Friday, March 15, 2002


In the year 1999 the Prayer Book Society of America made much of the 450th anniversary of The Book of the Common Prayer (1549), the first complete Prayer Book in the English language. A CD of the "Order for Holy Communion commonly called the Mass" recorded in New York City under my guidance was manufactured and the 2,000 copies soon sold out. Printed copies of this service were made available and churches all around the country had special celebrations using this liturgy.

These events of 1999 caused a small but significant interest in the use of a classic Prayer Book in the ECUSA and gave a boost to the Prayer Book Society. (Similar activities in England, Canada and Australia had beneficial results there.)

The year 2002 is the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the second edition of "The Book of [the] Common Prayer" (1552) .

Usually, the second edition of a totally new and epoch-making book is not so valuable or important as the first edition. But in certain ways the second edition is more important than the first. Let me explain.

The importance of the first edition is obvious, it is THE FIRST! The use of the vernacular in the new Prayer Book in 1549 was so good that, along with the Authorized Version of the Bible (the K.J.V.) and the plays of Shakespeare, it had (via the 1552 edition) a major impact upon the establishing of the English language as we have known it. Modern liturgists call this language "traditional language" and their own creation "contemporary language" but these terms are inaccurate in each case! The language created by Archbishop Cranmer was more than "traditional"! (See further the excellent account in Ian Robinson, The Establishment of Modern English Prose, Cambridge University Press, 1998.)

But it was the edition of 1552 (with minor modifications) that was to be used in the Church of England during the reigns of Elizabeth 1, James 1 and Charles 1 and then with further small modifications was to become the most widely used edition of the BCP, that of 1662. The latter has been translated into over 150 languages since 1662. It is for this reason of very wide influence and usage that the 450th anniversary is not to be neglected.

The second edition was intended by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his colleagues to be explicitly a Reformed Catholic Prayer Book wherein the excesses and errors of the medieval Church were not to be found at all. The services for the Burial of the Dead, the Lord's Supper and Baptism reflect this cleansing!

Perhaps the reaction against medieval abuses so obvious in this edition of 1552 went too far and some good things were discarded. It is easy for us looking back to make such a judgment for we do not live in a culture that is obsessed with life after death and the pains of purgatorial fire; and thus we do not have the real pastoral problem of dealing with people who have been taught for centuries that the Church has a certain power over the destiny of those who have departed this life for purgatory and therefore that prayers, offerings, lighting candles, indulgences and the sacrifice of the mass within holy mother Church can change the quality of life of the departed.

Certainly when the edition of 1662 was prepared it was obvious that adjustments had been made in the contents of the 1552 BCP in order (a) to lessen its perhaps excessive pendulum swing towards extreme Protestantism and (b) to provide services which were genuinely Reformed Catholic in that they reflected the mind and doctrine of the Fathers of the Church of the early centuries. Thus it has been possible for churchmen of various schools of thought to use the BCP of 1662 with complete satisfaction for centuries and to refer to it as "that most excellent liturgy."

As more became known about the history of liturgy and about the liturgies of the major centers of the Church in the first five centuries, there was a desire amongst some Anglican theologians inside and outside the Church of England to make changes in the BCP of 1662 so as to cause the shape of the Prayer of Consecration in the Order for Holy Communion to reflect the shape of these patristic liturgies. One may see these changes in Scottish and American Prayer Books for example. A comparison of the "shape" and content of the Consecration Prayer in the BCP 1662 with that of the American BCP of 1928 will make this point clear.

With the rise of the Anglo-Catholic movement in the 1830s there developed a sense amongst some Anglicans that the contents of the Order for Holy Communion in all editions of the BCP from 1662 needed enrichment from the contents of the Roman Catholic Mass. Thus there were printed, in the late Victorian era, Missals containing the new enriched orders and such are still used in some parishes in America and Canada. In Britain the Anglo-Catholics in the Forward in Faith movement have ceased to use such Missals, and, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, have turned instead to the use in whole or in part of the modern Roman Catholic Rite itself. In a real sense they have abandoned the Anglican style and ethos of worship for what they regard as a more authentically western model.

We must return in closing to the 1552 BCP. It is surely right and appropriate in 2002 that Anglicans of all shapes and sizes, and speaking any of the hundred or more languages used in the Communion, should look back with both gratitude and interest to this Book of Common Prayer, not least because of its influence upon the shape and content of divine worship for millions of people through five centuries.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon Lent IV 2002

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