- Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559 and 1662 edited by Brian Cummings
Oxford, 830 pp, £16.99, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 920717 6
The publication of this definitive edition of the Book of Common Prayer heralds a significant anniversary; it is 350 years since the final version of the book was authorised by Parliament in 1662. It comes hard on the heels of the quatercentenary celebrations last year for another milestone of Stuart English prose composition, the King James Bible, and although I was surprised by the large amount of public interest shown in that commemoration, I doubt whether the Prayer Book will have such an impact. Many will regard it simply as a tribal occasion for a particular Christian denomination, and so will choose, like the priest and the Levite in the gospel for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, to pass by on the other side.
That would be a mistake. The modern Church of England might look like and often behave like a ‘denomination’, but from the 16th century to at least 1800, it was the national Church, enjoying the allegiance of the great majority of the population in both England and Wales. Its liturgy was not a denominational artefact; it was the literary text most thoroughly known by most people in this country – the Bible should be included among its lesser rivals. The English and the Welsh were active participants in the Prayer Book, as they made their liturgical replies to the person leading worship in the thousands of churches throughout the realm: they were actors week by week in a drama whose cast included and united most of the nation, and which therefore was a much more significant play, and culturally more central, than anything by Shakespeare. It was in 1662 that a century of argument about the book’s form and content were settled, and that form remained unchallenged until 1927-28, when proposals to alter it engendered a nationwide controversy played out in Parliament, which, to the astonishment and fury of the bishops, rejected the innovations.
The year 1662 was also significant because the freezing of the BCP at that moment prompted the departure of two thousand clergy from the parishes, who refused to sign up to the new book and formed what became Old Dissent, whereas before the mid-century civil wars most of them would have served in the Church of England with reasonable good grace. This was a major reformulation of national life, ensuring that thereafter the Established Church was never so overwhelmingly hegemonic in England as were Scandinavian Lutheranism or Mediterranean Catholicism in their respective spheres. English and Welsh Protestantism remained divided between church and chapel, with the vital consequence that religious and then political pluralism became embedded in national identity. All this was the fault of the Prayer Book’s return in 1662. Yet even when, in the 18th century, an increasingly powerful ‘new dissent’ appeared in the form of Methodism, the dominant Wesleyan Methodism was as ambivalent towards the Prayer Book as it was towards the Established Church itself. I was archivist for many years of English Methodism’s oldest surviving theological college, Wesley College in Bristol, and had in my custody the two quarto copies of the BCP used in the college’s original chapel from its opening in Manchester in 1842: they were worn frail with regular use in leading the community’s worship.
Even so, had the BCP remained what it was to begin with, a vehicle for national worship in a marginal and second-rank kingdom in Europe, its significance would have remained limited. But the English created two successive empires, the second still with us in the ghostly form of the Commonwealth. Where Anglicans went, so did their prayer book. A heroic work of chronological listings published by David Griffiths in 2002 rounded up about 4800 editions of the Prayer Book or of liturgies stemming from its Scottish and American derivatives; around 1200 of these are in 199 other languages, ranging from the Acholi of Uganda to Zulu. Griffiths demonstrated that the peak year for production of versions of the Prayer Book was 1850, the height of the empire’s vigour and self-confidence, and despite subsequent decline, around a thousand editions still appeared in the 20th century. (I myself was partly responsible for one of them.) Brian Cummings’s version has a certain memorial quality, partly because it answers so many questions about the book and partly thanks to the classic splendour of the OUP production, but it is unlikely to be the last.
Thomas Cranmer and his fellow Protestants felt that Latin excluded uneducated laity from the proper praise of God, and designed the first English BCP in 1549 to replace the Latin liturgy of the Western Church. Yet Cranmer had absolutely no objection to Latin as such; it was the international language of his era, and in the right circumstances, it might be just as much a vehicle for godly Protestant worship as it had been an ally of popery. Such was the prospect in Ireland, the other realm of the Tudor monarchs. In 1560, Cranmer’s former publisher and posthumous relative by marriage, the Dutch printer Reyner Wolfe, brought out the first proper Latin version of the BCP, specifically for use in the Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland, which were then far more extensive than the embattled Anglophone zone around Dublin called the Pale. The fact that the English Church authorities thought this Latin translation worth the effort is a tribute to the scale and sophistication of Irish Gaelic culture at the time. By contrast, no one had listened in 1549 to the plea of Cornish rebels, protesting against the introduction of the first English Prayer Book, that some of them spoke no English. That was probably hardly true even then, and the government of Edward VI had no hesitation in massacring them for their obduracy.
Vol. 34 No. 12 · 21 June 2012
From Laura Stewart
Diarmaid MacCulloch asserts that a version of the English Book of Common Prayer was ‘imposed’ on Scotland in the 1630s by the English court (LRB, 24 May). The story is more complicated than this brief account suggests. English prayer books were used by Scotland’s Protestants before 1560 and, according to Gordon Donaldson, writing in 1954, ‘continued to have a place in Scottish worship’ thereafter. Increasingly, however, many Scots regarded ex tempore preaching as one of the central features of their faith. The idea of a dedicated Scottish liturgy was raised by King James VI and I after he had acceded to the English throne and, in 1616, a group of clerics was commissioned by the Scottish General Assembly to prepare a draft. The project was overtaken by James’s misguided attempts to force Scotland to take the sacrament on its knees; the ensuing furore continues to be downplayed by British historians.
Further liturgical innovations were shelved until James’s son, Charles I, resurrected the idea, perhaps as early as 1629. An English liturgy was already in use in the Chapel Royal at Holyroodhouse but, by 1634, the king had been persuaded to allow the Scottish bishops to revise a text personally approved by him. A royal proclamation ordering the use of the BCP was issued in November 1636. This gave the BCP’s opponents plenty of time to prepare for its infamous first public airing in Edinburgh on 23 July 1637.
The fate of the BCP in Scotland perhaps had much to do with the ‘bullying self-righteousness’ of its royal advocates, because hostility to its use wasn’t universal. Presbyterian polemicists wanted their fellow Scots to believe it was, and they succeeded brilliantly. More than three hundred years later, we still regard Calvinism as the natural disposition of the Scot and its ‘proudly Reformed Church’ as a monolith.
University of London
From Nicholas Wolf
Diarmaid MacCulloch convincingly describes the interplay between translations of the Book of Common Prayer starting in the 16th century and the increasingly global perspective of an English people in the early stages of international empire. Yet his summary of English attempts to bring the BCP to Ireland in 1560 suggests a breezy flexibility and a readiness to translate – in contrast to his portrayal of a harsh English policy towards the Cornish especially – that hardly existed. On the contrary, the call by the Elizabethan Act of Uniformity (1560) for Latin to be used among Irish congregations who spoke no English was justified explicitly on the mistaken premise that literacy in Gaelic was nearly non-existent, and implicitly by the fact that the Church was in no way prepared to provide the extensive written materials in vernacular translation that were needed. As it turns out, it was the Scots who showed entrepreneurship in this area in the form of a loose Irish translation of the Book of Common Order produced by a churchman of the Scottish Reformed Church, John Carswell, in 1567. Only in 1608 did an Irish translation of the BCP appear, and even after that the established church’s record with regard to the vernacular in Ireland vacillated between accommodation and resistance throughout the late Tudor and early Stuart periods.
Virginia Commonwealth University
Vol. 34 No. 16 · 30 August 2012
From A.E.J. Fitchett
Diarmaid MacCulloch sees ‘overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness’ in the service for ‘thanksgiving of women after childbirth, commonly called … churching’ in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (LRB, 24 May). Perhaps MacCulloch is thinking back to the similar service in the 1549 first prayer book of Edward VI, which indeed refers to purification. The 1662 service, however, has no suggestion of uncleanness or purification: it is a simple service of thanksgiving for delivery from ‘the great pain and peril of childbirth’. The Church did not wait for the ‘revolution in gender relations’ of the 1960s to remove all references to uncleanness and purification.
For that reason, when in 1987, during its work on a New Zealand Prayer Book/He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa, the General Synod of the Church of the Province of New Zealand proposed to remove ‘The Churching of Women’ from the list of authorised services, and replace it with one of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child, I successfully opposed the deletion of the 1662 service.
Dunedin, New Zealand
Vol. 34 No. 18 · 27 September 2012
From Diarmaid MacCulloch
A.E.J. Fitchett refers to my comments on the service of ‘churching’ in the Book of Common Prayer and suggests that I am thinking of its 1549 predecessor in referring to ‘overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness’, rather than the version re-edited in 1662, with its greater emphasis on thanksgiving (Letters, 30 August). Formally he might be right; but his insight escaped three centuries of English Anglicans, who continued to think in terms of uncleanness in childbirth, for which the service would provide a remedy. Strange that their clergy did not manage to disabuse them of this idea over so long a period. This remained the case with very many working-class Anglicans up to the 1960s: the mothers of young mothers would not allow them to participate fully in everyday life until they had been churched. I speak from childhood experience in my father’s rural Suffolk parish; one of his former parishioners was reminiscing to me of those days only last year. Margaret Houlbrooke’s book Rite Out of Time provides further rich confirmation that Wetherden in the 1960s was not exceptional. The complete collapse of the rite of churching since then reflects a great rebellion on the part of young mothers of that generation when their own daughters came to have children. The Anglican Communion is a many-splendoured thing. If the Church in Aotearoa can wipe the cultural slate clean and use the service of churching afresh for the purposes of thanksgiving in childbirth, then good luck to it.