  The story begins in the time Henry VIII.  Henry was not fully committed to the Reformation, but he chose as Archbishop of Canterbury a man who was willing to grant him his divorce but also moving toward the principles of the Reformation.  Cranmer is a man of great complexity, and this review can’t give voice to that complexity, but it is clear that he had an eye for liturgy.  While many opponents of making changes to the Prayer Book in the modern era love the older language, including the thees and thous, Cranmer was interested in intelligibility.  During Henry’s reign Cranmer began developing a Eucharistic liturgy that would give expression to his more Reformed views, but it wasn’t until Edward VI ascended to the throne, surrounded by Protestant advisors that he was able to provide a full book of worship. As he worked to create this Prayer Book he envisioned it as a means of teaching the new Reformed faith and by offering one book of worship, uniting the nation as well.  When his first attempt in 1549 was deemed too Roman and too ambiguous on the question of transubstantiation, Cranmer, with advice from Martin Bucer, produced a new Prayer Book in 1552 that was much closer to the principles of Ulrich Zwingli.  Cranmer, of course, died a martyr’s death under Mary I, who abolished his Book and restored the Roman Church in England.  Cranmer’s vision would, in the end, triumph with Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne.  Although revised from time to time, this 1559 Prayer Book would serve as the foundation for worship in the Anglican Communion.  That is, all modern Prayer Books descend from that of 1559.   

            Now, the story of this venerable book includes, as Jacobs so helpfully reminds us, many detractors – some Catholic and many Protestant.  While Cranmer hoped that the prayers that he wrote and compiled would provide for a common faith, many fellow Protestants wanted to abandon written prayers altogether, demanding room for extemporaneous worship and prayer.  Thus, one of the major casualties of the Puritan reign in England was the Book of Common Prayer, which was outlawed by Oliver Cromwell.  To use the Book of Common Prayer was to risk imprisonment or banishment.  John Milton went so far as to call the Prayer Book tyrannical, and while the descendants of the Puritans lovingly recite the Lord’s Prayer, Milton counted the use of even this prayer as an expression of tyranny.  Some Puritans even considered the Book of Common Prayer Satanic.  Fortunately Cromwell’s rule was brief, and by 1662 a new version of the Book of Common Prayer was published under the authority of Charles II.  Those who couldn’t abide by this new book would become Dissenters or Nonconformists. 

One of the factors in this story is that for the English Church the State determines the form of worship for the established church.  Because of this reality, the authorized Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England remains the 1662 version.  There are, as Jacobs describes for us alternative worship resources, but the 1662 remains official.

            While the English Church must abide by Parliament’s final approval, such is not the case for the rest of the Anglican world.  The American Book of Common Prayer, for instance, descends from the Scottish Book of Common Prayer, first issued in 1637 and revised over time.  The Scottish Episcopal Church was disestablished by William and Mary, in favor of the Presbyterian Church that had a majority in Scotland.  After the American Revolution due to the requirement that recipients of ordination and consecration swear the oaths the English monarchs, Samuel Seabury was sent to Scotland for consecration, and he brought back with him the Scottish Book, which became the ancestor of the American Book of Common Prayer. 

            The Anglican tradition has often portrayed itself as a Via Media, a movement standing between the Roman Church and more radically reformed Protestant groups.  Over the years a variety of parties have emerged, and these parties, which would include today Anglo-Catholics, Evangelicals, and Liberal/Broad Church groups, have vied for influence over liturgical matters.  In England this spirit of party has prevented the issuance of a new BCP, but elsewhere these different groups have influenced further developments.  Globalization has also influenced developments, as churches in Africa and India and elsewhere have placed their own stamp on this venerable book.  What was intended to be the one book for the one church has become many books for a very diverse religious tradition.

            Jacobs is not a disinterested observer.  He is part of a branch of the Anglican tradition – an American branch that has separated itself from the larger Episcopal Church (USA) and aligned itself with a Bolivian bishop.  Despite this separation, Jacobs offers a very fair and thoughtful accounting of the development and influence of this liturgical and theological treasure.  Being himself an evangelical, he shows great appreciation for the Anglo-Catholic vision of the liturgy.  As a student of the Nonjuring movement, which developed its own liturgical resources during the eighteenth century I would have liked to see him comment on their work since it influenced Scottish developments, and therefore American developments, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. 

This is a well-written, readable, and thoughtful.  Jacobs brings to life what many would consider an inanimate object, indeed one that is now hopelessly obsolete.  Jacobs helps us realize that while the modern heirs of Cranmer’s Prayer Book diverge from his vision of one book for one nation, even in their diversity of expression, these modern editions provide worshipers, even non-Anglican ones, words to share in praise of God.  It is, therefore, more than simply a good read.  There is spiritual nourishment to be found Jacob’s biography, as well as the Book of Common Prayer itself.  


Popular Posts