An address given in our Benefice to mark the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer
On March 21st 1556, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake in Broad Street, Oxford. A metal X still marks the spot where you can, if you’re very careful, briefly pause in the middle of the traffic.
The charges against him of treason and heresy both merited the death penalty. One of the key accusations, however, was the denial of the bodily presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine at communion — a denial which contradicted Roman Catholic teaching then and now and which brought with it numerous other consequences.
For example, if Christ’s body and blood were not present, how could the Mass be a sacrifice for sins? And if the Mass were not a sacrifice, then what was it?
Cranmer had been under arrest for almost three years during which time he had been degraded from the rank of Archbishop, and he had made several recantations of his earlier views hoping for a reprieve, but to no avail.
Even in mid-March, he was still apparently willing to recant, and on the day of his execution he was allowed to give a public address in St Mary’s church, the expectation being that he would further upset the Protestant cause by a confession of his sins.
His final address, however, did not go according to his enemies plans. After some introductory remarks, he continued as follows:
And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than any other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine. http://englishhistory.net/tudor/pcranmer.html, retrieved 13 May 2012
Not surprisingly, the speech was cut short and Cranmer was rushed to the stake where, true to his word, he held his right hand out in the flames until it was burned first. .
Cranmer’s modern legacy
But the man lives on, in a remarkable legacy not only to the Church in England but across the globe. That legacy is found in what we now know as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, whose 350th anniversary we celebrate this year.
As the story of his martyrdom reminds us, that book was born out of the conflicts of the sixteenth century Reformation and, moreover, comes from a representative of the Protestant side of the debate.
This is important to bear in mind, insofar as all clergy in the Church of England are required to acknowledge the place of the Prayer Book in Anglican theology. In the Declaration of Assent (which incidentally, I took just last week), clergy affirm that,
[The Church of England] professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds ... Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.
Notice, the assent is first and foremost to “the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures”. We are a ‘Bible’ people. Nevertheless,‘formularies’ — the Thirty-nine Articles, the Ordinal and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer — are held up as repositories of this scriptural faith.
The same affirmation is also found in Canon A5. So we ought not just to be familiar with the Book of Common Prayer as an order for public worship, loved for its beautiful language or its emotional associations.
Clergy at least — and why not laity as well? — ought to understand the Book of Common Prayer doctrinally, knowing why it says what it says and what its author and its later editors set out to do.
The emergence of Cranmer
The story of the Prayer Book begins in the reign of Henry VIII and his desire for a legitimate son and heir — what became known as ‘the king’s great matter’.
In August 1529, in a conversation with Dr, later Bishop, Stephen Gardiner and the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, Dr Edward Foxe, Cranmer suggested that the universities of Europe might be canvassed for their views on Henry’s appeal for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
At the time, Cranmer was a relatively minor church figure. Nevertheless, the idea was taken up, and Cranmer himself was duly despatched to carry out the task. As he travelled through Europe, however, he came into contact with the burgeoning Protestant movement.
A clear indication of his reaction to this can be gleaned from the fact that in July of 1532 he married the niece of the wife of Andreas Osiander, one of the leading Lutheran reformers — marriage, of course, being prohibited to clergy, such as Cranmer was.
Indeed, in the early years of the English Reformation, Lutheranism was to have a significant theological impact, despite the fact that Henry the VIII was granted the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ by the Pope for writing a tract attacking Lutheran teaching.
The beginnings of reform
Henry’s own theological position was thus close to traditional Catholicism. Yet in 1532, by the King’s authority, a letter was sent to Cranmer informing him that he had been appointed Archbishop in succession to William Warham, and calling him back to England.
However, whilst Henry was alive, reformation in England could only proceed slowly and cautiously. The light was, as it were, on amber, but every now and then it would flip turn red, rather than green.
Even so, steps were taken to introduce the English language and at least some reforming ideas into the churches.
Thus In 1538, clergy were required to provide a Bible in English in their churches, to be kept where people could come and read it. In 1544, an English litany was produced which eliminated appeals to the prayers of the saints.
Nevertheless, it was not until Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by the nine-year old Edward VI that a true reformation of the liturgy could get under way.
In 1547 certain traditional ceremonies of Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Good Friday were all condemned, though not abolished. In November that year the Mass at Parliament had the Gloria, creed, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei all in English.
But it was on Whitsunday 1549, by an Act of Uniformity passed on the 14th March, that the whole realm was introduced to the first Book of Common Prayer in English.
The purpose of the book
One unintended consequence was that riots broke out in Cornwall, basically because although the Cornish didn’t understand Latin, they didn’t understand English either.
Cranmer’s efforts at revision, however, were about much more than having services in the vernacular, important though this was. Indeed in private, people were allowed to use any language they liked.
Nevertheless, in the Preface to the first Prayer Book Cranmer tells us clearly what he thought he was doing at this stage.
There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted: As, among other things, it may plainly appear by the Common Prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service. The first original and ground whereof if a man would search out by the ancient Fathers, he shall find, that the same was not ordained but of a good purpose, and for a great advancement of godliness. For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once every year; intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers in the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation in God’s word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth; and further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) might continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true Religion.
The chief aim of liturgical revision, then, was educational: that priest and people might be “stirred up to godliness ... and ... inflamed with the love of true ... Religion.” of both priest and people.
And the means to this end was to be the daily reading and hearing of the Scriptures, morning and evening.
Matins and Evensong
In this respect, then, Matins and Evensong were arguably the most important elements of the revision process. They provided the backbone, ensuring that the whole Bible (including the Apocrypha) was read through once a year, and the Psalter every month.
Significantly, these services were much shorter than we are used to. There were no introductory sentences and no confession. Matins begins with the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the Venite and the psalms, then the first lesson, followed by the Te Deum or Benedicite.
After that came the second lesson, the Benedictus, the kyrie eleison in English, the Creed and the Lord’s prayer again (said by the minister) finishing with versicles and responses and three collects.
Evensong was even shorter. Beginning again with the Lord’s prayer, the psalms were followed by the first lesson and the Magnificat. The second lesson was followed by the Nunc Dimittis. There was no rubric for the Creed and the Lord’s prayer, just the versicles and responses followed by the Collect for the day and the evening collects.
The bulk of the service was taken up by reading or repeating material from the Bible, but there was no sermon, perhaps not surprisingly since that would have required fourteen sermons per week.
In any case, most clergy couldn’t preach, which is why later on official ‘Homilies’ were written to be read in place of home-grown sermons.
‘Commonly Called the Masse’
Matins and Evensong represented a radically ‘boiled down’ version of the seven monastic daily offices, now designed for attendance by the laity.
The service of Holy Communion, however, was in many ways a less radical revision, as partly indicated by its title: “The Supper of the Lord and Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass.”
Though it was in English, the service still had some of the feel of the old Mass, not least in referring to the altar which would still have been against the east wall of the Church.
Prayer Book users today, however, would be especially aware of differences from 1662 in the section after the so-called sursum corda, the instruction to, “Lift up your hearts.” This was followed by the proper prefaces, as today, but then by the prayer we know as the prayer for the Church militant, which we have much sooner.
And then, without any break, this same prayer moves into the consecration. Thus after praying for the faithful departed, that God would grant them “mercy, and everlasting peace” the prayer continues with,
God hevenly father [sic], which of thy tender mercie diddest give thine only son Jesu Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption ... [and so on] (http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/Communion_1549.htm, retrieved 16 May 2012)
Nevertheless, the sacrifice of the Mass has been removed. Instead, the sacrificial element of Christ’s death is located entirely at the cross, where (in words familiar to us) he made,
... (by his one oblacion once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifyce, oblacion, and satysfaccyon, for the sinnes of the whole worlde ... [and so on]
Even so, significant attention is paid to the bread and wine, with the priest making the sign of the cross over them whilst praying as follows:
Heare us (O merciful father) we besech thee; and with thy holy spirite and worde, vouchsafe to bl+esse and sanc+tifie these thy gyftes, and creatures of bread and wyne, that they maie be unto us the bodye and bloude of thy moste derely beloved sonne Jesus Christe.
And as he relates the words of Jesus, the rubrics require that the priest takes the bread into his hands and similarly the cup.
Then, whilst still facing the ‘altar’, but “without any elevation, or showing the Sacrament to the people”, the priest says what we know as the Prayer of Humble Oblation, beseeching God, “mercifully to accepte this our Sacrifice of praise and thankesgeving” and offering “oure selfe, oure soules, and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice”.
After this comes the Lord’s Prayer, the invitation to confession, the confession itself, the absolution, the ‘comfortable words’ and the Prayer of Humble Access: “We do not presume to come to this thy table (o merciful Lord)” and so on, all before receiving the actual bread and wine with the words,
The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee [or, the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee], preserve they body and soul unto everlasting life.
All this was to change dramatically just three years later.
It is a matter of conjecture to what extent Cranmer intended his first prayer book as an interim measure. What is certain is that the second was ready by late 1552.
Matins and Evensong were now Morning and Evening Prayer and the introductory material of sentences, confession and absolution had been added, along with the options of some other canticles.
However, it is in the service of Holy Communion, now titled, ‘The Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper’, that the doctrinal influences behind this further revision can most clearly be seen.
Gone is any reference to the ‘Mass’. More dramatically, from the point of view, literally, of those attending the service, the altar has disappeared not just from the east end of the church, but from the language of the liturgy.
Instead, the opening rubrics now state that,
The Table having at the Communion time a fair white linen cloth upon it, shall stand in the body of the Church, or in the chancel where Morning prayer and Evening prayer be appointed to be said. And the Priest standing at the north side of the Table, shall say the Lord’s prayer, with this Collect following.
But there is more — much more — for all the material which previously stood between the words said over the bread and wine and their reception by the congregation has now been moved.
The Prayer of Humble Oblation — our offering of ourselves and of our sacrifice of ‘thanks and praise’ — is now an option after reception, removing any suggestion that elements themselves might be a ‘sacrificial’ offering.
The Lord’s Prayer similarly now occurs after reception. The confession, absolution and comfortable words, come after the prayer for the Church Militant, and this itself comes just after the sermon and collection, whilst the prayer of Humble Access now follows the proper prefaces, immediately before the memorial prayer.
In other words, everything after the words “do this as oft as you shall drinke it, in remembraunce of me” has gone. Instead, we move straight from the instructions of Christ to doing what they say without even and ‘Amen’.
But there are hugely important changes in the material preceding reception. Previously the priest had prayed for God Holy Spirit and word to “sanctify” the bread and wine “that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ” — the so called epiclesis, or calling of the Spirit upon the elements.
Now, the emphasis shifts from the bread and wine to the communicants themselves:
Hear us, O merciful Father, we most humbly beseech thee; and grant that we receiving these thy creatures of bread and wine ... may be partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood. (Emphasis added)
The same shift from the bread and wine to the believer is seen in the words of distribution. Now the priest says,
Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving. (Emphasis added)
This absence of any change in the bread and wine is emphasised also by the absence of manual acts. No longer does the priest have to take hold of the bread and wine during the prayer, or make the sign of the cross over them.
In fact, the rubrics contain no instruction about the bread and the wine at all. As to what happens to them afterwards, they say,
... if any of the bread or wine remain, the Curate [ie the priest] shall have it to his own use.
In place of bread and wine transformed by the priest who gives the body and blood of Christ outwardly to the recipients, we have faithful recipients, transformed by the Spirit, who feed on Christ inwardly by faith.
The liturgiologist Gregory Dix, whilst no fan of Cranmer, once described his communion service as “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’” (Quoted in David Wheaton, ‘Cranmer – Psychologist as well as Theologian?’, Crossway, Autumn 2002, 86) http://www.churchsociety.org/crossway/documents/Cway_086_CranmerPsychologist.pdf, retrieved 13 May 2012.
Certainly by 1553, every parish church in England, equipped with the Bible, the Prayer Book and a copy of the homilies — pre-written sermons to be read out by those who couldn’t preach — was in a position to conduct a Protestant and Reformed ministry.
Unfortunately, things did not stop there.
In July that year, the sickly Edward died, and after a brief struggle for the throne, was succeeded by his half-sister, Mary who promptly set about returning the country to Romanism, enthusiastically aided by many of the bishops who had opposed Cranmer’s reforms.
Cranmer was implicated in the plot to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne and, as we have seen, eventually followed his episcopal colleagues Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley to the stake.
But Mary’s persecution soon earned her the name ‘Bloody Mary’, and the witness of Protestant martyrs, many of whom were ordinary lay people, combined with Mary’s marriage to a Spaniard, Philip II, began to generate support for the Protestant cause.
In any case, Mary herself was not in good health, and when she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.
The Elizabethan Settlement
Elizabeth’s personal religious inclinations are harder to assess than either of her siblings. However, her religious politics are clear.
As early as 1559, Elizabeth’s parliament had passed a new Act of Uniformity restoring the 1552 Prayer Book. It included, however, some amendments which, though minor in themselves, gave a foretaste of meddling to follow.
In particular, the words of administration of 1549 were added back in, making the overlong version we now have today, but designed to salve the consciences of those for whom the words of 1552 were perhaps just a bit too Protestant.
There were, however, still no manual acts and no ‘Amen’ before the administration, and the Curate could still have any left-over bread and wine to his own use. Cranmer’s intentions were thus largely preserved.
However, Elizabeth faced conflicting religious forces. Roman Catholicism was increasingly seen as a ‘foreign’ influence, hostile to English interests, though many of her bishops and clergy were sympathetic to the old religion.
On the other hand, a vocal company of exiles were now returning, bringing with them demands for greater reforms in line with continental Protestantism. This “hotter sort of Protestant” became known as Puritans. And the antagonism between the Puritans and the hierarchy now became crucial both to the history of the Prayer Book and the history of the nation.
Although Elizabeth has often been hailed as a Protestant heroine, she actually used her bishops to suppress many of the activities and some of the influence of the Puritans.
When she died in 1603, the nearest successor was James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. Thus the English throne passed from the Welsh House of Tudor to the Scottish House of Stuart.
It was this James who famously coined the aphorism, “No bishop, no king”, which gives some idea where his sympathies lay.
In 1604, the Puritan party presented James with a petition, the Millenary Petition, seeking reforms in the Church’s order of worship. James, however, disliked the Puritans, perhaps because of his experiences in Scotland, and their requests were resisted.
The Prayer Book of 1604 was thus very much like that of 1559, and therefore its predecessor of 1552.
When James died in 1625, however, his James second son, Charles, became King of England, Scotland and Ireland, and Charles’s sympathies were even less with the Puritans than those of his father.
Furthermore, Archbishop William Laud, appointed in 1633, did much to reverse the earlier reforms, not least by rearranging the architecture of the churches.
Laud had the communion tables put back in the old position of the altar, creating what came to be known as the ‘ping-pong’ position, whereby clergy following the prayer Book rubric continued to administer from the ‘north side’ of the table, even those this was now at the short end on the left.
When he tried to impose a revision of the Prayer Book on Scotland, however, Charles overreached himself. A rebellion broke out, and although Charles achieved a settlement with his opponents this led eventually to the English Civil War, during which Laud was executed and after which so was Charles.
A few months after the execution of William Laud in 1645, the Book of Common Prayer was actually banned, in both public and private use as representing what one critic called the Church ‘but halfly reformed’.
At the same time, many churches and chapels experienced that purging of their ornaments and architecture that we still see signs of today. Stained glass windows were smashed and statues literally defaced.
Puritanism was thus momentarily triumphant, but the effects were not welcome, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660 so too was the Prayer Book, along with the Bishops, who, unlike a century earlier, were now virtually unanimous in being its keen supporters.
Thus the book which had once been the instrument of religious reform now became a stick with which to beat the new reformers.
In 1661 the Bishops and the Presbyterian leaders of the Commonwealth churches met at the Savoy Conference.
The presbyterians were still hopeful of reform, and of a further purifying of the Church’s worship. Some of their demands may seem odd to us, with others we might have more sympathy.
Virtually all their demands, however, were rejected, though oddly enough one of the changes in the 1662 book, the reintroduction of the manual acts with the bread and wine, was actually a request of the Puritans themselves, despite this contradicting the spirit of what Cranmer had intended.
The 1662 Communion service saw other additions that changed the emphasis of Cranmer’s work, not least in the addition of an ‘Amen’ after Christ’s words but before reception, which turned the words prior to the actual administration into a separate prayer, and subtly disrupted the flow of the liturgy.
Elsewhere in the liturgy, the baptism service now included a prayer for the blessing of the water. In these and other ways, the 1662 service was more ‘high churchy’, than its original.
Moreover, the reintroduction of this revised Prayer Book was accompanied by draconian measures against clergy who could not conform to demands for its use — the ‘Nonconformists’.
In 1662, thousands were thrown out of the Church of England in what became known as the Great Ejection. In 1664 the Conventicle Act forbade this new breed of Dissenters even to worship, in 1665 the appropriately-named Five Mile Act forbade Nonconformist ministers from living within five miles of parish from which they had been expelled, and in 1673, in common with Roman Catholics, the Dissenters among the Nonconformists were barred from public office in England by the Test Act.
Thus the former focus of religious liberation became the focus of religious oppression at the hands, it has to be said, of the Church of England with its ‘high’ view of itself, its ‘low’ view of everyone else and its close alliance with the state.
To the present
Yet ironically, it was the High Church party which subsequently began to dissent from the theology, if not yet the letter, of the Prayer Book.
We must pass over the Tractarians, the Oxford Movement and the conflicts over ritualism, but in the 19th and early 20th century the outward forms of Anglican ritual were changed beyond recognition, and often against the law, back to things that had been eliminated at the Reformation and not seen since — including liturgical colours, frontals, vestments, candles and so on.
We must also skip over the attempted introduction of more ‘Catholic’ elements in what became known as the 1928 Prayer Book.
Instead, we must move to the post-war period.
One of the great objections by ‘academics’ to the 1662 book was not its archaic language but the fact that it was patterned on the more radical 1552 book, rather than the less radical revision of 1559.
One of the great influences in this debate was the aforementioned Gregory Dix, author of the 1945 book The Shape of the Liturgy.
As the title of his book suggests, Dix argued that the really important thing was the shape of the liturgy — the order of things. And although Dix’s influence waned over the subsequent years, when you compare modern Anglican Communion services with the Book of Common Prayer, the differences are clear.
The new services follow Dix’s suggested ‘shape’ of taking, blessing, breaking and giving. There are now special prayers available at the preparation of the table. There are several options for the Eucharistic Prayers, but unlike in 1662, nowhere does reception follow Jesus’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Instead, there is a great section of material, including the Lord’s Prayer.
In fact, we are back in the world of 1549, and Cranmer’s ‘semi-Protestant’ first effort.
As things stand at present, the liturgical wheel seems to have come full circle.
The introduction of the Book of Common Prayer was meant to establish a common use throughout the realm. It also simplified the worship of the Church. In the place of numerous book and rules, the English church now had just one book, and a simple procedure to follow throughout the year.
Today, we once again need several books and the potential variations are endless.
Gone, too, is the stark clarity of Cranmer’s emphasis on sin and forgiveness as the basis of our relationship with God. Here is the opening of the confession from the Common Worship service of Holy Communion:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.
And here are the equivalent words from 1662,
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty, Provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We are, it seems, in a different world theologically and well as linguistically.
There is also the problem of the increasing unfamiliarity not just of congregations but of clergy with the Prayer Book.
Although the Prayer Book is part of our formularies, it no longer forms part of our lives or shapes our thinking about God and our relationship with him.
Even so, we must not be Prayer Book romantics. The Church of England had nothing but the book of Common Prayer from 1662 until 1928, and nothing very different from the Book of Common Prayer from then until the mid-1960s.
Yet the quality of the church’s life was very variable, and it was outside the established church, in Non-conformity in general, and Methodism in particular, that the most effective forms of evangelicalism thrived until the last decades of the 20th century.
It would be claiming too much to say that a return to the Prayer Book as such will save us — quick fixes in religion, as in other things, are rarely effective.
But it is surely fair to suggest that the Church of England cannot find the inner strength it needs whilst it blatantly disregards the lessons and gains of the past.
We should surely repent of the way in which the Prayer Book was once used as an instrument to maintain the privileges of the Church of England over other forms of English Christianity, but we must not throw out the theological baby with the historical bathwater.
The Book of Common Prayer should be something with which we are familiar enough for it to inform our theology, our liturgy and our spirituality. And that means putting it to regular, if not necessarily frequent use.
That way, it will be able to inform those parts of our own selves and the life of our church which no other resource today seems equipped to reach.
16 May 2012Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: