The Book of Common Prayer

People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.

One response

  1. “new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland…”

    Hmmm. The Scottish Episcopal Church has never been a part of the Church of England: Scotland was a separate country until 1707 (and the Union of the Crowns was not until 1603), so the Henrician Reformation passed Scotland by. The traditional date for the start of the Scots Reformation is 1560 – but it had nothing whatsoever to do with Henry VIII. And the Scottish Episcopal Prayer Book has always included the epiclesis in the Prayer of Consecration. Likewise, the (Presbyterian) Book of Common Order 1556, revised 1564, had nothing whatsoever to do with the BCP.

    I sometimes wonder who writes publishers’ blurbs. Not, I hope, in this case Alan Jacobs himself.

    Frank Cranmer

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