Book of Common Prayer

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1234

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.

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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Book of Common Prayer remains the standard for public worship in the Church of England, though in practice it is now superseded in many parishes by alternative liturgies in current idiom.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 coming of God’s Son in the person of Jesus (Christmas); his manifestation to the nations in infancy, at baptism, and through public ministry (Epiphany); his self-denial and march into danger (Lent); his betrayal, crucifixion, and burial (Holy Week); his rising from the dead (Easter); his exaltation to heaven as Messiah and Lord (Ascension); and his pouring out the end-time gift of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). Anglicans, like Lutherans, largely retained this inherited structure. In the Book of Common Prayer, Scripture readings and short prayers appointed for the Sundays of the year reflect themes of the changing seasons.

Chief among the services is the Order of the Ministration of the Holy Communion, as the set readings and collects are meant to be integrated into precisely this service week by week. In broad outline the Communion service follows the order of the Western Mass: After a recollection of God’s commandments, driving congregants to plead for mercy, there follow readings from an Epistle and a Gospel (the people standing), a recitation of the Nicene Creed, a sermon, and a pastoral prayer embracing people of all degrees and conditions; then the preparation of the table, the invitation to partake of Christ’s body and blood, and closing prayers. Yet specialists in liturgy, on comparing the Book of Common Prayer communion with the missal, note numerous shifts both of phrase and in the ordering of the elements, intended to bring the service into conformity with the doctrines of the Reformation. For example, the communion is described as “a perpetual memory” of the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world” offered “once” at Calvary, in contrast to the Roman Catholic belief that the Eucharist is a representation of Christ as victim to the Father. Instead of holding forth objectively transubstantiated bread and wine, the Book of Common Prayer bids participants, “feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” Besides the weekly Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer provides for daily morning and evening prayer, that is, services of public worship involving the ministry of the Word without sacrament, and intercessions.

Corresponding nearly to the seven sacraments of Catholicism, the Book of Common Prayer lays down forms for six ceremonies: baptism, confirmation, the Holy Communion (as described above), matrimony, the visitation of the sick, and the consecration of bishops, priests, and deacons—Penance being omitted—though it defines only two of these, Baptism and Holy Communion, as “sacraments of the Gospel.”

The Articles of Religion, or Thirty-nine Articles as they are popularly known, bear the stamp of the continental Protestant Reformation, with a few adjustments to suit a middle-of-the-road English temperament. In common with Christian antiquity, they uphold the doctrines of the Trinity, of perfect godhead and manhood united in Christ, of his atoning death and bodily resurrection (articles 1-5). In distinction from medieval Catholicism, they affirm the sufficiency of the Scriptures for salvation (article 6), an understanding of justification as sinners’ being accounted righteous before God solely for the sake of Christ’s merits, which they appropriate by faith (article 11), and the right of the king of England to function as the chief ecclesiastical power, free from foreign jurisdiction (article 37); also they maintain that councils have erred (articles 19, 21), they subordinate the authority of the church to that of the scriptures (article 20), call the doctrine of purgatory “a fond thing vainly invented” (article 22), deny that sacrifices of masses can satisfy for sins of the deceased (article 31), and so on in the same vein. However, they differ from Reformed Christianity in a few particulars: They allow for the apocryphal books of the Old Testament to be read “for example of life and instruction of manners,” albeit not “to establish any doctrine” (article 6); the robust article on predestination omits mention of the reprobation of the nonelect (article 17); and they uphold the power of the church to establish traditions and ceremonies “which be not repugnant to the Word of God . . . only by man’s authority” (article 34).

Many felicitous turns of phrase in the Book of Common Prayer have found their way into common parlance: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done” (Morning Prayer, general Confession); “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part” (Solemnization of Matrimony, giving of their troth); and “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (Burial of the Dead, at graveside, casting of earth).

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