Mumpsimus, Sumpsimus

Diarmaid MacCulloch

  • 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.

Early translations into major modern European languages followed, for diplomatic purposes, to demonstrate to potential Roman Catholic royal brides or their anxious advisers that the English Protestant liturgy was a respectable route to God: a French translation in 1616 and one in Spanish in 1623 were both connected to proposed Catholic royal marriages. An Italian version had already been commissioned in 1607 by the scholarly diplomat Sir Henry Wotton as English ambassador in Venice, in an optimistic bid to cash in on a bitter stand-off between the Serene Republic and the pope by converting the Venetians to the Church of England. Portuguese came later, in 1695, and that translation was, significantly, sponsored by the Honourable East India Company, as the British were beginning to make inroads on the decaying Iberian overseas possessions in Asia and elsewhere. In 1821, the Wesleyan Methodists were still close enough to their Anglican roots to feel it worthwhile to translate the Prayer Book into Portuguese pidgin-Creole for their work in what is now Sri Lanka. The Polish BCP had to wait until 1836, in an effort at Anglican mission among Jews in Eastern Europe even more quixotic than Wotton’s wooing of Venice. This translation was suppressed by the Russian authorities, predictably without any signs of regret on the part of the Polish Roman Catholic Church. And who would have expected the king of the Sandwich Islands personally to have undertaken the translation of the Prayer Book into Hawaiian?

The first essays in translating parts of the Latin liturgy into English were done during the 1530s by a variety of enthusiasts for Reformation, in the teeth of murderous disapproval from Henry VIII, a fierce conservative in liturgical matters, despite his own break with the bishop of Rome. Cranmer, the king’s watchful and scholarly chaplain, did not share his prejudices. On his first encounter with Protestantism in mainland Europe, on embassy in Lutheran Nuremberg, Cranmer took a keen interest in the innovative liturgy he saw there, but also in Margarete, niece of the pastor presiding in the church of St Lorenz; he married her just before Henry chose him as archbishop of Canterbury, and she eventually joined him in his archiepiscopal palaces. That gesture by itself showed that Cranmer had embraced the Reformation in more than one sense; medieval priests might commonly take mistresses, but Protestant clergy were quick to show their contempt for compulsory clerical celibacy by making respectable and public marriages. When Cranmer came to compose the new version of the marriage service (still in use today), this first married archbishop of Canterbury said for the first time in Christian liturgical history that one of the reasons for getting married was that it was good for you, and also quite enjoyable – ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought have of the other’.

While Henry’s religious moods and diplomatic priorities continued to sway between old mumpsimus and new sumpsimus, Cranmer squirrelled away in his luxuriously large library at Croydon Palace the many liturgical experiments both of English evangelicals and the emerging Reformations of the mainland. Like all mainstream Protestant Reformers, he shared with his popish enemies the conviction that a crowd of ordinary Christians left to themselves were incapable of spontaneously finding appropriate words to approach God in corporate prayer; many still agree. The archbishop began his own efforts to meld a multitude of new experiments and old forms with the main tradition of medieval Western liturgy popular in the English Church, which took its cue from practices devised for Salisbury Cathedral in previous centuries – the Sarum Use. Various initiatives in Henry’s lifetime produced nothing more than a vernacular processional rite (a litany) pestering God to back the king in his last major war against the French, but matters changed rapidly from 1547, once Henry’s young son Edward was on the throne and his advisers were determined on a real religious revolution. By 1549, Cranmer’s first English vernacular liturgy was in place, authorised by Parliament first to be universally observed on Whitsunday – an appropriate festival, since it celebrated the occasion on which the apostles had been heard to speak in many languages. No one, not just the Cornish rebels, much liked this book at the time; it was a compromise with one eye on the formidable phalanx of traditionalists among Cranmer’s episcopal colleagues, and few among his evangelical soulmates appreciated its nuanced presentation of Protestant theology under traditional forms. Once some of the less co-operative English bishops were safely locked up for various demonstrations of opposition to the accelerating religious changes, Cranmer got something more like what he wanted, a liturgy whose sole use came into force in autumn 1552. There was less than a year for it to bed down (and in Ireland, virtually no time) before Edward VI was dead and Catholic Mary on the throne, but in 1559, the BCP was brought back virtually unaltered by a Protestant government much less disposed to compromise with Catholics than Edward’s government had been ten years earlier. It was this production of Cranmer’s unbuttoned Protestant Indian summer that remained in place until the wars of the 1640s. In 1662, after the unexpected return of both monarchy and episcopally-governed Church, the Book took on its final form.

In 1552 the Prayer Book embodied Protestant religious revolution, but less than ninety years later, it provoked Protestant religious revolution in Scotland and then, by domino effect, in England too. Because of that, the historical logic of its recall and revision in 1662 signalled an end to revolution in the kingdom. That tangled story embodied a great argument about what sort of Protestantism English Protestantism was. At the beginning of it all was Cranmer, whose theology shifted during his clerical career from conventional late medieval piety into Protestantism, not once but twice. Cranmer ended up aligning himself with the more thoroughgoing form of Protestantism in Central Europe which came to call itself Reformed, as opposed to the developing ‘Lutheran’ bloc, which was the more conservative Protestantism he had first experienced in Nuremberg. The great issue separating these two sorts of Protestant was their understanding of what happened in the Eucharist. Did bread and wine become in some physical or corporal form the body and blood of Christ during this service? The pope said yes – and so did Martin Luther. The Reformed said no: bread and wine were symbols of body and blood, and symbols they remained in this service. There was still much to discuss if one took this line, but the great gulf between the Reformed on the one hand, and both Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the other, was clear.

Cranmer presided over both versions of the Edwardian Prayer Book with that Reformed conviction in mind, but one would have needed to be as subtle and scholarly as the archbishop himself to notice it the first time round in 1549. There are still certain medieval vestments specified in the book, together with choral singing, which could presumably be completely traditional; there are crosses printed in the text to signify where the priest should make manual signs of blessing, both in the eucharistic service and at other moments of clerical blessing, such as in marriage or baptism. No wonder so many Protestant leaders fumed when they saw the truculently Catholic Bishop Bonner of London performing the 1549 rite ‘sadly and discreetly’, which in the Tudor language of the approving traditionalist commentator who recorded the occasion, meant the opposite of what it means today. Bonner, who was not a fool, gleefully celebrated the new Eucharist with as much medieval pomp and dignified ceremony as he could squeeze into it, for ‘sadly’ means ‘with solemnity’, and ‘discreetly’ means ‘with due judgment’.

Something had to give, and there was a great deal of frenzied revision of the rite before its reissue in 1552. In the new 1552 service of Eucharist, the feeling is emphatically of a Reformed Lord’s Supper – not even a Lutheran rite. Not only does it repeatedly shy away from any potentially dramatic liturgical climax until all those present have received the bread and wine – something which already puzzled me when I was in the congregation as a boy – but appended to the service is a stage direction (a ‘rubric’, in ecclesiastical jargon), which is an absolute killer to any idea that a priest has created the body and blood of Christ on a table. The rubric deals with what should happen to any bread and wine remaining unconsumed: ‘The curate shall have it to his own use,’ it says. In other words: take it home for his tea. You don’t do that to God, but you do do it to bread and wine. This instruction survived through 1559, and then, significantly, disappeared in 1662.

That may be a remarkably brutal transformation, but Cranmer could be very nuanced in the language he used to realign the nature of this drama, which so divided Christians. He was unhappily conscious in 1549 that his traditionalist colleagues in the House of Lords loathed his new liturgical proposals, and the mark of the resulting clash is there in the title of the service during which the people of England would take bread and wine. The 1549 BCP calls it ‘The Supper of the Lord, and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass’. That sounds like three things, but is in fact only two, the second being that addition of ‘the Mass’, in a fashion which might politely be described as grudging. I have little doubt that the word is there only because members of the Lords insisted in debate that it should be thrust into the draft BCP – that, or they would scupper the passage of the entire book. Cranmer’s first intention was apparently that the whole eucharistic service should henceforth be called the Lord’s Supper, but into the structure of the new English service he placed a short English rite for communicants to receive the bread and wine, the ‘Order for Communion’, which he had already published a year before the BCP. Clergy had been ordered to insert this ‘Order for Communion’ rather incongruously into the traditional Latin service: it was the first time there had been any official tinkering with the Mass.

That interloper ‘Communion’ was then a word without much English back-story, but it has become the normal Anglican word for the whole service, largely as a result of one of Cranmer’s most subtle shifts in a lifetime of verbal subtlety. When he came to give a title to the same service in his revised book of 1552, the word ‘mass’, which he despised, was ruthlessly removed, but the balance between ‘Lord’s Supper’ and ‘communion’ was also changed. ‘Communion’ might now have seemed redundant, with memories of its separate appearance in 1548 fading; instead, it was promoted. No longer were these concepts a single unit, a liturgical Russian doll with the ‘supper’ containing the ‘communion’, because ‘or’ replaced ‘and the’: the title became ‘The Lord’s Supper or holy Communion’, as if any fool would know that these were two alternative names for the same thing. And curiously, it was ‘communion’ which in the long term seized the Church of England’s imagination, separating out English Protestants from both German Lutherans and German Reformed, who have stuck with ‘supper’, Abendmahl, as have Francophone Reformed Protestants with their Cène. It is unlikely that Cranmer anticipated this outcome, still less intended it; within a year he was a prisoner in the Tower at the mercy of Bloody Mary, unable to influence events except by his eventual martyrdom, and it was the Church after 1559 that established ‘communion’ as the norm.

The likely explanation for that shift away from the ‘supper’ usage, which if it had survived would have gone on happily uniting the English Church with the best Reformed Churches of Europe, lies in a shift in the nature of the English Church itself, a shift that Cranmer would probably have deplored. The C of E has become ‘Anglican’, a word which came into common use only in the 19th century, and which was originally the property of a faction within the Church which also self-consciously saw itself as ‘Catholic’. Cranmer would also have called the Church of England ‘Catholic’, but in the sense that John Calvin or Heinrich Bullinger would likewise have called their Churches ‘Catholic’: they were all parts of the Universal Church which had rejected the medieval corruptions of the Church of Rome in order to regain an authentic Catholicity. Many Anglicans, however, have come to see Anglicanism as a ‘middle way’ between Rome and Protestantism, a position that would have bewildered Cranmer: how can one have a ‘middle way’ between Antichrist and truth? How might this have happened, he would have asked? The answer lies in the Prayer Book which he had created. Probably Cranmer would have revised and simplified it further had his time as archbishop been prolonged for another ten or twenty years; certainly that was what people who had known him said he had intended.

Instead, his effort of 1552 was fossilised in its revival in 1559, and it remained the most elaborate liturgy of any Reformed Church in Europe, its observance of the traditional festival shape of the Church’s year more conservative than any other. Even the Lutherans of mainland Europe did not go on observing Lent with the punctiliousness demanded both by the English Prayer Book and by English legislation enforcing fasting during those forty days. Scotland went so far as to abolish Christmas; by contrast, Cranmer gave the day a special little prayer, or collect, which he specified should be used in services every day till New Year’s Eve. And his four-score collects for particular days of the Church’s year are one of the glories of his liturgical work, sometimes composed brand new, but more often culled from the worship of the Universal Church as far back as the fifth century and crafted together in his own sonorous English. Even those who are not natural fans of set liturgy (or of brief prayers) can grudgingly concede the worth of Cranmer’s collects.

The liturgical peculiarity of the English Church coincided with its other unique feature: its great cathedral churches survived as institutions with virtually all their medieval infrastructure. It is a puzzle: no other Protestant Church in Europe was like this. Chantries and all the apparatus of purgatory were abolished, certainly, but an Elizabethan cathedral still had its surrounding close like a miniature town, populated not just by a dean and chapter as might survive in attenuated legal form in Lutheran Germany or Scandinavia, but also by minor canons, choristers, organists, vergers: a formidable machine for worship. The worship could only be that of Cranmer’s BCP, but cathedrals performed it, as Bishop Bonner might have recognised with sarcastic amusement, ‘sadly and discreetly’, with benefit of choir and organ, even some vestments: a totally different approach from the way the Prayer Book was used in England’s thousands of parish churches, with their services largely said, and the only music the psalms sung metrically in the fashion of Geneva. In Cranmer’s last months of power, cathedral organs were being demolished and the choirs set to singing metrical psalms, but when Elizabeth ascended the throne, she ignored that trajectory, and her own Chapel Royal set a standard of musical elaboration and beauty that the Church of England has never forgotten. Westminster Abbey, across the road from the Palace of Whitehall, was frequently infuriated when Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal hijacked its best singers, but the dean and chapter might have been consoled had they known that these royal kidnappings were safeguarding the future of the English choral tradition.

There was more to this unexpected turn in the English Reformation than merely good music. The cathedrals and the Chapel Royal fostered an attitude to the sacred that strayed far from the normal Protestant emphasis on communal praise by the people and the Word of God interpreted by the minister from the pulpit. English cathedrals preserved a sense that regular prayer and the contemplation of the divine through beauty constituted an equally valid road to divinity. In counterpoint to Cranmer’s evangelicalism, they erected a fabric of sacramental – Catholic – devotion. This made the Church of England theologically Janus-faced, and in the time of Elizabeth’s Stuart successors, the tension tore the country apart. That was how Cranmer’s attempt to turn Reformation truths into set liturgy ended up being seen by many of the English as a symbol of popery, an insult to God’s pure service. Worse still, in 1638 the English court tried imposing a version of the BCP on the proudly Reformed Church of Scotland, and even more seriously than that, theirs was a version revised away from the English Book and ‘backwards’ towards 1549. It was hardly an advertisement for the beauty of holiness when the Bishop of Brechin led worship from the new service book in Brechin Cathedral glaring at his mutinous congregation over a pair of loaded pistols, just in case they tried to drag him out of his prayer-desk. Such was the trigger of the Scottish revolt against the government of Charles I which led to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. And when the episcopally governed Church of England was set up again in 1660, it did very little to conciliate the party that had so objected to the Prayer Book: one or two small concessions, and otherwise a book which sorted out a few angularities in Cranmer’s old text, added some useful afterthoughts to deal with new pastoral situations, such as the existence of a much enlarged Royal Navy, and then delicately tiptoed slightly further from the Reformed European mainstream. Hence the disappearance of that howling affirmation that leftover bread and wine were not body and blood, because they could be consumed for the parson’s dinner, from among the rubrics at the end of Holy Communion. Anglicanism was born.

The Prayer Book is by no means simply a historical document; its presence or its memory is the main thing that unites the not especially united family of Churches which now calls itself the Anglican Communion. Parts of the book are unquestionably as much past history as the 39 Articles, which are still the theoretical doctrinal norm of the Church of England, yet which have their eyes unhelpfully fixed on the concerns of the mid-16th century. For instance, the service for ‘Thanksgiving of women after childbirth, commonly called … Churching’ was still in regular use in my father’s rural parish in the 1960s, but its overtones of purification from ritual uncleanness could hardly survive the revolution in gender relations which then occurred, and its epitaph can be found in the adroit title of Margaret Houlbrooke’s charming recent study of its 20th-century history: Rite out of Time. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that most of the Church hierarchy were content to let the whole book die, as they became preoccupied with revisions and extensions of liturgy, some of which were admittedly long overdue. It was the heroically grumpy efforts of the Prayer Book Society that then shamed Anglicans into arresting the decline. In one respect the BCP flourishes as never before: in the popularity of choral evensong, gloriously performed with an aesthetic care which Cranmer would have deplored, in great churches like cathedrals for which he had no perceptible affection. Nor would he have approved of what makes evensong so attractive to so many who now crowd cathedrals and choral foundations as extras in its musical drama. For those who view a well-signposted theological motorway, straight as an arrow, as an unconvincing route to divinity, or who are repelled by the bleak certainties and bullying self-righteousness of much organised religion, choral evensong according to the Prayer Book affords understated hospitality, of that gentle, accepting sort described by George Herbert, who lived his life by the 1559 BCP, and wrote much verse about how to use it:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing …
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.

‘Love (III)’, from The Temple (1633).