The Book of Common Prayer
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    Everyman's History of the Prayer Book
by Percy Dearmer




ENGLAND turned with shouts of joy from the rancour and violence of the Commonwealth, from the spiritual despotism of the Presbyterians and of the Independents who ousted them, and from the resulting distraction and impiety, to the Restoration of Church and King, and of free Parliamentary institutions. The year 166o brought freedom of conscience to Churchmen — though, alas! they soon proceeded to revenge themselves by denying it to Nonconformists. So great was the demand for Prayer Books that, before 1660 had reached its close, five editions of the old Book were printed.

But the Prayer Book had not been revised since 1604, and many agreed at least in this — that a new revision was needed. It was the only point about which the two parties in the State did agree, as the Savoy Conference was soon to show. But first, while King Charles II was still in Holland, a company of Presbyterian divines went to the Hague with the Parliamentary deputation that was to bring Charles back (May 10, 1660), and asked that, as the Prayer Book had long been discontinued, the King should not use it when he landed. They also asked that his chaplains should give up using the surplice. The King replied with his usual keenness of wit, that he would not be restrained himself when others had so much indulgence. But after he was come back the Puritans continued their pressure, and asked that the Prayer Book might be made like the liturgies of the Reformed Churches. There were nine Bishops still alive; and they made the excellent reply that "the nearer both their forms and ours come to the liturgy of the ancient Greek and Latin Churches, the less are they liable to the objections of the common enemy." The King issued a declaration on October 25, 166o, promising a conference, and allowing freedom meanwhile.


On April 15, 1661, the Savoy Conference met: it consisted of twelve Bishops (including John Cosin of Durham, Robert Sanderson of Lincoln, and Gilbert Sheldon of London), with nine coadjutors (including John Pearson (author of the famous Exposition of the Creed, afterwards Bishop of Chester), Peter Heylin, Peter Gunning, Anthony Sparrow, Herbert Thorndike, on the one side; and on the other, twelve Presbyterian Divines (including Richard Baxter, author of The Saints' Rest, and Edmund Calamy), with nine coadjutors.

We have not space here to reprint the " Exceptions" of the Ministers to the Book of Common Prayer, or the "Answer of the Bishops to the Exceptions" : they are given in E. Cardwell's History of Conferences, and are well summarized in Procter and Frere. But they throw so valuable a light upon the great battle of the Prayer Book in the 17th century, upon its principles and those of its opponents, that the reader will be glad to have some of the more important Exceptions before him, with the Answers of the Bishops, which here are condensed and printed in italics.

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One point emerges at once — the truth of Milton's epigram that Presbyter was but old Priest writ large. Some of the "Exceptions" are clerical autocracy writ very large indeed: the Puritans wished to give the minister power to refuse Baptism to a child, if he considered their parents to be heretical or notorious sinners. We may be thankful that the Bishops replied, We think this to be very hard and uncharitable, and giving also too great and arbitrary a power. Similarly they wished to give greater liberty to the minister in the Absolution (Visitation of the Sick), and the Bishops answered that the giving of absolution must not depend upon the minister's pleasure, but on the sick man's penitence. They also desired that the minister should be urged to use full power "both to admit and to keep from the Lord's Table." They further proposed to deprive the people of their share in the service — the repetitions and responses, the Kyries after the Commandments (the minister to say instead "a suitable prayer" at the end), and the alternate reading of the Psalms and Hymns, declaring "the people's part in public prayer to be only with silence and reverence to attend thereunto, and to declare their consent in the close, by saying Amen." It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that they desired the minister to face the people all through the service — an obtrusive piece of clericalism from which many denominations still suffer:
to this the Bishops replied, Not so, and pointed out that in the ancient Church the minister always turned with the people when he acted as their spokesman.

The minister, thus exalted, must have the entire service in his own hands: the Puritan Divines, therefore, not only wished him to have discretion to "omit part" of the appointed service and substitute extempore prayer, but also they desired that the collects should be melted down into "one methodical and entire form of prayer composed out of many of them," and that the Litany should be changed "into one solemn prayer." Think of it — think that if the Bishops had given way in 1661, we should to-day go to church and find a frock-coated gentleman confronting us to say the whole Litany without a break as one solemn prayer, while we had no share but "with silence and reverence to attend thereunto" and to say "Amen" when he had finished!

The Ornaments Rubric was to be omitted, "forasmuch as this rubric seemeth to bring back the cope, albe, etc., and other vestments forbidden by the Common Prayer Book, 5 and 6 Edw. VI" (the Second Book); to which the Bishops replied, We think it fit that the rubric continue as it is. The Surplice, the Cross in Baptism, and kneeling at Communion are objected to as "fountains of evil"; the wedding-ring is to be optional. There is to be "nothing in the Liturgy which may seem to countenance the observation of Lent as a religious fast"; and the "religious observation of saints' days . . . and the vigils thereof is to be omitted." The word "Sunday" was objected to, and not only "Priest," but even that most harmless of words, "Curate." The Bishops replied to such criticisms as these by referring to Catholic usage, and to a Custom of the Churches of God, agreeable to the Scripture and ancient, and to the Catholic Consent of antiquity.

(The Communion, c. 1500.)


The Puritan Divines also objected to those phrases in the Prayer Book which assume all the congregation "to be regenerated, converted, and in an actual state of grace" : the Bishops replied by pointing to St. Paul's use of the word "saints." The Puritans objected also to the charitable assumptions of the Burial Service (It is better to be charitable and hope the best, said the Bishops), and asked for a rubric declaring that the prayers and exhortations are not for the benefit of the dead (the Bishops significantly ignored this). They also demanded a rubric allowing ministers not to go to the graveside unless they thought fit, to which the Bishops replied that, since this was not asked for the ease of tender consciences, but of tender heads, the desire may be helped by a cap better than a rubric. Bishops, indeed, were not afraid to be witty in those days, or to speak in homely fashion, as when they met the demand for omitting all Lessons from the Apocrypha by the remark, It is heartily to be wished that sermons were as good; for, said they, if nothing ought to be heard in church except the Old and New Testaments, then there would be no sermons either.

Very few of us at the present day, whether Churchmen or Nonconformists, would agree with these objections, many of which were undeniably fractious and captious while others depended upon a theology now obsolete. It is a mercy, for instance, that the Bishops did not give way to the Puritan demand that "inheritors" in the Catechism should be altered to "heirs" — thus making the Kingdom of Heaven a future hope instead of a present inheritance ; and we may be glad the Bishops left the definition of a Sacrament broad, by refusing to put "Two only," without the qualification "as generally necessary to salvation." I think we may also be devoutly thankful that we are not fettered to-day by the insertion into the Catechism of the theories current in 1661 "concerning the nature of faith, repentance, the two covenants, justification, sanctification, adoption, and regeneration."

Who, again, would now desire that Confirmation should not be administered by the Bishop, or that it should not be assumed in that service that the children brought have the Christian spirit and the forgiveness of their sins? Who would now desire to omit the mention of godparents at Baptism or Confirmation? `Who would like the minister to have power, if he chose, not to deliver the Sacrament to each communicant individually? Who could bear to see the simple ornaments and ceremonies already mentioned — the surplice, for instance, or kneeling for communion — abolished?

Of course some of the Puritan criticisms were good, and some were accepted by the Bishops and their coadjutors. They agreed to print the Epistles and Gospels according to the Authorized Version; to add to the rubric "The portion of Scripture appointed for the Epistle"; to give a longer time for notice by the communicants, altering "over night, or else in the morning" to "at least some time the day before"; to add the manual acts to the Consecration in the Communion Service (the Puritans had rightly pointed out that the breaking of the bread was not so much as mentioned); to add (and this was also an improvement) to the rubric after Confirmation the words "or be ready and desirous to be confirmed." Besides these things, they agreed to alter in the Marriage Service "with my body I thee worship" to "with my body I thee honour," though fortunately this was not done; but they did alter "till death us depart "to" till death us do part." The Bishops further agreed to add the preface ("prefixed by God himself," the Puritans had said) to the Commandments, but fortunately this also was not done; and to omit from the Burial Service the epithets "in sure and certain hope of Resurrection to eternal life"; but very mercifully this was taken back also, the sense being guarded by the insertion of the definite article.


We may summarize the position by two quotations.
The Puritan Divines said:—
"To load our public forms with the private fancies upon which we differ, is the most sovereign way to perpetuate schism to the world's end. Prayer, confession, thanksgiving, reading of the Scriptures, and administration of the Sacraments in the plainest, and simplest manner, were matter enough to furnish out a sufficient Liturgy, though nothing either of private opinion, or of church pomp, of garments, or prescribed gestures, of imagery, of musick, of matter concerning the dead, of many superfluities which creep into the Church under the name of order and decency, did interpose itself. To charge Churches and Liturgies with things unnecessary, was the first beginning of all superstition." "If the special guides and fathers of the Church would be a little sparing of encumbering churches with superfluities, or not over-rigid, either in reviving obsolete customs, or imposing new, there would be far less cause of schism, or superstition."

(The altar of St. Edward the Confessor, in Westminster Abbey, at the present day.)
The Bishops said:—
"It was the wisdom of our Reformers to draw up such a Liturgy as neither Romanist nor Protestant could justly except against." For preserving of the Churches' peace we know no better nor more efficacious way than our set Liturgy; there being no such way to keep us from schism, as to speak all the same thing, according to the Apostle. This experience of former and latter times hath taught us; when the Liturgy was duly observed we lived in peace; since that was laid aside there bath been as many modes and fashions of public worship as fancies." "If we do not observe that golden rule of the venerable Council of Nice, 'Let ancient customs prevail,' till reason plainly requires the contrary, we shall give offence to sober Christians by a causeless departure from Catholic usage, and a greater advantage to enemies of our Church, than our brethren, I hope, would willingly grant."

In many things the Churchmen of that age were in the wrong — they were especially to blame for the penal laws and the harrying of Dissenters, which it took generations and many acts of toleration to remove. But few scholars would now refuse to admit that their theology was broader, more Christian, because less tainted by Calvinism, and truer to the New Testament than that of their opponents ; and in those liturgical matters with which this little history is concerned there is now no doubt that they were right and the Puritans wrong. Puritanism brought to England a noble stock of moral sturdiness; and the ecclesiastical descendants of those Dissenters whom the cruelty of the Clarendon Code put outside the pale of the law, are among the best of our people to-day; but those very descendants are themselves the surest witnesses to-day that the Churchmen were right in liturgical matters, for our modern Presbyterians and Nonconformists are steadily adopting the very phrases and customs and ornaments to which the saintly Richard Baxter and his colleagues so strangely objected.

After the Savoy Conference the last revision of the Prayer Book was put in hand, and our present Book of Common Prayer — the Fifth English Prayer Book — was produced. Like the Fourth Book, it had the sanction of Convocation — a more formal and thorough sanction than any of its predecessors. We shall express this most briefly and clearly by a summary of these important events :—

1645. Prayer Book abolished and its use made penal.

166o. The Restoration.

May 1st. King Charles II issues the Declaration of Breda promising toleration.

May 4th. Parliamentary Deputation of Presbyterians to the King at the Hague.

May 10th. Prayer Book of 1604 used before the Lords on Thanksgiving Day.

Oct. 25th. Royal Declaration promising a Conference and the decision of "a national Synod."

1661. April 15th - July 24th. The Savoy Conference.

May 8th. Convocation meets.

July 9th. Commons pass Bill of Uniformity.

Nov. 20th. Convocation appoints a Committee of Bishops to revise the Prayer Book.

Dec. 20th. Fifth Prayer Book completed, after
discussion and amendment, and adopted by both houses of the Convocations of Canterbury and York.

1662. Feb. 25th. Fifth Prayer Book annexed to the Bill of Uniformity, but without discussion or amendment in either house.

April 9th. Lords pass amended Bill of Uniformity.

May 19th. The Bill receives the royal assent and becomes the Act of Uniformity of 1662.


 It is sometimes said as a jibe against the Prayer Book that it is part of an Act of Parliament. So it is, and so are the Lord's Prayer and the Psalms of David, and so might anything be. The above summary shows that, though Parliament chose to adopt the Church's Prayer Book which was an honour to both), to annex it to an Act of Uniformity, thus giving it civil sanction, and (most regrettably) to enforce it with pains and penalties, our present Prayer Book was not one whit less the work of the Church, whose rights and liberties were most carefully safeguarded at every stage. The troublous century which we call the Reformation Period began with tyranny and oppression, but it ended with the establishment of constitutionalism in 1662; and the royalist Parliament which enforced the settlement, did at least represent the people.

The more is it to be regretted that this Parliament refused the promised toleration to the Puritans, who now from being Nonconformist Churchmen became Dissenters, their worship forbidden by the Conventicle Act of 1664 under a final penalty of transportation, their extremer ministers refused permission to come within five miles of a town by the Five Mile Act of 1665, and their conscientious members debarred, in common with Papists, from all civil, military and naval office by the Test Act of 1673. There was, however, some excuse for a Parliament composed mainly of country squires, who had many of them come back to their native villages at the Restoration, to find the church smashed, the trees felled, and the home of their ancestors destroyed. The Puritan ministers also, who were ejected, were, after all, themselves intruders; for there had been a worse ejectment of Anglicans before. Above all this, there loomed in men's minds the indelible memory of the martyrdom of King Charles.

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