Search Britannia

History | Travel | British Life Shop Britannia

History Quicklist

Pitkin Guides

The History of the English Book of Common Prayer
by Jeff Hobbs

B O O K  O F

Hard-Line Protestants force a Re-Write

The Prayer Book Front Plate

Walk into any Anglican cathedral or church, and the chances are that you will find a Book of Common Prayer somewhere within. Although this Prayer Book is now a well-established part of the Anglican Church service, its origins are firmly rooted in the ideological struggle of the English Reformation.

By the time Henry VIII died, in 1547, the English religion was basically still Catholic - but with a difference. Although Henry had broken with Rome and wound down the monasteries, the mass was still a Catholic one, told in Latin, and Catholic sacraments remained. Henry had dabbled with Reformist ideas, ordering that English bibles be placed in every parish, and even reducing the number of sacraments from seven to two for a short period of time. But he changed his mind, and for the last eight years of his life Catholic practices remained almost in full, although Henry persecuted hard line Reformists and Catholics alike.

It was during the short reign of Henry's son, King Edward VI, that something like real Protestantism gradually became the official religion of the country. In 1549 Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced what is now known as the First English Prayer Book, and it became the sole legal form of worship. This Prayer Book was the first attempt at putting the English service into a single volume, and it set out a format of worship to be followed throughout the year. It was a move in a Protestant direction because it emphasised scripture as the basis of the service, and some of the Catholic ceremonial elements were removed. Also, the service was now in English rather than Latin. Yet this Prayer Book was still open to both Catholic and Protestant interpretation. The order of the old Latin mass was mostly retained, and, of utmost importance at the time, the matter of transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine changed into the body and blood of Christ) was left open.

As a result of this ambiguity, Archbishop Cranmer received pressure from all manner of Reformists. Various notable foreign reformers, such as Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer, had recently fled the Counter Reformation in Europe, and sought refuge in England. They urged Cranmer to produce a genuinely reformed Prayer Book. At the same time, Bishops such as Ridley of London sometimes took their own steps beyond the first Prayer Book. For instance, from 1550 Ridley issued an order that turned all altars in his London diocese into communion tables, symbolising the removal of barriers between officiating priests and participating laity.

The result was that, in 1552, Cranmer produced a new Prayer Book. There has been much historical debate over the authorship and meaning of the Second Prayer Book, because we don't know exactly who drafted it. While Cranmer, obviously played a central role in it, it is possible that Martyr, Ridley, John Knox and Hooper amongst others may all have had some input. Whatever the authorship, the Second Prayer Book was significant because it completely altered the First Prayer Book, and put forward a much more Protestant form of worship.

The key to the Protestant emphasis of the Second Prayer Book was the stance it took on the issue of transubstantiation. The Second Prayer Book's emphasis on remembrance, and feeding by faith, made it plain that this was not Christ's body or blood that were being consumed but something that represented them. The denial of transubstantiation is rationalised by the fact that "the natural body and blood of our saviour Christ are in heaven and not here. For it is against the truth of Christ's true natural body, to be in more places than in one at one time". There were plenty of other changes too. The Catholic altar was replaced by a communion table, possibly in recognition of what Ridley and others had already done. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea of souls elected to go to heaven, also replaced the Catholic idea of salvation through good works. Therefore, whereas the First Prayer Book said that "when the judgement shall come which thou hast committed to thy well beloved Son we, may be found acceptable in thy sight, and receive blessing, the Second Prayer Book changed this to "and in whom the souls of them that be elected, after they be delivered from the burden of the flesh, be in joy and felicity". The Second Prayer Book also reduced the amount of ceremony during the service. For instance, in the baptism ceremony, the Second Prayer Book excluded the exorcism "I command thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father that thou come out, and depart from these infants".

Ironically, the new Prayer Book was only to last a year or so as the basis of worship because Edward VI died and was replaced by Mary I, a devout Catholic. Yet ultimately, as some Anglican Cathedrals and churches demonstrate, the Prayer Book was to endure.  (T) 302.234.8904    (F) 302.234.9154    Copyright 2000, LLC