Common Prayer

Although a formal break with the Papacy came about during the time of Henry VIII, the Church of England continued to use liturgies in Latin throughout his reign, just as it always had. However, once the young Edward VI attained the throne, the stage was set for some very significant changes in the religious life of the country. And so a consultation of bishops met and produced the first Book of Common Prayer. It is generally assumed that this book is largely the work of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, but, as no records of the development of the prayer book exist, this cannot be definitively determined.
This Book of Common Prayer was not created in a vacuum, but derives from several sources. First and foremost was the Sarum Rite, or the Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the thirteenth century, and widely used in England. Two other influences were a reformed Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quiñones, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne.

Essentially it was a selection and translation from the breviary and the missal, with some additions from other sources. It was made compulsory by the Act of Uniformity (1549). This prayer book was in use only for three years, until the extensive revision of 1552. However, much of its tradition and language remains in the prayer books of today, as may be seen by even a cursory examination of the text. Revision, undertaken by Cranmer, resulted in the Prayer Book of 1552, which showed the influence of foreign reformers then resident in England, for it made possible a wide diversity of views regarding the Eucharist, all justified by this official service book. The prayer book was in use only about eight months before Queen Mary’s repeal legislation restored Roman Catholicism in England.

The first Book of Common Prayer of 1549 did not satisfy the more extreme of the Protestant reformers in England, who demanded changes in that book. These, led by such as Martin Bucher and Peter Martyr, objected to not only the services themselves, but also to what they believed to be overly-elaborate altars and vestments for the clergy. Archbishop Cranmer eventually allied himself with the reformers, and the result was the revision of 1552.

The changes made in this prayer bok were extensive, and included, among others:
-   Added the Introductory Sentences, Exhortation, Confession and Absolution to Morning and Evening Prayer.
-   Many changes were made in the Communion office, including addition of the Decalogue, omission of the Introit, a new prayer of Consecration, rearrangement of parts of the service, etc. The Communion service was also altered to make ambiguous the traditional Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the elements. A rubric, called "the Black Rubric" (so-called as it was printed in black in 19th century versions) was added only days before final printing, over many objections, and sought to assure that kneeling at the Communion did not in any way imply adoration of the host.
-    The exorcism, annointing, the chrism, and triple immersion were omitted from the Baptism service.
-    The use of reserved sacrament was left ambiguous in the Visitation of the Sick.
-    The Burial service was drastically shortened, omitting Communion, prayers for the dead, and the psalms.

The book was introduced at the very end of 1552, and only preceeded the death of the young and sickly King Edward (pictured at right) by six months. Edward was succeeeded by Queen Mary, who quickly outlawed the Book of Common Prayer and restored the Latin rites of the Roman Catholic Church. So this prayer book never even came into general usage in England. Nevertheless, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer has had lasting impact, as the next revision, in 1559, on the accession of Elizabeth I, was based very closely on it.

From 1645 to 1660, under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, the prayer book was suppressed. In a new revision after the Restoration, it was again declared the only legal service book for use in England by an Act of Uniformity (1662). Alterations in the 1662 revision were largely those making for liturgical improvement. In 1927 a revised form was submitted to Parliament, whose approval was (and is) still required, and passed by the House of Lords but rejected by the Commons; it was resubmitted (with certain modifications) in 1928 and again rejected. Nonetheless, the revised prayer book was quite widely adopted in the Church of England with episcopal approval. This situation was finally legalized by the Prayer Book Measure, passed by Parliament in 1965. In addition to authorizing revisions already in use, the act approved the experimental use of new forms of worship drawn up by a liturgical commission; the Alternative Service Book (ASB) was adopted in 1980 and authorized for use alongside the Book of Common Prayer until the end of 2000. Revision of ASB is underway 01/01 and under the general title Common Worship some revisions have already been authorized and published. In 1789, when the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States met, a revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was adopted; it embodied such changes as were required by the new conditions. In the U.S. Episcopal Church, as in other churches of the Anglican Communion over which the British Parliament has no control, there has been greater freedom in liturgical revision; the last U.S. revision of the Book of Common Prayer was in 1979.


M. H. Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (1950)

G. Cuming, A History of Anglican Liturgy (1969, repr. 1980)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press.

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