(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Book of Common Prayer is the greatest liturgical treasure of the English language. Produced by several generations of ecclesiastical leaders for more than a century after the English Reformation and the political severance of the Church of England from papal control, it establishes a style of churchmanship midway between Western Catholicism and Protestantism: reformed in doctrine, yet episcopal in polity and formal in worship, hence at once Evangelical and Catholic. In Elizabethan cadences of the same era as the King James Bible (1611), it teaches worshipers how to approach God directly, boldly, and reverently.

Thomas Cranmer was the archbishop of Canterbury when King Henry VIII in 1533 claimed that he, rather than the pope, was head of the English national church. Under Edward IV (1547-1553), Cranmer achieved his ambition to provide the English people with a liturgy in the vernacular, in place of the Latin services that had been in use hitherto. The first prayer book of 1549—compiled, edited, and translated by Cranmer and others from ancient sources (with a few prayers composed fresh) and enforced by a parliamentary act of uniformity—pleased neither those conservatives who hankered for Rome nor the Puritans, who favored more ambitious reforms. Cranmer oversaw a major revision in 1552. Despite continuing power struggles between parties, during the rule of Charles II (1660-1685), the edition of 1662 appeared, and it stood for three centuries.

The 1662 prayer book became the basis for adaptations in other provinces of the Anglican communion: in Scotland (1764), America (1789), Ireland (1877), South Africa (1954), India (1960), and Canada (1962). More recent updates—in Australia (1978), America (1979), Ireland and Wales (both 1984), Canada (1985), and South Africa and New Zealand (both 1989)—have often diverged more freely, while preserving the spirit of the original. Officially the Book of Common Prayer remains the standard for public worship in the Church of England, though in practice it is now superseded in many parishes by alternative liturgies in current idiom. The right to print the text belongs solely to the Queen’s Printer, together with the university presses at Oxford and Cambridge.

The unstated framework for all the service material in the Book of Common Prayer is the church year, a calendar of seasons and high days that gradually took shape over the course of centuries, based on the analogy of the Jewish festival cycle. Three complexes of observances flowed together to round it out: one centered on Holy Week and Easter (associated with the Jewish Passover), prepared for by Lent and flowing into Ascension and Pentecost; one centered on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), preceded by Advent and followed by Epiphany; and one that distributed commemorations of the lives of saints throughout the year. Thus the calendar affords adherents an annual opportunity to traverse the main events of the Gospel: the long period of prophetic expectation (Advent); the...

(The entire section is 1234 words.)

Book of Common Prayer Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Clarke, W. K. Lowther, and Charles Harris, eds. Liturgy and Worship: A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion. New York: Macmillan, 1932. Topical essays by experts on all facets of the Book of Common Prayer. Older but very thorough.

The Common Worship Lectionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This annual work in 2001 replaced the Alternative Service Book 1980, which was valid until 2000 in England, as the official standard for contemporary liturgies in the tradition of the Book of Common Prayer.

Hatchett, Marion J. Commentary on the American Prayer Book. New York: Seabury, 1980. A companion to the former without parallel, tracing the sources of elements old and new, and explaining the reasons for changes. Full bibliographies.

Packer, J. I. “For Truth, Unity, and Hope: Revaluing the Book of Common Prayer.” Churchman 114 (2000): 103-113. A sermon commending the evangelical qualities of the Book of Common Prayer to a congregation of Canadian Anglicans.

Procter, Francis. A New History. London: Macmillan, 1901. One of three or four classic accounts of the origins and vicissitudes of the successive versions of the Book of Common Prayer.