The Book of Common Prayer
United States England Scotland Ireland Wales Canada World

    Everyman's History of the Prayer Book
by Percy Dearmer




THERE are two books in the English language which stand out pre-eminent above all others, which are better known and greater even than the works of our greatest poets. They are the Bible and the Book, of Common Prayer. We may, indeed, regard the Bible as within the Prayer Book; since the Prayer Book, in its Table of Lessons, arranges for the Bible to be read through, day by day, once in the year, and thus a Bible is as necessary for the conduct of Divine Service as a Prayer Book. Moreover, the Prayer Book itself contains the whole Psalter (taken, not from the Authorized Version of 1611, but from the Great Bible of 1540), as well as that ancient collection from the greatest passages of the New Testament (with a few from the Old) called the Epistles and Gospels for the Communion Service.

The theology also and the thought of the Prayer Book are everywhere in the closest conformity with the teaching of the New Testament ; and the second preface, "Concerning the Service of the Church" (which was the original preface to the First English Prayer Book), bases the whole Reformation,. so far as the Divine Service was concerned, upon the need of daily Bible reading in the mother tongue at "the Common Prayers in the Church." This, the preface says, was the method of the ancient Fathers, who 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 more inflamed with the love of his true religion."

(A village church, unspoilt, and truly restored, with a famous late-Gothic screen.)



Thus the Divine Service of the English Church, and of all the other Anglican Churches now in communion with her, is based upon the need of daily Bible-reading in the house of God. Those who only go to church on Sundays hear, it is true, a good deal of the Scriptures in the Lessons and Psalms, the Epistles and Gospels but they do not hear the Bible as a whole, and therefore they do not carry out this great principle of the English Reformation as laid down in the Book of Common Prayer.

Our Book, then, is an instrument of the Bible, and, as it were, a framework to the Bible, carrying with itself the whole Scriptures into the service of the Church. Thus the Bible is given a place supreme, as the sacred library of the Christian revelation. It is the greatest book in the world; but next to it, among English books, the English-speaking nations of the world would place the Book of Common Prayer. That is to say, we have in all the churches and chapels of the Anglican Communion1 from New Zealand to the Himalaya, from Alaska to the Cape of Good Hope the two greatest books of the English language in common daily use.

1 Here, for the sake of clearness, in the first and last footnote of this book, let me say that the terms "Anglican Church" and "Anglican Communion" are comprehensive terms, describing the mother Church of England and all the other Churches, such as the Episcopal Churches of Scotland and America, which are in communion with her. A list of these Anglican Churches is given on p. 23.

(See p. 56.)

Yet, in its very ordering of the Bible the Prayer Book protects us against that unintelligent jumbling together of the Old and New Testaments which has caused so many people to doubt the Christian revelation altogether. By our use of the Bible in Church we are reminded every day that it is a collection of books, some of which have a higher value than others, while the New Testament holds a position markedly different from that of the Old. Certain parts of the Old Testament are frankly put aside as not suitable for Church reading at all, while the sublimest passages are read twice, thrice, or even four times a year, and the Psalms are said or sung twelve times. Again, whereas the Old Testament as a whole is read through once a year, the New Testament is read twice ; and in the highest of the Christian services, the Holy Communion, the New Testament is read almost exclusively. Nor is there wanting even here an important distinction the most precious part of the whole Bible, the record of our Lord's deeds and sayings in the four Gospels, is marked (in accordance with very ancient custom) by special ceremonial, and all the people stand; whereas, when the letters of the Apostles are read in the Epistle for the day, the people sit.



THIS noble liturgical heritage has not come down to us without many struggles. Nowadays, though there are still parties and prejudices in the Christian Church, yet Churchmen of all parties agree in their devotion to the Book of Common Prayer — even those who neglect to carry out many of its directions; and our nonconformist brothers also, though some of the old misunderstandings between us still remain, do in great measure regard the Prayer Book as a heritage which they possess in common with us. We are glad that it should be so; we are glad to see that they use it more and more, so that their services are permeated with its noble phrases, while in some of their churches the appointed forms of worship are almost indistinguishable from our own.

But it was not always so. A movement arose in the 16th century, which threatened the very existence of liturgical services, and which indeed triumphed during those fifteen years of Cromwellian absolutism, when Parliament was silenced and England governed by a military dictatorship. The use of the Prayer Book was forbidden by law from 1645 till the Restoration in 1660, and its' place was taken by the Directory for Public Worship, which gave only general directions as to what the minister was to do. The opposition to ordered forms of liturgical worship grew in intensity, and the time came when the Presbyterians of Scotland (who had at first used the Genevan "Book of Common Order): would not even say the Lord s Prayer, because it was a set form During the last half-century Scottish Presbyterians have been successfully reviving the use or liturgical services; but none the less there are still many people all over the world, who prefer extemporary prayer.

(The altar and screen of Peterborough Cathedral, destroyed by the Puritan soldiers in 1634.)

It is worth while, therefore, asking ourselves at the outset, Is liturgical worship a good thing, or ought the minister to make up his own prayers?

Now, there is very much to be said for extemporaneous worship in church; it is often a most useful instrument in mission work, it is an indispensable way of bringing the idea of worship to the ignorant, it secures the necessary element of freedom; furthermore, it may bring
spontaneity and vitality into a service, and be a good corrective to formalism — indeed, when I have heard our Church Service droned through in some church, without devotion, care, or love (as is still, alas! sometimes the case), I have wished that the Bishop could abolish all set forms of worship in that church for a month or two, until priest and people woke up to their privileges.

Nor is there anything alien to Church ways or wrong in principle about extempore services. Indeed in the earliest days of the Church the celebrant at the Eucharist used to pray thus. The service went on certain general lines, but the " president" filled it in according to his own ideas, and offered up "prayers and thanksgivings with all his strength," the people saying "Amen" (as is told on p. 185). it was only by degrees that the prayers thus offered became fixed. Those, therefore, who argue that everything which was not done in the first two or three centuries must therefore be wrong, should logically include liturgical worship among the things they condemn. But perhaps sensible people in the 20th century no longer argue thus. 


  We can perhaps realize best the objections to regular extemporaneous worship if we quote the greatest English defender of it, John Milton. Ah! if only he had been on the other side, what matchless collects he might have added to the Prayer Book at the Restoration! Now Milton objected to a liturgy because he thought it a slur upon the extemporary powers of the minister: "Well may men of eminent gifts," he wrote, "set forth as many forms and helps to prayer as they please ; but to impose them on ministers lawfully called and sufficiently tried . . . is a supercilious tyranny, impropriating the Spirit of God to themselves." On which Professor Raleigh dryly comments: " Milton, we know, did not habitually attend public worship at any of the conventicles of the sectaries, or perhaps he might have found reason to modify this censure."

Milton's mistake, was, in fact, a very simple one. He thought that every minister, would be a Milton. He did not realize what a deadly thing average custom can be, what a deadly bore an average man can make of himself when compelled to do continually a thing for which he has no natural gift. He did not foresee the insidious danger of unreality and cant. We should all, of course, flock to hear Milton praying extempore, if he were to come to life again ; but there are many mute, inglorious ministers whom we would rather not hear.

To put the prayers as well as the sermon in the hands of the officiating minister is indeed a form of sacerdotalism which the Church most wisely rejected many centuries ago. We know what a joy and help it would be to hear an inspired saint, with a genius for rapid prose composition, make up prayers as he went along; and opportunities for extemporization do exist outside the appointed services. But the Church has to provide for the average man, and has to guard against that form of clerical absolutism which would put a congregation at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of one person. For extempore services, which should be a safeguard for freedom, can easily degenerate into a tyranny.

There is, let it be admitted, a certain loss in always having very familiar prayers; and if there has been formalism in extempore prayer, there has too often been an even worse formalism in the use of the Prayer Book. Indeed it is no mere paradox to say that the service least in danger of formalism is that which has many outward forms ; for history and a wide knowledge of Christendom show us that good ceremonies are a great preservative against Pharisaism. The reason for this is that action, music, colour, form, sight, scent, and sound appeal more freely to the individual worshipper, and more subtly, relieving the pressure of a rigid phraseology, and allowing the spirit many ways of rising up to God, unhampered by the accent of the workaday voice of man. It is only thus that the wonderful intensity of devotion among the Russian people, for instance, can be accounted for: we have no popular religious affection in the West which can compare with the evangelical spirit of this hundred million of Christians, who yet have used nothing but their very ancient forms of prayer during the thousand years since their race was first converted.

(9th century.),

Thus, while we must secure the treasure of comprehensiveness by having a place both for spontaneous prayer and for those quiet meetings of silence which have given such a wonderful strength to Quakerism, we may be confident that liturgical worship is the best of all. There is some loss in the use of printed words; but there is a greater gain. We have in them the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the Christian Church, the garnered excellence of the saints. We are by them released from the accidents of time and place. Above all we are preserved against the worst dangers of selfishness: in the common prayer we join together in a great fellowship that is as wide as the world; and we are guided, not by the limited notions of our own priest, nor by the narrow impulses of our own desires, but by the mighty voice that rises from the general heart of Christendom.

Our Lord had the ancient forms of the Church in which he lived often on his lips, and in the moment of his supreme agony it was a liturgical sentence, a fragment of the familiar service, that was wrung from him— "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" We have a richer heritage, for it is a heritage dowered by his Spirit; and from our treasure-house come things new and old. Now we love the old; yet will we not forget the new. We will try to avoid the danger, so common still among us, of being only able to pray by the book; remembering that there is a place and a real use for extemporary prayer, and a still greater use for the silent prayer which is above words altogether. These very things will keep fresh and sweet for us those old set forms, in which we can join so well because we know beforehand what they are about, and in which for the same reason all the people can come together in the fellowship of common prayer.

Next chapter ->


Return to Everyman's History of the Prayer Book

Web author: Charles Wohlers U. S. EnglandScotlandIrelandWalesCanadaWorld