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




WE will conclude this short history with a very brief summary of those services which are for special Occasions in a Christian's life, and which were anciently an application of the Holy Communion to those occasions. They were all still thus connected with the Eucharist, in the First Prayer Book; but the Second Book made a difference in the case of the Burial Service, which is therefore in the present English Prayer Book without a special Epistle and Gospel. The three services of the Ordinal are not strictly classed as Occasional Services but they also are for particular occasions, and they also are insertions into the Order for Holy Communion.


This, like most of the Occasional Services, is taken from the Sarum Manual. It has also a peculiar interest in carrying on some innocent pagan ceremonies. The reason of this is that, in the early Church, Christians naturally followed the legal customs of the Roman Empire; and all they could do was to substitute a Christian benediction for the specifically heathen rites, and, instead of a sacrifice to idols, to offer the Christian sacrifice of the Eucharist. Marriage was, before Christianity, and is still, a natural compact, of which the man and the woman themselves are the ministers: this compact, made before witnesses, constitutes a marriage, but to it the Church has added, from early times, the blessing of the bride and bridegroom and their communion. Thus our present service, which is the espousal and benediction, ends with the rubric that "It is convenient [i.e. fitting] that the new-married persons should receive the holy Communion at the time of their Marriage, or at the first opportunity after their Marriage."

Even after the 6th century, the Christian solemnization of matrimony still in many places consisted merely of prayers inserted in the Communion service, a veil being held over the man and woman during one of the prayers. This ancient nuptial veil was still common in France and Spain in the 19th century, though modern Ultramontanism has caused it to disappear. The other veil, the bride's, flame-coloured in pagan times, is still with us, though its colour is now white.

The old civil ceremonies of paganism thus went on side by side with the primitive Nuptial Mass ; and as paganism disappeared, they came to be included in the Christian books. They were:— The Betrothal: The contracts were signed, presents were given (as a token of the marriage settlement), the bride and bridegroom kissed, the ring was given, and hands were joined. The Wedding: The bride and bridegroom (the bride veiled, and both wearing crowns and the nuptial attire) offered sacrifices, and partook of the sacrificial cake made by the Vestal Virgins.

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We know from the mention of them by Tertullian that in the year 200, the kiss, and the joining of hands, the crown, and the veil were used, while for the sacrifices and the sacrificial meal the Oblation (as he calls it) had of course been substituted, and with it the mystical meal of the Communion. The ring must also have continued in use.

The reader will at once notice that all these things are still with us, even to the kiss, though this is now an unauthorized ceremony, usually performed in the chancel or vestry by our dear young people, who do not know that they are carrying out a ceremony of the Early Church. The bride still wears a crown; and, though this is now with us a wreath of flowers, in some Western countries metal crowns are used (as they were in Mediaeval England); and in the East both the man and the woman wear large diadems of metal, and the whole marriage ceremony is called the Crowning.

(Panel of the Font at Gresham.)
(The priest, wearing a cope over his albe and crossed stole, joins the hands of the man and woman. Behind him a clerk holds an open book.)

In the Middle Ages the service continued much the same, with variations in different places. It consisted of two main parts — (1) the Espousal at the church-door or chancel-step, when the man and woman plighted their troth, the ring was given, and the couple were blessed; (2) the Nuptial Mass, with its solemn nuptial benediction before the Communion. During the Liturgy the pair knelt first on the south of the sanctuary, and then at the altar-step for the Sanctus, while the nuptial veil was held over them till the Agnus — the votive Mass of the Trinity being usually taken, with some variations. In view of recent discussions it may interest the reader to know that the words "and obey" are a late Mediaeval addition of about the 14th century, when the words "obeye to him" first appear in the English rite, and similar words in some German uses. In most Christian rites, the questions put to and the promises made by both parties are identical: in some rites — e.g., all over the East, both parties receive rings. Another controverted feature, the opening address, appears first in 1549. The impressive form "Those whom God hath joined," (of Lutheran origin, though it appears also in the rites of Soissons and Milan) was also introduced in the First Book. The third part of the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony, the Communion, is now unfortunately deferred, as a rule, till a later day. Until it was relaxed in 1661, the rubric ordered that "The new married persons (the same day of their marriage) must receive the holy Communion." The Wedding Breakfast is a survival of the time when the married couple communicated, fasting, at the marriage service.



In the Early Church the sick were visited for Communion with the reserved Sacrament, for prayer, and for unction or the laying on of hands. Our present order follows closely the lines of the Visitatio Infirmorum in the Sarum Manual, with two important exceptions; the apostolic rite of unction was left out of the Second Prayer Book, and has not yet been formally restored, though it is allowed and practised; and the direction for reserving the Sacrament, a custom that can be traced back to the sub-apostolic era (p. 186), was omitted at the same time. On the other hand, a special form for celebrating the Eucharistic service in the sick-room was inserted in the First Prayer Book: in the Second Book this was altered, and no provision made for shortening the full service; but in 1661 this impracticable defect was made good. Communicating the sick and infirm with the reserved Sacrament (in both kinds) was traditional in Scotland even in the days when the surplice had not been revived there, and has been the long-standing custom in most of the old native Scottish congregations: the anointing of the sick was also revived by some Scottish bishops in the 18th century, and has there continued since. It has also been revived in later years in a number of American dioceses.*

* The sentence appears in the American edition only.


We know that as far back as evidence can be found on the customs of the Primitive Church — that is, in the paintings on the walls of the Catacombs from before the year 100 — the bodies of Christians were laid to rest with prayer and the celebration of the Holy Communion; and that afterwards memorial services for the departed were held, at which the Communion was also celebrated. The many chapels scattered among these vast subterranean corridors were not, as used to be supposed, concealed places for ordinary worship: they were, on the contrary, open to public knowledge and protected by the pagan authorities (since ancient Roman law had profound respect for everything connected with the dead); and they were made for what a later age called requiem services, and, not for the normal public worship of the Church, which indeed required far larger places.

(Latter part of the 2nd century, in the Catacomb of Callistus.)

On this page we give a 2nd century symbolic picture of the Eucharist from the Catacombs: the celebrant, clad in the distinctive pallium, stands with hands outstretched over a tripod, on the other side of which stands the orans, a figure in the primitive attitude of prayer (1 Tim. 2. 8), which always in these early centuries represents the soul of the departed person. The Agape or Love Feast (pp. 29, 178) was also a feature of these rites, and both Agape and Eucharist are mentioned in the Canons of Hippolytus, c. 250 A.D. There is extant a 3rd century picture in the Catacombs, one part of which represents a lady with her maid buying provisions (and perhaps flowers) for the Agape in a greengrocer's shop, while the other shows the party seated round the table for the feast. A unique relic of the Agape still exists, the hall actually built in the 1st century for the love feast. It consists of a room with a large triclinium showing traces of its stone bench, a smaller room, a kitchen (where wine-jars and utensils were unearthed), a well and cistern: this room forms the vestibule to the Catacomb of St. Domitilla, only in part underground, and it originally had an ornamental façade upon the high road. The chapels for service within the Catacombs are many in number: a restoration of a somewhat late (4th century) example from the Catacomb of Callistus is given on p. 27.


 The early Sacramentaries, which are the earliest of extant service-books, give the whole cycle of services for the sick, the dying, and the departed ; and from these come the tender and beautiful Mediaeval services. As early as 688 we find our own Anglo-Saxon customs, borrowed from those of Old Rome, in a description of that Archbishop Theodore to whom England owes so much. The dead, he says, were taken by monks or religious men to the church, where Masses were said for them, and then they were taken with chanting to their graves, to be there buried with prayer for them.

(From a 15th century Book of Hours.)
(After Placebo antiphona follow the opening words of Psalm 116, Dilexi quoniam — " I am well pleased that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer." The miniature shows a priest in surplice and cope standing by the herse, which is covered with a pall decorated with a cross. A clerk holds his almuce. Behind the herse are two figures in mourning cloaks and hoods.)
In the Middle Ages a special form of the Divine Service for the departed grew up, and from this we have the word "dirge" : the Mattins (with Lauds) was called the Dirige or Dirge, from the words of the opening Antiphon, "Dirige Domine Deus meus in conspectu tuo viam meam" (from Ps. 5. 8, "Make thy way plain before my face ") ; the Evensong, for the same reason was called the Placebo, the opening Antiphon being "Placebo Domino in regione vivorum" (from Ps. 116. 9, "I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living"). These were extensively used in a general way, as well as at funerals.

The long exercise of prayer began at the sickbed, with psalms and litanies, culminating at the moment of departure in the beautiful and pathetic farewell, beginning, "Go forth, Christian soul, from this world, in the name of the Almighty Father who created thee," and ending with petitions that God would receive his servant in his goodly habitation of light. After death, the Commendation was said, a service of Antiphons, Psalms, and Collects, wherein the pleading refrain, "May Christ who called thee receive thee, and may the angels lead thee into Abraham's bosom," was mingled with the triumphant psalm, "When Israel came out of Egypt," and with the hope that the soul of the departed might be crowned together with the martyrs, and gain the joy of God amid the radiant jewels of Paradise.

From an early 16th century Flemish Book of Hours.
(The herse stands between two lights on the rush-strewn floor of the choir. Behind, under a double triptych (the lower wings closed) is the high altar vested in a bright red frontal, the carpet on the steps is pale blue, and the curtains are bright green, as are the riddels, the posts of which are surmounted by angels. A gospel lectern in the form of a pelican stands on a step at the north side of the presbytery.)

The body, covered with a pall of bright colours, was carried to church with the singing of psalms, and placed in the standing frame of wood or iron, called the hearse, surrounded by tapers. Then the Placebo and Dirge were said or sung, leading up to the Requiem Mass, so called from the Introit which opens the service, "Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis" ("Rest eternal grant to them, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them). There was now a second and shorter Commendation, and the hearse was censed and sprinkled. Then the burial service itself began. After an antiphon, Kyrie, and prayers, the body was carried to the grave, while "When Israel came out of Egypt" was again sung, followed, if the procession was long, by the psalm, "Unto thee, 0 Lord, will I lift up my soul." As the grave was opened the choir sang the lovely antiphon, "Open unto me the gates of righteousness, and I will enter into them and give thanks unto the Lord : this is the gate of the Lord ; the righteous shall enter into it," with the Psalm 118, "O give thanks unto the Lord."

(The body is being carried out of the church by men in mourners' cloaks and hoods, preceded by one carrying a lighted torch. A priest in surplice and cope approaches the grave preceded by a boy carrying the holy water vat and sprinkler, and another in a surplice carrying a processional crucifix; he is followed by two clerks, one wearing a winged rochet, and the other a high cap with his surplice or rochet. A typical wooden grave-cross will be noticed in front of the kneeling woman on the left.)

The grave was then blessed, sprinkled, and censed, and the body laid to rest, while the company sang the psalm, "Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks so longeth my soul after thee, O God," thus joining in spirit, as throughout all the services, with their departed friend. After the psalm, "Lord, remember David," the body was sprinkled with holy water, and the priest scattered earth on it in the form of a cross with a form beginning, "I commend thy soul to God." Then were more prayers, and the three triumphant psalms of Lauds — "O praise the Lord of heaven," "0 sing unto the Lord a new song," and "0 praise God in his holiness" ; there followed the Benedictus (the Antiphon to which, "I am the Resurrection and the Life," we still retain), and the penitential Miserere, with a few last prayers of love and hope. Afterwards, and especially on the "month's mind" and the anniversary, the Placebo and Dirge were said, and Requiem Eucharists celebrated. Thus, in the wonderful beauty of their churches, and in the green churchyards, as yet unchilled by the gleam of polished gravestones and glass flowers, did our forefathers carry out the last offices they could render to their friends, with ancient rites of comfort and cheer and help, in the true spirit of the Christian Good News.

The havoc of the Reformation was terrible indeed. We cannot here discuss its causes. Certain it is that a morbid religion of fear had grown up at the close of the Middle Ages after the Black Death, to which the outward ceremonial of Roman Catholic countries abroad still bears witness with its decorations of skulls and cross-bones. Certain it is that, in the place of the paradise of flowers, which the pictures in the Catacombs always portray, and of which the first Latin Christian poet sings, there had grown up a "Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory," which made it a place of fire, differing from that of Hell only in not being eternal: and with this there came a feverish desire for innumerable Masses, such as only the rich could afford, which is luridly illustrated in the Will of Henry VIII. Some reaction was inevitable. Unfortunately it took at first in most men's minds the form of Calvinism, which is — in the literal sense of the word — infinitely worse than even the late Mediaeval doctrine concerning Purgatory. It was no use praying for the damned.

Amid the hideous and horrible funeral customs of the Georgian era, men thought with relief of the Prayer Book Burial Service, and called it exquisite and incomparable. It does indeed contain a few fragments from the antiphons of the old service; and even the ruins of such an edifice must be lovely. But this is all that can be said.


 In the First Prayer Book Cranmer undertook the simplification of the Mediaeval rites, which were overlong by virtue of their many repetitions; and he produced one of his best pieces of work in the new Order for the Burial of the Dead, which is a real simplification, at once primitive and traditional, consisting as it does of the four essential parts of the old rite — (1) The Procession; (2) The Burial; (3) The Office of the Dead, to be said either after or before the Burial; (4) The Requiem Eucharist. The Second Book produced a mere stupid confusion, left no psalms at all, and of course no Eucharist, and did not even provide that any part of the service should be said in Church. But even this was too much for the Puritans, who actually had no service whatever. When in "the 18th century poor Jamie Fleeman "the Laird of Udny's Fool" was wounded and dying, he managed to crawl over the hills of East Aberdeenshire to Longside where he knew there was an Episcopal church; and when they found him, he said, "Dinna bury me like a beast! " — alluding to what was the universal Presbyterian practice until our own day. The Fifth Book restored something of what the Second had thrown away, but the psalms it gave us were new; and the second Antiphon, being conformed to the Authorized Version of the Bible, introduced the horrid reference to worms, which we might have been spared at such a time, and which mercifully is untrue in fact, as well as a mistranslation. The translators of the Authorized Version seem to have borrowed the worms from the Geneva Bible; for they are not in the original Hebrew, nor in the Vulgate.

The English Church has, however, never been confined to its meagre Burial Service. The Latin Prayer Book of 1560 gave us with authority a Collect, Epistle and Gospel for a Requiem Eucharist, and a Commendation Service for founders and benefactors; and the Elizabethan Primer gave us both the Placebo and the Dirge. The Canons of 1604 provide, with the authority of Convocation, the beautiful commemoration of the departed in the Bidding Prayer. Many commemorative services have been put forth since, including those (drawn up by the Archbishops and issued by the King in Council) for Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, the latter of which contains a Collect, Epistle, and Gospel for the Eucharist, and has been reprinted by the publishers of this History. Queen Victoria herself did much to restore the Christian memory of the dead and prayer for them; and it is through her that the Kontakion for the Departed in the books of the Greek and Russian Churches has now become with us a regular part of the service on official occasions, — in the translation given in the English Hymnal, where several other Christian hymns for the departed are also brought into common use, including a significant one by the writer whom we have already mentioned as the earliest Christian poet in the Latin tongue, Prudentius. In America advantage has not been taken of our revisions to enrich the service as might well be desired, but some expansion of it is very usual, authority for which is given in the rubric following the Lesson.*

* The sentence appears in the American edition only.


This short service is very like that in the Sarum Manual, and the rite itself is mentioned in the 6th century by St. Augustine of Canterbury. The principal changes are :— The addition of the opening sentence; the change of psalms (which were 120 and 128 in the Sarum rite, 121 in the First and Second Prayer Books,
and now 116 and 127 — all being appropriate in various ways); the addition, in the last revision, of the words, "We give thee humble thanks," to emphasize the fact that the service is one of thanksgiving. The words, "decently apparelled," in the first rubric, were also added in 1661, but they only carry on the old usage; for they were inserted to ensure the woman wearing the customary white veil, which the Puritans had tried to give up, and which had been enforced by law (although there was then no rubric) in the reigns of James I and Charles I. The disregard of this rule has in modern times dimmed the beauty of the service, which needs the emphasis of a simple ceremonial, such as the white veil, the carrying of a light by the woman, and her being supported by two matrons — customs which seem to have been all continued after the Reformation.

(From a Print by HOLLAR, c. 1670.)
(The priest kneels in his cassock and surplice at the Litany-desk, between the congregation and the altar; a book lies on the altar eastward.)

The Commination is a substitute for the Reconciliation of Penitents on Ash Wednesday, which is first described in the Gelasian Sacramentary of the 7th or 8th century. The 51st Psalm, the suffrages, and the two collects following, are taken from the Mediaeval form, which dates from about the 12th century, and applied not to penitents specially, but to all the faithful, upon whose heads ashes were placed, up till the Reformation. The rest, which forms the opening part of the Commination, was added in the First Prayer Book. The service is appointed to be said immediately after the Litany, that is to say, before the Ash Wednesday Communion.


These were added in the last Revision of 1661. They are not complete services, but are rather poor additions to the ordinary offices of the Prayer Book.

This section and its illustration appear in the English edition only.


This office is peculiar to the American Book, and dates from 1789; but English sources, and particularly the office for Visitation of the Sick, are frequently to be discerned.


This office for Thanksgiving Day, a purely American festival, dates back to 1789, and fixes upon the "first Thursday in November, or on such other day as shall be appointed by the Civil Authority," as the date of the festival. The civil authority has long selected the last Thursday in November instead of the first; and this service, founded largely on the English harvest home (which is not recognized in the English Prayer Book, but has long been a festival of rural England), is less appropriate for so late a date. Indeed, in many places in this country a separate harvest home festival is kept in the autumn, leaving Thanksgiving Day to be, as was intended, a patriotic festival. The annual appointment of the day by the President of the United States and by the governors of most of the states is the most notable recognition of the supremacy of Almighty God that is given by any branch of our government.


These forms also are the exclusive possession of the American Book, though again tracing largely to English authorship. They are adapted from forms drawn up by Gibson, Bishop of London, 1723-48. That their use, as, indeed, that of other forms privately set forth for the same purpose from many pens, has largely fallen into abeyance, is one of the unhappy incidents of our American life.


We read in the New Testament that the Early Church ordained ministers by the laying on of hands : the seven deacons were thus ordained, after they had been duly elected (Acts vi), by prayer and the imposition of hands; and St. Paul speaks to St. Timothy of the gift, "which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery" ("presbyter" and "priest" being different forms of the same word) and again he exhorts him to "stir up the gift of God, which is in thee through the laying on of my hands" (1 Tim. iv. 14; 2 Tim. i. 6). The 3rd century Canons of Hippolytus, and the 4th century Testamentum Domini, show that the laying on of hands with appropriate prayer was used for bishops, priests, and deacons mention is also made of minor orders — subdeacons and readers; but these were not ordained by the imposition of hands in the West, nor as yet generally in the East. In the Old Roman services of the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, ordination still consisted entirely of prayer, accompanied by the imposition of hands. These two things, then, are the essential features of the rite.

(The Bishop delivers an empty chalice and paten to the Subdeacon, who kneels before him in his albe, a tunicle over his arm. In the background a candidate receives the crusts of wine and water from the Archdeacon, who wears a surplice. Another candidate receives a ewer, bason, and towel.)

(Panel of the font at Gresham.)
(The bishop wears a hood over his rochet, and a mitre. Before him kneel two newly-ordained priests in chasubles. A clerk holds a book in front of him, and behind him is the thurifer in an albe, holding a censer.)
There were in Rome at this time, and had been for three centuries, five minor orders of ministers (making eight orders in all), viz. subdeacons, acolytes, exorcists, readers, doorkeepers: these were appointed by giving them some article required in their ministrations; thus the acolyte was given a linen bag (the receptacle then used for the Sacrament), and the subdeacon a chalice (or a chalice and
paten, with a water-cruet and napkin) — his business being to keep these things in order. This was called the "Tradition [i.e. delivery]
of the Instruments." The ordination of bishops, priests, and deacons was sharply distinguished from such admission to the minor orders by consisting of the laying on of hands. To this was added in the Gallican use the anointing of the priest's hands, after his ordination. In the Missal of Leofric, Bishop of Exeter (†1072), we find another ceremony, the blessing and giving of vestments — stoles for the deacons and chasubles to the priests — the chasuble, originally a garment common to lay-folk and clergy, being by this time mainly used by priests, though even at the present day it is still worn by deacons at certain seasons such as Lent.

These three sections appear only in the American edition.

 In the 11th century a curious change began. The "Tradition of the Instruments," which had been the way of appointing to the minor orders, and the distinctive mark of this appointment, came to be added to the three chief orders: to the priest was given a chalice with wine and a paten with a wafer; to the deacon, a Gospel-book. In an uncritical age this "Tradition" — being a picturesque and striking ceremony — soon came to be looked upon as essential; and by we find a pope asserting that it is the "matter," i.e. the outward sign, of the sacrament of Holy Order. This came to be accepted in the Roman Communion; and thus it was that some Roman Catholics have thought that Anglican Orders were not valid, because this form of the "Tradition of the Instruments" was dropped in the Second Prayer Book. In 1896 the Pope of Rome found fault with our form of ordination to the priesthood, because the first four English Ordinals (1550, &c.) did not use the word "priest" in immediate connexion with the imposition of hands. As a matter of fact, the services in all our five English Ordinals are called "The Ordering of Deacons," "The Ordering of Priests," and "The Consecration of Bishops" ; and the candidates in all our ordinals are presented "to be admitted Deacons," "to the Order of Priesthood," and "to be consecrated bishop." The Pope's objection was thus rather thin, since the words were plainly used, and, the intention (which he also called in question) perfectly definite. But the question was finally settled by the discovery only three years later, in Bishop Serapion's Sacramentary, that he in the middle of the 4th century did not use the word "priest" at all.

(A church which illustrates the direction added to the Prayer Book in 1552, that "the chancels shall remain as they have done in times past.")

The first English Ordinal was not issued till 1550, the Sarum forms remaining in force for a year under the First Prayer Book. Cranmer and his colleagues acted wisely in reforming the confusion which had grown up in the Middle Ages; for in the Sarum books the primitive and Catholic ordination of a priest by laying on of hands — which we will call (1) — was followed by three additional ordinations, invented in the Middle Ages; (2) Anointing of the hands, (3) Tradition of the Instruments; and (4) a Second laying on of hands, with the words "Receive the Holy Ghost," etc. In the Roman Use this is made worse; for the original imposition (no. 1) has actually disappeared, the bishop merely extending his hands, and only laying them on the candidate at no. 4.

(The bishop kneels in his chasuble. Behind him are four priests in surplices. Behind the three consecrating bishops are the altar and reredos.)


 The Reformers brought back the rites to the Scriptural method, which was also that of Rome until the Middle Ages, by restoring to its proper place the imposition of hands; for this end they gave up the anointing (2), altered (3), and added the form of (4) to the original rite, (1). Otherwise they kept to the lines of the Sarum Pontifical, retaining the Presentation of the Candidates, Litany, Instruction, Bidding, Veni Creator, and Holy Communion. They retained also, in deference to current ideas, a reduced form of the Tradition of the Instruments, the First Ordinal, directing the bishop to give to each priest a Bible in one hand, and "the Chalice or cup with the bread" in the other. In the Second Prayer Book the chalice and paten were omitted; and the giving of the Bible thus remains with us to-day, a ceremony eloquent not only for its own significance, but also for its witness as a relic of that other Tradition which once took a larger place in men's minds than the way of ordination set forth in God's Word.

The American Ordinal is almost exactly identical with the English, differing only in verbal detail.*

* The sentence appears in the American edition only.


This office was appended to the Book of Common Prayer in I799. In substance it was set forth by Bishop Andrewes in 1620, and is the form commonly used by episcopal licence in England, though not contained in the English Prayer Book.


This, the latest of the appendices to the Prayer Book, was drawn up and adopted in the Diocese of Connecticut in I799, and was added to the Prayer Book in 1804 and somewhat revised in 1808. It should be carefully read as showing the function of a rector within his parish; and that function he is bound to fulfil whether the institution office be used or not. It affords a practical commentary on the meaning of the priesthood as it is accepted by the American Church.

These two sections appear only in the American edition.


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