Living Words for a Living Faith
Living Words for a Living Faith

Living Words for a Living Faith

Thomas Cranmer wrote a prayer book, and shaped an entire society.

March 20 th 2014
The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography
The Book of Common Prayer: A Biographyby Alan Jacobs. Princeton and Oxford, 2013. 256pp.

This is a concise history of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer over 450 years, from its genesis and reception in the English Reformation to its supersession by the proliferation of alternative Anglican liturgies in the second half of the twentieth century. The history traverses the successive versions of the BCP, the controversies and contests (ecclesiological and political) issuing in and from them, the shifting emphases of English worship, the cumulative and changing cultural and spiritual impact of its liturgies on the people of Great Britain, her colonies and ex-colonies, and finally, the subversion and eclipsing of these liturgies by modern developments.

The backbone of Jacobs's "biography" is the original prayer book of 1549 and its revision of 1552, both largely the work of Thomas Cranmer who, as Archbishop of Canterbury in the minority reign of King Edward VI (1547-1553), was primarily responsible for producing a single liturgical order in English for the reformed worship of the church in the king's territories. Replacing the multiple books required by the various Latin rites of the Roman church, Cranmer laid out, under the cover of one book, liturgies for all the services of the English church: notably, for Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany, Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation (with Catechism), Matrimony, Visitation of the Sick, Burial, the Ordering of Deacons and Priests, and the Consecration of Bishops.

It is because these foundational books, and their successors of 1559, 1604, and 1662, conveyed a good deal of linguistic and theological coherence and continuity that they could sustain the church's preaching, teaching, pastoral, and sacramental ministries over the generations, while regularly attracting fierce dissent. Equally, however, certain discernible tensions within and among the early books operated to fan the flames of controversy and division among clergy and laity. Precisely because liturgies are not theoretical treatises but forms of devotional worship, they are highly vulnerable to diverging theological and aesthetic interpretations and assessments, bound up in varying degrees with partisan ecclesiastical and political loyalties. Jacobs strives in his historical account to give due weight to both the continuities and tensions within and among the Tudor prayer books and, as well, to the part played by ecclesiastical and political partisanship in their ongoing reception.

A Nation at Prayer?

In surveying the composition and content of the Cranmerian liturgies, Jacobs highlights certain principles and emphases that have given an enduring shape to Anglican worship, and indeed, reveal its very nature and purpose. The quality of theological insight that he brings to this initial task is, therefore, critically important to the quality of his subsequent historical account. Generally, I would have to say that his presentation of these salient theological features is a little superficial, fragmentary, and overly dependent on the judgments of contemporary historians. While a degree of superficiality may be dictated by the objectives and general readership of the series "Lives of Great Religious Books," it sometimes renders Jacobs's most valuable insights—and these are substantial—less impressive than they might be. What, then, are these features highlighted by Jacobs, and how do the strengths and weaknesses of his presentation play out in his subsequent historical narrative?

The first feature is the centrality of regular Scripture-reading to the life of faith. Crucial to Cranmer's liturgical achievement was his regularisation of the calendar of Scripture readings for the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the two sets of daily devotions Cranmer devised for both clergy and laity, out of the eight monastic offices. Not only did these services rehearse the words of Scripture in said or sung psalms, canticles, the Lord's Prayer, and other prayers, but they included lengthy readings from the books of both Testaments in their canonical order, covering most of the Old Testament in the course of one year, the New Testament every four months, and the Psalter every month. As Jacobs's historical account makes clear, it is these liturgies, saturated with Scripture, that dominated English worship and prayer for several centuries, comprising the staple diet of public worship until, in the Victorian period, Cranmer's desire for frequent parish Communion was finally realised. It was hardly surprising, then, that the King James Bible, in unbroken liturgical use after 1662, became for many Anglicans, inseparable from prayer-book worship.

Missing from Jacobs's fulsome appreciation of the centrality of Scripture-reading in Cranmerian worship is a theological appreciation of the communal reading aloud of Scripture. Public speaking of, and harkening to, the words of Scripture express the church's faith that God continually speaks his word of salvation, through his chosen historical voices, to his people gathered in prayer. Liturgical recitation of Scripture draws attention to the leading role of the acoustic, or oral-aural dimension, of God's intercourse with his human creatures throughout its recorded history: revealing his purposes, judgments, and intentions to them; summoning, inviting, commanding, convicting, and assuring them; giving them a common social and political identity within the created world.

More attention to the primacy of the spoken word in divine, as in human, self-communication would have provided deeper roots in Cranmerian theology for Jacobs's rich and compelling reflections on the spiritual power over the centuries of Cranmer's language of prayer. These include his observations on how the rhetorical virtuosity of Cranmer's liturgical prose has served the different spiritual affections and purposes of declaring faith, confessing sin, offering praise and thanksgiving, and petitioning God's aid and mercy; how this language has liturgically mediated social distance and closeness, interiority and exteriority, public solemnity and spiritual intensity, allowing the individual, in Jacobs's words, to "stand naked before God in a paradoxical setting of public intimacy"; how its elegant Latinate cadences have graced prayers in households and schools as well as on state occasions, making audible to generations of worshipers "the beauty of holiness." Most memorable of Jacobs's allusions to distinguished literary admirers of the 1662 BCP (from Jonathan Swift to C.S. Lewis) is his description of Samuel Johnson's composition of prayers echoing the language and style of Cranmer's celebrated "collects" (that is, brief, set prayers), to give healing form to the "spiritual turmoil" of his annual penitential self-examination at the conclusion of Holy Week.

The second feature of the Cranmerian liturgies highlighted by Jacobs is their focus on the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross in justifying sinners as the Gospel heart of the Scriptures and of the church's faith. This focus is most fully elaborated in the liturgy of Holy Communion, climaxing in the theologically lavish presentation of Christ's "one oblation of himself once offered" as "a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." For Cranmer, Eucharistic celebration in accordance with Christ's commandments is not the church's meritorious re-enactment of Christ's saving sacrifice, in the offering of bread and wine, that miraculously enables communicants to feed corporeally on Christ's sacrificed body and blood, but rather her thankful recollection of Christ's unrepeatable suffering and death as the sole merit on which the Father's forgiveness of sinners is grounded. Jacobs follows the sound scholarly view that Cranmer's intention in revising the 1549 Communion liturgy was to expunge more completely all hints of "the mass" as a meritorious priestly sacrifice, and of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood, and thereby to emphasise the recollecting and spiritual nature of the believer's "feeding on Christ."

Jacobs has the unenviable task of surveying the historical controversies over the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist bequeathed by Cranmer's 1552 revisions and the reintroduction in 1559 of potentially Catholic phrases from the 1549 service. Happily, he succeeds not only in avoiding the more abstruse technicalities of these controversies, but also in showing that they were frequently carried on at the level of external liturgical symbolism (clerical vestments, ornaments, and ritual action). Nevertheless, his account is occasionally at the mercy of recurring theological and scholarly tendencies to classify and oppose positions, magnifying inconsistencies among the foundational prayer book liturgies.

One recurring tendency, prominent in the Anglo-Catholic revival of the nineteenth century, was to oppose the "Zwinglian memorialism" of the 1552 liturgy, in which the Eucharist "merely" recalls symbolically Christ's saving passion, with the Catholic "realism" of the 1549, 1559, and all subsequent liturgies, in which the Eucharist "effectually" unites the believer with Christ's sacrificed body and blood. To my mind, Jacobs is not sufficiently sceptical of this opposition, because he does not adequately grasp the "realism" of the 1552 communion liturgy, in which the truly repentant faithful, recollecting Christ's saving sacrifice in words, actions, and material elements, as he commanded, are spiritually united to their crucified Saviour by this visible pledge of their salvation, to enjoy the spiritual benefits of his passion, resurrection, and glorification.

Another opposition, decisive for liturgical reform in the twentieth century, was that between word and ritual action. This emerged historically from an earlier Anglo-Catholic project of interpreting the 1662 Communion liturgy through the (so-called) "Ornaments Rubric" of the 1559 prayer book, understood as requiring the use of more traditional Catholic church furnishings and clerical vestments. Victorian Anglo-Catholics increasingly treated this rubric as authorising an intense preoccupation with the visual aesthetics and symbolic minutiae of liturgical action and dress, church furnishings and architecture, regarding these aspects of worship as the historical key to unity with the universal church. While generating renewed commitment to the BCP, the Ritual Movement's "relentless focus on bodies and objects as symbolic conveyors of spiritual truth," combined with its preference for intoning services, "limited the words of the prayer book to an ancillary role," allowing "the specific language" of prayers and readings "to disappear into a sensuous impressionism."

In the mid-1940s, this demotion of the prayer book's spoken words became their wholesale dismissal, thanks to the historical studies of Dom Gregory Dix, which purported to demonstrate that none of the Tudor Communion liturgies conformed to the universal "shape" (pattern) of Eucharistic "action" identifiable in the many and varied rites of the apostolic and patristic churches. Dix contrasted the individual, subjective, and (merely) memorial orientation of Cranmer's word-centred Eucharistic liturgies with the corporate, objective, and eschatological orientation of the early churches' action-centred liturgies. Despite the questionable character of these theological polarisations and interpretations—summarised a little uncritically by Jacobs-Dix's construction of the universal pattern of Eucharistic worship swept over liturgical scholarship (by now international and ecumenical in scope) like a tidal wave, setting the broad agenda of Anglican and inter-denominational liturgical revision up to the present.

Common Prayer for the Common Good

Fired by the idea of a multiplicity of rites with varying words but the same structural features, liturgical revision in England and throughout the Anglican world has become the virtually continuous multiplication of alternative liturgical rites, primarily for the Eucharist, but also for the other services of the church. Prayer books, Jacobs adroitly observes, have been superseded by modular liturgical resources in a series of volumes, and increasingly online, offering a smorgasbord of options to satisfy a spectrum of theological, spiritual, linguistic, aesthetic, and seasonal preferences and needs. The historical irony, we may observe, is that these collections more than match for logistical complexity the vast array of liturgical manuals for the Latin rites of the medieval church.

The most dramatic outcome of this escalating trend of liturgical innovation has been the total eclipse of the third defining feature of Cranmerian worship: that it is common. Cranmerian worship is common not only in the primary theological sense in which all faithful worship is common, being an act of the whole company of Christ's faithful people, to which every worshipping individual and congregation is joined in a spiritual communion of faith, hope, and love. It is common in the social and political sense of being uniform throughout the church, and legislated by secular political authority.

Throughout his historical account, Jacobs explores the paradox, tragedy, and moral ambiguity of the legislated uniformity of Anglican worship in Britain and her colonies. Such uniformity he finds paradoxical because the wedding of civil and ecclesiastical authority in which it is enmeshed (involving the whole external church) has both bred and fallen prey to dissent, conflict, and frequently political and ecclesiastical division. Jacobs reminds us that after the 1689 Act of Toleration concluded the tumultuous religio-political battles of seventeenth century England, the 1662 prayer book never again ordered the regular worship of the majority of the nation, while a century later, the crisis of Anglican ordination in post-Revolutionary America necessitated the adoption of Scottish Episcopalian rather than English prayer-book rites. Such imposed uniformity, Jacobs perceives, is as tragic as it is morally ambiguous, because of the civil and social injustice and the spiritual deprivation brought about by it. All too often, it has served the vices of self-aggrandising conceit, partisan prejudice, domineering inflexibility, and the demonising hatred of opponents.

For all that, Jacobs does not explicitly discard the possibility that Cranmer's project of a single order of worship for the territorial church has been an exceedingly great, perhaps overriding, communal good. His reflections on legal establishment would have been more balanced and discerning had he attended more closely to its theological justification in the regular liturgies, for this justification is the prayer book's explicit statement of the rationale or purpose of political rule in Christian societies: namely, (quoting the prayer for Christ's church militant in the Communion service), that rulers "may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of God's true religion and virtue." Rulers are ordained by God to protect and preserve the goods that he mercifully bestows on sinful human societies from the destructive and disordering forces of sin within them. As the highest corporate goods consist in the practices of "God's true religion and virtue," these cannot be arbitrarily exempted from public protection and support. Such protection and maintenance do not imply that only one set of practices has universal, exclusive authority; but, rather, as Cranmer writes, that "every country should use such ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God's honour and glory and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living."

Jacobs might have made more of the progressive leniency over time of the civil penalties for departing from the requirements of Anglican establishment. As church establishment grew milder, the political influence of the prayer book in Britain gave way to a more exclusively spiritual, social, and cultural influence, affecting the more educated elite disproportionately, until its recent decline in the post-war period. Jacobs is saved from having to reflect on the future of church establishment as his historical account makes clear that the BCP would not figure significantly in it. The only significant issue for Jacobs concerning the future of the BCP is, rightly, whether it will continue to be available to those Anglicans around the world, for whom it remains what Cranmer intended it to be: 'living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith."

Topics: Religion
Joan Lockwood O'Donovan
Joan Lockwood O'Donovan

Joan Lockwood O'Donovan is a theologian and academic who has lectured and written extensively in Christian political and social thought. She has taught for theological colleges, the university and adjunct programs in Oxford, has been Research Fellow in the Law and Religion Program, Emory University, and is currently an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in the School of Divinity, and an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the University of St. Andrews in the School of Divinity. Her books include: George Grant and the Twilight of Justice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), Theology of Law and Authority in the English Reformation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, co-edited with Oliver O'Donovan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), and Bonds of Imperfection: Christian Politics Past and Present, co-authored with Oliver O'Donovan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). She has been a consultant editor and regular reviewer for Studies in Christian Ethics. She is currently completing a book on the public theology of English church establishment.


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