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




THE First Prayer Book was too conservative for the foreign Reformers, some of whom had come to England — notably Bucer, of Strasbourg, and Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian, who were installed at Cambridge and Oxford respectively as divinity professors — while others, including Calvin himself ("the Geneva Pope"), who was graciously pleased to say that the Book Contained "many tolerable absurdities," sent letters calling for more drastic changes. The criticisms of these and other extreme men, such as Hooper, the Bishop of Gloucester, and Ridley — who had been given the See of London, from which Bonner was illegally deprived by the Council of Regency — had great influence upon the too malleable mind of Cranmer. Almost from the moment the First Prayer Book was published, measures were being taken for superseding it by another book which should be more acceptable to the Continental Reformers and the small but determined body of extremists in England.

Meanwhile, the reign of terror under Henry VIII had been succeeded by a despotism of anarchy under the boy king. Bonner and Gardiner were in prison — they were to have their revenge in Mary's reign; all moderates and conservatives were removed from the Council, and the moderate bishops from their sees. The first Protector, Somerset, had endeavoured, with Cranmer and Latimer, to redeem the miseries of the poor; but even Somerset was a great robber, as the name of Somerset House should remind us. To build this palace (which he did not live to enjoy) he destroyed three bishops' houses and one parish church, as if they had
been so much slum property; and he pulled down the cloister of St. Paul's Cathedral and Clerkenwell Priory for further building materials. He had actually intended to build his palace on the site of Westminster Abbey; and the Dean only averted the destruction of the Abbey by bribing him with the gift of more than half its estates. Somerset was sent to the Tower in the year of the First Prayer Book, to be beheaded two years afterwards. His successor, Northumberland, was a villain unmitigated. The misery of the poor increased, the character of the clergy declined, because the cures were filled with "assheads" and "lack-Latins," as the immortal sermons of Latimer bear witness.

The destruction of the altars in London by Ridley was at least conscientious, though it was illegal, as well as barbarous and unreasonable (the Lutherans were sensible enough to spare the beautiful altars of Germany and Scandinavia, and their Protestantism did not suffer thereby) ; but all over the country the churches were looted simply for the sake of plunder — the organs were sold for the price of their pipes, even the melting of the bells was begun ; the priceless church plate, which had been the treasure of the people for centuries, was pillaged, so that, a generation later, there were still some churches with nothing but a single chalice. The parish churches, as well as the benefit clubs and guilds (which were the trade unions of the time), had belonged to the people, had been enriched by the people, and managed by them. But now Commissioners were sent all over England to make inventories, "forasmuch as the King's Majesty had need presently of a mass of money"; and before the end of poor little King Edward's reign there had been a clean sweep of all that was worth stealing: the churches, their chests, their treasuries had been ransacked, and nothing but the bare walls remained of the ancient beauty which Englishmen had so loved — which the poor had looked upon as part of their birthright. Even the walls were suffered to decay. In the Second Book of Homilies, issued nine years after King Edward's death, we read — " It is a sin and shame to see so many churches so ruinous and so foully decayed, almost in every corner. . . . Suffer them not to be defiled with rain and weather, with dung of doves and owls, stares and choughs, and other filthiness, and as it is foul and lamentable to behold in many places of this country." The hospitals and almshouses were destroyed ; the universities only just escaped. "To the Universities," says that staunchest upholder of the Reformation, J. A. Froude, "the Reformation brought with it desolation. . . They were called Stables of Asses. . . . The Government cancelled the exhibitions which had been granted for the support of poor scholars. They suppressed the Professorships and Lectureships. . . . College Libraries were plundered and burnt. The Divinity Schools at Oxford were planted with cabbages, and the laundresses dried clothes in the School of Arts." It was not the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry that created English pauperism, but the Disendowment of the Parishes under his son. The bulk of the money went to enrich the gang of ruffians who tyrannized over England; while thirty "King Edward VI Schools" were set up here and there, to hoodwink the public of that and succeeding generations. The old parish community was destroyed; "an atmosphere of meanness and squalor," says Dr. Jessop, still pervades "the shrivelled assemblies" of the 17th and 18th centuries ; and the Parish Councils Act has not yet succeeded in restoring its ancient spirit.

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All this is still but little known, but we cannot appreciate the liturgical changes of Edward VI's reign unless we know it. Side by side with the influence of the English extremists and of the foreigners — some of whom, including Bucer, the most prominent critic, could not speak a word of the language in which the Prayer Book was written — was the brigandage of men like Northumberland, who had no zeal for Protestantism — indeed, Northumberland professed himself a Papist on the scaffold. The Edwardian robbers were not genuine reformers, but they effectively destroyed the old manner of worship which had gone on under the First Prayer Book by their looting of the ornaments. It is to them, and to the Cromwellians of a later time, that the desolation of England's churches until our own age is due. We have done our best, not often wisely, to restore them but we can never bring back the priceless works of art which were scrapped for a few shillings and melted down for the value of their metal.

In 1552 Parliament passed the Act above mentioned, which stated that the First Prayer Book was agreeable to the Word of God, but that doubts had arisen (through curiosity rather than any worthy cause), and it would therefore be explained and made perfect. The "explanation" turned out to be the Second Prayer Book, which neither explained nor perfected the First Book, but very seriously altered it. This book was therefore thrust upon England under false pretences; nor had it received any sanction from the Church of England. In it was pasted by the Privy Council's order, three days before its publication, the "Black Rubric," which, in the form it then had, denied any real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Cranmer could control the party in power no longer. The man who had triumphed at the end was John Knox.

What now strikes us most about the Second Prayer Book is its doctrinaire and unpractical character. Certain formulas, still repeated by us day after day, which sensible men of all parties desire to see removed, come to us from this source. Because of it, we still, for instance, have to recite twice a day the Confession and Absolution, which led Ruskin to complain, in his Letters to the clergy, that we pray in the morning that the rest of our lives may be pure and holy, with the consciousness that a few hours later we shall be required to say "that there is no health in us"; and we should have to endure the meaningless repetition of the Exhortation, "Dearly beloved brethren," if the Shortened Services Act had not confined that obligation to Sundays. This most prominent blot on Divine Service we owe to the Second Book: the First had opened Divine Service with the Lord's Prayer. The Second Book also marred the simplicity of the Divine Service by printing certain psalms as alternatives to the Gospel Canticles — a rather futile addition, which still helps to make it difficult for unlearned folk to find their places. It also gave us those special Prayers in Time of Dearth, War, and Plague, which are now so obsolete that they are seldom heard in church; so that, as was the case during the last war, new prayers have to be provided in their place. Similarly, the constant repetition of the Ten Commandments in the Communion Service is a legacy from this unfortunate book: the Scottish and American Churches have relieved themselves from this, which becomes a burdensome formality when there are frequent Celebrations and there can be little doubt that the English Church at the next revision will use the Decalogue more sparingly. One other practical instance needs mention. A new sentence (excellent in itself) was substituted for the ancient Words of Administration: it is still with us, as the second part of the form we use; for in 1559 the old sentence was restored. Ever since then, the clergy have had to use the two sentences combined. This adds so much to the length and labour of the administration that, in large churches, where there are from five hundred to a thousand communicants, the use of the form is found to be a physical impossibility, and the bishop's leave is obtained to shorten it. The Scottish Liturgy has long since put this right.


(From a 15th cent. MS.)

Most notable were the changes made in the Communion Service. The Introit, Benedictus, and Agnus were omitted; and, what was more important, the ancient long prayer of Consecration was disintegrated, and still in the present English Prayer Book lies divided into five parts — the Church Militant Prayer, the Preface, the Prayer of Consecration, the Lord's Prayer, and the Prayer of Oblation. In this also the Scottish Liturgy has gone back to the model of the First Book; and we shall doubtless one day follow its example.

To the student of to-day it must always seem strange that the Reformers of the 16th century were so much infected with the idea that the Latin Communion Services embodied the mediaeval superstitions which were then associated with the word " Mass": the truth of course is that the Latin Canon, though itself a rather unskilful piece of patchwork, is much older than those superstitions, and stands out, by its primitive sobriety and moderation, as a remarkable protest against the mediaeval or "Romish" exaggerations of those who have used it. The changes in the Canon were therefore not so wanton as they seem now, but were due to this mistaken idea. It may indeed have been from ignorance that the revisers of 1552 omitted the Epiklesis, or prayer for the Holy Spirit to sanctify the bread and wine (p. 68), which Cranmer had taken from the Eastern Liturgies and inserted in the First Book; for the omission of this prayer is one of the peculiar defects of the Latin Mass. Some indeed think that the prayer Supplices te is a weakened Epiklesis, and some hold that this invocation of the Holy Spirit is to be found in the prayer Quam Oblationem; but this is itself enough to show how obscure the traces of the Epiklesis are in the Roman Liturgy.

Thus the Second Book, by removing the Epiklesis from the Canon, not only made a blot upon our Liturgy, but also made it in this respect more like the Roman Mass. Here again the Scottish and American Liturgies have gone back to the First Prayer Book, and have indeed themselves improved upon it.

Exorcism was omitted from the Baptismal Service but most unreasonably the Scriptural practice of anointing the sick, and the primitive practice of reserving the Sacrament for them at the open Communion, were omitted from the Visitation; and the provision of a special Celebration was omitted from the Burial Service, while the prayers for the departed were made vaguer, largely in the interests of Calvinism. The other changes were mainly in matters of ceremonial. Morning and Evening Prayer were to be "in such place . . . as the people may best hear " — that is, in any part of the church that the fancy of the minister might suggest. The anointing, the chrisom-vesture, and the triple repetition of the immersion were removed from the Baptismal Service, and the rubric as to the bread and wine and water from the Communion. Two ceremonies of late origin — the delivery of the chalice to the priest and of his pastoral staff to the bishop — were omitted from the Ordinal. But the outward character of the services, in the churches which the Commissioners were fleecing, was most affected by the disappearance of the former rubrics and notes ordering the historic vestments, and by a new rubric stating that neither albe, vestment, nor cope should be worn, but that the bishop should wear a rochet and the priest a surplice only — the innocuous hood and scarf thus sharing the fate of the other vestments. Really, the despots of the Anarchy seem to have gone a little mad.


Already, in May, 1 552, the Privy Council had published Forty-two Articles which endeavoured to enforce Zwinglian doctrines upon the English Church. As in the case of the Second Prayer Book, the English Church was not invited to sanction these Articles; but the Council had the effrontery to state on the title-page that they had been agreed upon by the bishops in Convocation. By November 1st the Second Prayer Book was ready for use; and used it was for a while in churches from which even the organs had been taken.

The looting went on, as the Second Prayer Book ran through its brief career. Early in 1553, a new commission was issued, directing the seizure of all remaining valuables from the churches: the plate was sent to the Tower of London, and melted down, "forasmuch as the King's Majesty" was still in that mysterious need "of a mass of money." Poor little King! On July 6th he was dead; and England showed her opinion of the deeds that had been done in his name, by welcoming with enthusiasm Queen Mary to his throne. Poor Mary, poor England! The chief actors of the former reign pass away to prison or exile, or to the bitter vengeance of the faggot and the axe.

(From Foxes Book of Martyrs.)
Dr. cole is disputing with him from a pulpit. A friar and a graduate are pulling him from a platform. The two figures on the left are priests in gown, tippet, and cap. Cranmer is not dressed as a bishop. He let his beard grow after the death of Henry VIII.

Summary of Events

1549. March. The First English Prayer Book.

September. Deprivation of Bonner, Bishop of London, followed later by that of other bishops.

October. Fall of the Protector Somerset. Northumberland rules the Council of Regency.

1549-1552. Bucer, Peter Martyr, Calvin, and others put forward objections to the First Prayer Book.

1550. The First English Ordinal.
Destruction of altars by Bishop Ridley in London.

1552. Various "Commissions for Church Goods."

April. The Second Act of Uniformity sanctions the new Prayer Book.

May. The Forty-two Articles.

November 1st. The Second English Prayer Book first used. "It never had the slightest claim to ecclesiastical authority, and cannot even plead acceptance by the Church, for it was only in force about eight months, and probably was never used at all in many parts of England." (Wakeman.)

1553. January. Last Edwardian Commission for Church goods.

July 6th. Death of King Edward VI. Accession of Queen Mary.
Execution of the Protector Northumberland (who now declares himself a Papist after all).

1554. Reconciliation of England to the Papacy.

1555-8. The Marian Persecutions. Martyrdom of Cranmer, Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, and about 300 others.

1558. Accession of Queen Elizabeth.

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