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




WE explained in the last chapter how at the Reformation the old Latin services were translated into English, shortened, simplified, altered, and printed in one volume, "The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments," &c., which with the English Bible forms the liturgical basis of our worship; though these two books are supplemented in all the Churches of the Anglican Communion by hymns, anthems, the bidding of prayer, and additional prayers and services.

But this process of Reformation did not happen all at once : it took more than a century, beginning in the reign of Henry VIII (1544) and ending in that of Charles II (1662) during which five English Prayer Books were produced, the fifth being the one which we now use in England. Some day the projects of Prayer Book Revision will doubtless end in our having a sixth, though there are many people who do not wish this to happen just yet. Meanwhile the Anglican Churches of Scotland, Ireland, and America have produced books of their own, with variations from ours.

All this is of course not an innovation of the Reformation period. There have always been many different liturgies and classes of books in Christendom the Eastern Church uses many languages ; even in the Churches of the modern Papacy, where every effort has been made for the predominance of the Roman rite, several other rites in different languages are used.

Thus there was abundant precedent both for reforming and for translating the service books ; nor is it likely that the process will ever stop — indeed, in 1911, the Roman Church entirely rearranged the Psalter in what might he called a revolutionary manner, were it not that learned scholars of the Latin West have been urging some such reform for nearly four hundred years. This of course means a new and reformed Roman Breviary.

Now in the 16th century the air was full of reforming projects ; and two foreign books had considerable effect upon Archbishop Cranmer and the other English Reformers — the Reformed Roman Breviary of Cardinal Quiñones, and the Consultation of Hermann, Archbishop of Cologne — indeed our second Preface, "Concerning the Service of the Church," is a restatement by Cranmer of Quiñones' arguments for the reform of the Breviary.

History of the Changes

The reform of our services began with the introduction of the English Bible, fourteen years before the year when the first English Prayer Book appeared. The Bible was in 1536 ordered to be set up in every church, so that it might be read aloud out of service time ; and eight years later, Convocation ordered that a chapter of the Bible should be read in English at Mattins after the Te Deum and at Evensong after the Magnificat. Thus the Lectern may remind us of the first stage in reform. The Litany-desk tells of the second stage; for, though the Litany was not sung kneeling till three years after, that beautiful service itself was produced by the genius of Cranmer, and ordered to be used in 1544.

(From a 19th century picture, inaccurate in some details, by Harvey.)

Then followed the introduction into the Latin services of certain other English features which are mentioned in the summary below :—


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The First Stages

1534 (Henry VIII). Convocation petitions the King for an authorized English Version of the Bible.

1535. Coverdale's Bible.

1536. The Bible ordered to be set up in every church. New edition of the Sarum Breviary, in Latin, but with the name of the Roman Pontiff and other things omitted.

1543. The Lessons in English. A chapter of the Bible to be read after Te Deum and Magnificat.

1544. The English Litany.

1544-7. Experiments. The Rationale, or explanation of the Ceremonies to be used in the Church of England. First and Second Drafts of reformed services in Latin. Cranmer attempts a translation of the Processional.

1547 (Edward VI). August. Beginning of more radical changes by means of the Injunctions (without the authority of Convocation or Parliament) :— Book of Homilies to be read; At High Mass, Epistle and Gospel to be read in English; New form of Bidding Prayer ; and some changes in Breviary services.

November. Convocation meets (at the opening Mass, Gloria in Excelsis, Creed, and Agnus sung in English), and approves Communion in both kinds.

1548. January and February. The Council (without the authority of Convocation or Parliament) forbids the special ancient ceremonies of Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Good Friday; and the use of the Blessed Bread (see p. 179) and Holy Water.

March. The Order of the Communion, drawn
up by sundry "grave and well-learned prelates," provides for Communion in both kinds, and is to come into use at Easter by Royal proclamation. This Order consists of the following, inserted before the Communion in the Latin Service :— First Exhortation, Second Exhortation, "Ye that do truly," the Confession, the Absolution and Comfortable Words, "We do not presume," the Words of Administration in both kinds (first part), "The Peace of God " (without the Blessing), a Note that the bread is to be as heretofore (round wafers) and each wafer is to be broken for Communion, and a Note that if the Chalice is exhausted the priest is to consecrate afresh, beginning Simili modo postquam coenatum est, "Likewise after Supper," "without any elevation or lifting up."

April and September. Preaching forbidden, owing to the opposition in many parishes.

May. St. Paul's and other churches "sung all the service in English, both Mattins, Mass, and Evensong": it therefore appears that these services of the First Prayer Book were already drafted, at least in some experimental form, the choir services being reduced to two, Mattins and Evensong.

(Behind them are two priests in gown or surplice and tippet, on the right is a group of peers. From Cranmer's Catechismus, 1548.)

At the accession of the boy-King, it is clear that the whole atmosphere was changed: the power passed into the hands of the knot of men — and history shows them to have been despotic and evil men — who ruled in King Edward's name. From this gang of robbers — who were five years later to ransack the property of the people in the guilds and parish churches, robbing the poor for the sake of the rich — Archbishop Cranmer stands apart, trying to steer his own uncertain course. He was no Luther to cry in the face of the world, "Here stand I: I can do no otherwise"; yet, though his will was continually moulded by others, he was able to bring his own great gift to the Reformation— a power of liturgical art which places him among the great prose-writers of the world. Others worked with him and after him — as others had worked before; and the beauty of their united product is witness to the greatness of that age of literature which covered the hundred years between the First Prayer Book and the last, and gave us the writings of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Milton, as well as the five English Prayer Books and the Authorized Version of the Bible. But side by side with the constructive work of the bishops, there went the destructive work of the Protector and his allies, carried out unconstitutionally by proclamations and injunctions.


(From the painting by Flicius, 1546, in the National Portrait Gallery.) He is in his outdoor habit of cassock, rochet, chimere, tippet of sables, and square cap.

During the second year of Edward VI the divines were engaged upon their task; and, as we have seen, the new English services were tried at St. Paul's and other places. At the close of that year (in January, 1549), the First Prayer Book became law by the First Act of Uniformity, and by March, 1549, the book was published. Whether it had the formal consent of Convocation, as well as that of the two Houses of Parliament (all the members of which were of course communicant Churchmen), we do not know for certain; but the bishops voted for it, by a majority of ten to eight, in the House of Lords, and two letters of the king assert that it received also the assent of the other clergy in their synods and convocations. The names of the divines who compiled the First Prayer Book are also hidden in some obscurity but we know that they represented both the reforming and the conservative side, and it is nearly certain that among them were Bishops Ridley, Holbeach, Thiriby, and Goodrich, as well as Archbishop Cranmer.

(From a later print.)
(From his brass in Ely Cathedral.)
He was the author of the Two Duties in the Catechism.

Let us here take up again our table of events. Cranmer had doubtless been working at the translation of the Latin services for some years: we can imagine with what joy he had turned from the racking cares of State to the quiet solace of that literary
work for which God had designed him. One would suppose that the main part of the English Prayer Book was ready a year or two before it was issued: he could not well have rested after the production, four years earlier, of what is still perhaps the most perfect of our services, the English Litany; he must have felt his powers, and rejoiced in them. One pictures him with the manuscript ready, waiting his opportunity to put it forth; then, on King Henry's death, calling committee-meetings of the sundry "grave and well-learned prelates," sending the Order of the Communion to the printers, and (in March, 1548) issuing this second instalment of the Prayer Book ; then he must have had copies made of "Mattins, Mass, and Evensong," so that two months later these services could be sung in English at St. Paul's, and a few days after at Westminster Abbey. With the experience thus gained, his fellow-divines would have helped Cranmer to put finishing-touches on the work, testing it in the Royal Chapel between May and September, and working also at the rest of the Prayer Book; and we know that in September a further step was taken by an order to the college-chapels of Cambridge to conform in "Mass, Mattins, and Evensong, and all divine service" to the use of the
King's Chapel. Three months later the bishops are discussing the new book in the House of Lords.

(Facsimile of the two last pages.)

1548. May. English Services at St. Paul's and Westminster.

September. English Services ordered for Cambridge University.

December. Debates in Parliament on the First Prayer Book (and probably in Convocation also).
First Metrical Psalter (nineteen psalms by Sternhold) about now. (The 2nd Edition was in 1549,
with thirty-seven psalms.)

1549. January 21st. First Act of Uniformity. The First Prayer Book becomes law.

March 7. First Prayer Book printed and published.

June 9th. Date fixed by the Act for the Book to be everywhere used.

June 10th. Armed rebellions against the Act begin, especially in the West of England. The
insurgents demand the old ceremonies— Holy water, Images, Ashes, Palms, etc., and the service
in Latin. They are suppressed by foreign mercenaries.

1550. The Book of Common Prayer Noted, by John Merbecke, published. This is Merbecke's famous musical setting, which is still so largely sung.

March. The English Ordinal issued, containing the Ordering of Deacons, the Ordering of Priests, and the Consecration of Bishops. The essential parts of the Latin rite were carefully retained, but the ceremonial rather ruthlessly cut down.

1549 - 1551. The Foreign Reformers (Bucer, Peter Martyr, etc.) criticize the First Prayer Book.

1551. Third Edition of Old Version of metrical psalms, seven psalms by Hopkins being added to Sternhold's.

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