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.

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