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1662 Book of Common Prayer

By Colin Donnelly (Keble, 2015)

In 1549 Thomas Cranmer and Edward VI ushered in the most radical and disruptive liturgical break in the history of English churchgoing, with the promulgation of the Book of Common Prayer. For the next century, this text triggered ferocious disputes and bloody revolutions, which in turn led to repeated revisions of the text. It reached its final form in 1662, and Keble preserves a beautiful original copy of that 1662 text in its Special Collections. But to understand the significance of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), we have to go back to its beginning.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, held by Keble College

Under Henry VIII, England broke with the Catholic Church and its leaders in Rome, but the mercurial Henry never fully committed to Protestantism either, largely maintaining Catholic forms of worship and leaving an English church that was, in the eyes of many, still far too Catholic. That changed during the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, a convinced evangelical. Edward’s newly Protestant English church needed a new form of worship to reflect its new theology. Enter the reforming Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who in 1549 produced the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer, one of the most memorable and influential texts in the history of the English language

When the BCP was introduced, however, far more striking than the quality of its English was the fact that it was in English at all. Until that point, worship in England had been conducted in Latin, from a variety of service books – one for mass, another for services like baptisms and funerals, and another still for the eight daily services comprising the Divine Office. The Book of Common Prayer replaced these with a single English text.

Just as dramatically, the focal point of the medieval mass – the elevation of the host at the moment of consecration – was abolished. The text of the service was altered to portray the Eucharist as a sacrament of communion and thanksgiving, rather than a sacrifice to God. Any suggestions that human works contributed to salvation were stamped out, in favour of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Some of the editions of the Book of Common Prayer, held by Keble College

Despite all this, Cranmer was determined to go still further. He had been frustrated in his first attempt by the House of Lords, in which sat the still largely conservative Lords Spiritual. As a result, the first edition of 1549 was a compromise which for all its changes retained many Catholic elements, including the use of stone altars, clerical vestments, and the essential structure of the mass.

Though moderate relative to the new Protestant services taking shape in mainland Europe, it was still a radical departure from anything that had gone before and proved deeply unpopular in many parts of the country. Attempts to introduce the prayer book sparked rebellions in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Devon, and Cornwall, which led to more than five thousand deaths.

But the first edition was never more than a waypoint on the road of reform. Three years later in 1552, a new edition of the BCP was produced, which excised the words “mass” and “altar”, rearranged the Eucharistic Rite to emphasize still further its memorial, rather than sacrificial, character, and eliminated all clerical vestments save for a simple surplice.

Detail from title page from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

However, that text lasted less than a year. In July of 1553, Edward VI died, aged just fifteen, and was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, a Catholic, who rapidly restored the Latin Mass, with its altars, rood screens, vestments, and traditional Eucharistic theology, and burned Cranmer at the stake for good measure. Despite his premature death, Cranmer’s influence lived on. In 1558 Elizabeth I acceded to the throne and in 1559 she re-issued the prayer book, largely preserving the 1552 text, albeit with aspects of the 1549 prayer book restored, notably its more ambiguous Eucharistic theology and use of clerical vestments. These alterations foreshadowed Elizabeth’s approach to religion throughout her reign – her church would be both Catholic and reformed, scrupulously charting a middle course between what it saw as the dual extremes of Popish corruption and reckless enthusiasm for change.

Forty years after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, however, just such enthusiasm was back in vogue, at least among the Parliamentarian camp which rebelled against King Charles I in the English Civil War. In 1645, the by then Puritan Parliament outlawed the Book of Common Prayer, replacing it with the decidedly less literary Directory of Public Worship – a text which most parishes across the country simply refused to adopt.

Detail from title page from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a new religious settlement was needed. With this aim, in 1661 the newly minted Bishop of London, Gilbert Sheldon, convened the Savoy Conference in his Thameside lodgings at the Savoy Hospital. The Anglican side was represented by twelve bishops, led by the Archbishop of York, Accepted Frewen, while the Puritans and Presbyterians were represented by twelve ministers, led by Richard Baxter. Baxter and the Presbyterians pushed for the approval of an alternative service book for those who could not accept the BCP. However, their attempts were rebuffed, and in 1662 a revised prayer book was issued which was, if anything, more conservative than that which had gone before.

Contents page from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

The “manual acts” by which the priest held the bread and cup while saying the words of consecration, which had been removed from the 1552 prayer book, were restored, the word “amen” was inserted after the words of institution, to further separate the consecration and the communion, and uneaten communion bread and wine were now to be reverently consumed in the church, rather than taken home by the priest.

An Act for Uniformity from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

This was compounded by the Act of Uniformity, which mandated that all services in the Church of England be performed according to the Book of Common Prayer and led to the mass expulsion of more than two thousand dissenting ministers from the established church, a crucial moment in the development of English non-conformity.

It is that 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, which proved so controversial, that went on to shape the religion of millions of people the world over. Already, it reflected England’s changing place in that world. In addition to the theological alterations, this edition included “Prayers to be Used at Sea”, and a rite for “The Ministration of Baptism to such as are of riper years” – i.e. adults, specifically the non-Christian people English explorers and colonists were beginning to encounter. These were sure signs that what had been a marginal European power when Cranmer first put pen to page was rapidly becoming a world empire.

Title page from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

By that empire, the Book of Common Prayer was spread across the globe, and it continues to shape language and liturgy in Britain, and everywhere British imperialists planted their flag. “Sudden death”, “to have and to hold”, “peace in our time” – modern English is shot through with phrases from the Book of Common Prayer. The same can be said for our literature; Vile Bodies, A Moveable Feast, Devices and Desires, and The Children of Men all take their titles straight from the BCP. It even influences the writing we do every day – whenever I read an email signed “all good things” it is hard not to think of Cranmer’s melodic “all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works”. Moreover, the Book of Common Prayer bears like tree rings the indelible marks of perhaps the most tumultuous and transformative century in all of English history. It is as much a treasure of the English language as the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, and should be remembered and studied alongside them.