The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has had an illustrious and checkered career since Archbishop Thomas Cranmer first introduced it to the Church of England back in 1549, almost five hundred years ago. If you’ve ever pledged to be faithful to someone “till death do us part,” mourned to the words “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” or hoped for “peace in our time,” you’ve been shaped by Cranmer’s cadences, perhaps without knowing it. Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University and former professor of English at Wheaton College, has given us a lively recounting of the old Anglican prayer book’s history in this new “biography,” part of Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Jordan Hylden, a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School, corresponded with Jacobs about the BCP’s global reach and its mixed reception by evangelicals.
The Book of Common Prayer is nearly 500 years old. Does it still make a difference for how we worship today?
I suppose that would depend on who you mean by “we”—there are millions of Christians worshipping in ways unaffected by the BCP, except insofar as they share common roots in Jewish and early Christian worship. But the reach of the BCP is more extensive than one might think. It has relatively direct connections to Methodist and Lutheran worship. And the liturgical scholarship that, in the early 20th century, went into possible revisions of the Church of England’s 1662 book eventually made its way not only into modern Anglican prayer books but even had an influence on liturgical developments in the Roman Catholic Church, especially when vernacular Masses were approved at Vatican II.
And then, of course, the BCP’s rite for Holy Matrimony has spread throughout the English-speaking world. I was once a groomsman in a Unitarian wedding that used it—though with all Trinitarian references gently excised.
So all in all, the BCP’s influence on Christian worship is kind of a big deal.
You show how Thomas Cranmer and the evangelicals of his day made some substantial changes to the existing Catholic liturgies. What makes the Book of Common Prayer a distinctively evangelical form of worship?
Well, I’m not sure it is, at least in its liturgies. Cranmer strove to maintain as much continuity with traditional forms of worship as he could, given his commitments to the Reformation. So in the liturgies themselves there is little that a medieval Catholic Christian could find fault with—except that they are in English, which traditionalists thought would distract the congregation from the private devotions they customarily pursued during Mass.
The key differences, I think, lie in two other areas. First, in what Cranmer took away: for instance, the whole panoply of devotion to the saints was cut back tremendously, leaving the saints’ days still in place but emphasizing that they are examples to be followed rather than intercessors.
Second, and for Cranmer most important, is the strong emphasis on a lectionary that took people through the whole Bible—and, if people went to Morning and Evening Prayer, read through the whole of the books of Psalms each month. Cranmer wanted the literate to read the Bible thoroughly and faithfully, and for the illiterate to hear it read every day. (Thus also his emphasis in the prayer book rubrics on the importance of the priests reading the liturgy itself and the Bible readings “in a loud voice.”)