Address given by Professor Stephen Ellis BA, MA, PhD, DLitt, MRIA, FRHistS, Professor of History, Head of School of Humanities NUI Galway, and a Diocesan Reader in the United Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry, at a service of thanksgiving to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Restoration Book of Common Prayer held in St Macartin’s Cathedral, Enniskillen, on Sunday 18th November 2012. During the service the Revd Bryan Kerr B.D., M.Phil. was formally admitted as Canon.
The commemoration today of the 350th anniversary of The Book of Common Prayer perhaps needs some explanation. What’s commemorated is actually the Prayer Book’s restoration following the Civil War and Interregnum, when its use had been illegal. After the monarchy’s restoration in 1660, the Prayer Book was restored in 1662 – largely as before, with few changes. Only prayers for those at sea, and a baptism service ‘for those of riper years’ were new. The reason why we commemorate the 1662 Prayer Book, I think, is that it then remained unaltered until 1878 in Ireland and 1928 in England. Here in Ireland, the Prayer Book was the English version of 1662, with some additions: it remained in force until Disestablishment. Other versions existed elsewhere; and also in other languages – some 200 to date – in Latin from 1551, then French and Welsh, and an Irish version, Leabhar na nVrnaightheadh gComhchoidchiond – published in Dublin in 1608. But what we think of as the Prayer Book is really a collection of common prayers and services – prayers for public worship – of English origin. They’re in some ways distinctive, but still widely used across the Anglican communion and accepted by Anglicans of differing churchmanship. They mostly go back to the 1540s, the work largely – but not solely – of Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury from 1533, burned to death for heresy under Queen Mary.
If we turn to the original English Prayer Book of 1549, and the 1552 and 1559 revisions, it’s easy to see that they were very much the product of the Reformation. To understand them, we need to look at the state of religion here on the eve of the Reformation. The services were then said or sung by the priest in Latin, a language which most people did not understand: the laity just watched and listened. But once a year at Easter, the people went to confession and then to communion (they were ‘shriven and houseled’, as the phrase was), but only in one kind (the bread). And English translations of the Bible were banned, in order to counteract the Lollard heresy. This was the situation in England and Ireland just before the first English Prayer Book was published.
The Prayer Book was part of a typically Protestant campaign to replace Latin in public worship with the vernacular, in this case English, so that ordinary people could understand. From 1538, the laity were taught the common prayers in English; the English Bible was authorized from 1539; then in the 1540s some English services came in – the Litany in 1544, the Communion in 1548. Broadly, we may say that the Tudor Reformation produced a church which was Protestant in doctrine but Catholic in liturgy, and this compromise – surviving in the Church of Ireland’s claim to be Catholic and Reformed – was very apparent in the Book of Common Prayer. Once services were in English, the government then set out to ensure that ‘common prayer’ was actually ‘common prayer’. For the clergy, this meant getting them to lead their congregations in worship, rather than simply saying the offices and Mass on their own, with the people as spectators. This wasn’t easy: most clergy had learned by watching the parish priest and studying privately – still the case, in parts of Africa. Once they knew sufficient Latin to say Mass, they presented themselves to the bishop: if he thought they were adequately learned and of good conduct, he ordained them. So, to ensure that the clergy knew what to do, and did what was required, the new Prayer Book had lots of rubrics – the red bits in your prayer books – to instruct the clergy how to perform the services. (Lots of rubrics for Holy Communion, fewer for Morning Prayer: this is still the case.) So, before beginning the Prayer for the Church Militant which led into the prayer of consecration, the priest was instructed as follows: ‘Then the priest, turning him to the Altar [that is, with his back to the people] shall say or sing, plainly and distinctly, this prayer following.’ And in respect of the Words of Christ’s Institution: ‘These words before rehearsed are to be said, turning still to the Altar without any elevation, or shewing the Sacrament to the people.’ And for the Administration: ‘Then shall the priest first receive the Communion in both kinds himself, and next deliver it to other ministers, if any be there present … and after to the people.’ Finally, there was a rubric that ‘there shall always some communicate with the priest … And the priest on the week day shall forbear to celebrate the communion except he have some that will communicate with him’. In other words, the priest was to say the prayer of consecration loudly, so the people could hear; he was not to counterfeit the Mass, mumbling the words inaudibly like the old Latin; he was not to elevate the host; and priest and people were all to receive communion, in both kinds.
If we turn to the people’s role in worship, the first point to remember is that the Prayer Book epitomized a shift from a visual to a bibliocentric presentation of religion. Protestantism was the religion of the Word – Bibles and sermons: traditional Catholicism had been about what people could see, in a society which was 95% illiterate: the miracle of the Mass every Sunday, statues and holy pictures, pilgrimages and processions. Now, statues were condemned as ‘monuments of superstition’; rood screens were removed; and the picture of the Last Judgment (called the Doom) was replaced by scriptural quotations – typically ‘The Word of the Lord endureth for ever’. The Prayer Book’s role in all this was, first, that it supplied the liturgy in a language the people could understand; and second, because the people now understood, they could also participate in the worship.
If we take the second point first, the change was most evident in the offices. Most of the Prayer Book is simply an English translation of the so-called Sarum Use – the Latin services used by the church in large parts of England and Ireland. In this process of liturgical reform, a distinctive feature of the English Reformation was the emphasis on preserving continuity, while purging of error and superstition received orders of worship. So if we take the order for Matins, the priest began: ‘Domine, labia mea aperies’, translated by Cranmer as ‘O Lord, open thou my lips’: the response was, ‘And my mouth shall shew forth thy praise’. Then after Benedictus came a rubric that ‘the minister shall say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer in English with a loud voice’. When the BCP was revised in 1552, the rubric was changed to, ‘Then shall be said the Creed, by the minister and the people, standing’, then the Lord’s Prayer by ‘the minister, clerks, and people … with a loud voice’. So the people now joined in the worship. Cranmer also changed the opening preces to reflect this new participation: it now began, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’/ ‘And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise’. Foreign Protestants witnessing these new services were surprised at the level of congregational participation. Another change in 1552 was the confession. Before the Reformation the priest normally said his offices publicly: the 1549 Communion rubric required those wishing to receive to ‘signify their names to the curate overnight, or else in the morning, afore the beginning of Matins, or immediately after’. So Matins normally preceded Mass; but the people, used to communion once a year at Easter, were very reluctant to receive regularly, as the Prayer Book envisaged. Another rubric required intended communicants to ‘tarry still in the choir … the men on the one side, and the women on the other … All other … shall depart’; but if ‘there be none to communicate with the priest’, he shall ‘say all things at the Altar … until after the Offertory’, then add one or two collects and ‘let [the people] depart with the accustomed blessing’. But by 1552, these same collects were authorized for use at Morning or Evening Prayer, and the authorities had also taken stock of the fact that, if people did not come to communion, neither were they present for the General Confession and Absolution which, when first introduced in 1548, came immediately after the Consecration but before the actual communion. So in 1552, Morning Prayer was changed to begin with a sentence of scripture, then the Exhortation (‘Dearly beloved brethren, the scripture moveth us in sundry places’), then the General Confession and Absolution, the Lord’s Prayer, and the preces and responses. So what had been a kind of aperitif before Mass gradually took over as the principal Sunday service. The public recitation of the offices became a distinctive feature of Anglican worship, when Catholics abandoned lay participation in the offices after the Reformation. Within a few years, too, the offices had been set to music, by Thomas Tallis in Queen Elizabeth’s chapel royal. Many of you will know the setting – which we used this evening – even if you don’t know its origins. Tallis deliberately used Reformation style, not ‘exquisite singing in parts’, but ‘sung distinctly and devoutly’, as Cranmer had ordered, not ‘full of notes, but … for every syllable a note’. So people could readily understand the words when sung, and join in the services: by the 1560s public worship was not only in English, but it involved a far greater degree of lay participation. The Prayer Book did not precisely require this, but it was implicit in the rubrics.
Foreign reformers were also surprised at the low priority given to preaching and education in the English Reformation. Cranmer seemingly expected that the services themselves would form people in the faith, and this reliance on the Prayer Book to nurture faith remains an Anglican characteristic. The people were to take part in the services, not say private prayers during Mass; they should know the common prayers, and the services themselves had prefaces and exhortations that summarized authorized teaching. Lengthy scripture readings at Morning and Evening Prayer offered a strongly didactic element; and at the Communion, after the Creed, a portion from the Book of Homilies (stock sermons of approved doctrine) was ‘to be read by the curates of mean understanding’ who had no licence to preach. Quarterly sermons had been required in each parish church since the 1530s, but there were few skilled preachers. So in the 1560s, the bishops organized public preaching conferences, run by graduate clergy and known as ‘prophesyings’, to teach unlearned clergy who had to undertake regular and supervised study. Later, too, preaching ministers complained of the ‘longsomeness’ of the services which discouraged preaching. But Queen Elizabeth feared that frequent sermons would be seditious and divisive, and intervened to suppress prophesying. She wanted to restrict preaching ministers to four or six per diocese, with education left chiefly to ‘such as can read the services well unto the people’, that is, reading ministers. Long Protestant sermons were not to replace the miracle of the Mass, with the people as idle spectators: they were to participate in the worship. This, too, remains an Anglican ideal.
But the Prayer Book would not have enjoyed the success it did, but for Cranmer’s way with words. A number of these expressions have entered our everyday English: ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’. Some have been deliberately bowdlerized – ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly contest’. These phrases all originated as part of the liturgy. The liturgy reflects the people’s participation in the work of God – their response to the sacred through praise, thanksgiving, or repentance. Specifically, we believe that Jesus Christ also continues his work of redemption through the liturgy. So this is why its actual wording is so important: it shapes our response to God. It inspires us. The Prayer Book now allowed the people to respond to God directly in public worship: the Latin of medieval collects and offices had many fine phrases – but known only to the clergy, not the people.
It’s hard in a short address like this to illustrate why the Prayer Book liturgy proved so attractive and long-lived. Some of its phrases just speak to us across the centuries: ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’; ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord’. But the initial reaction was distinctly mixed. Few clergy were enthusiastic. Rebels in Devon and Cornwall immediately denounced the ‘new service’ as ‘but like a Christmas game’. One problem was that Latin was a highly inflected language with very different rules concerning rhythm and accent; and English was then little used liturgically. So it was a case of trying out what worked and adapting what didn’t. Here’s the Collect for Peace at Evensong in a 14th-century translation: ‘God, of whom been holy desires, right counsels and just works; give to thy servants peace that the world may not give’. And here’s Cranmer’s translation: ‘O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed; give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give’. As you see, Cranmer offered a freer translation, often adding words, or glossing one word with two – like ‘erred and strayed’. Sometimes he just expanded and adapted the original: the Sarum Collect for Purity began, ‘Deus cui omne cor patet’; so Cranmer offered ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open’. But this Collect also illustrates another feature of the Prayer Book. Although largely a translation from the Latin, the Sarum Use on which it was based was later replaced in the Roman tradition by the Tridentine rite. So Cranmer’s translation now preserves an earlier tradition, making Anglican Eucharistic practice appear distinctive. The Prayer Book was also first in the field, the first book ever published in Ireland: so it laid down liturgical standards in English. Here’s an English Lord’s Prayer from 1505:
Our Father that art in heaven; sanctified be thy name; thy kingdom come to us; thy will be done in earth as in heaven. Our daily bread give us today, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debts; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.
So the Prayer Book fixed the Lord’s Prayer in English as we know it.
It’s generally accepted that Cranmer was at his best with the collects – short prayers which were unique to the Western liturgical tradition. About two-thirds of the Prayer Book collects are English translations of the Sarum collects; but Cranmer very often inserted his own compositions. He was the original composer of some twenty-four seasonal collects, notably his collect of Advent Sunday, with its arresting imagery of darkness and light: ‘Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light’. Likewise, his collect for Advent 2, with its Reformation emphasis on scripture: ‘Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’. These collects often inspired later divines to try and improve on Cranmer’s efforts, but few did. One of the few was John Cosin, Restoration bishop of Durham, who in 1662 inserted new collects, notably for saints’ days. His collect for Advent 3 expanded the original (‘Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our hearts’) to read ‘O Lord Jesus Christ, who at thy first coming didst send thy messenger to prepare thy way before thee; grant that the ministers and stewards of thy mysteries may likewise so prepare and make ready thy way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just’. Less inspiring was an Exhortation for the Visitation of Prisoners, added to the Irish Prayer Book in 1711: it helpfully reminded the prisoner of the Prayer Book Burial service, based on Job 14 (‘Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower’). The minister was to intone:
Dearly beloved, it hath pleased Almighty God, in his justice, to bring you under the sentence and condemnation of the Law … Your sins have laid fast hold upon you; you are soon to be removed from among men by a violent death; and you shall fade away suddenly like the grass, which in the morning is green and groweth up, but in the evening is cut down, dried up, and withered. After you have thus finished the course of a sinful and miserable life, you shall appear before the Judge of all Flesh who, as he pronounces blessings on the righteous, shall likewise say, with a terrible voice of most just Judgment, to the wicked, Go, ye accursed, into the fire everlasting, prepared for the devil and his angels.
The minister’s revelation that the prisoner was soon to ‘fade away suddenly like the grass’ also recalled Psalm 103 (‘The days of man are but as grass’); but it was probably not much solace and comfort. What grass that fades away suddenly? The Exhortation isn’t really common prayer either, but a private address to a condemned man.
Yet not even Cranmer’s collects were always all gain. Take his collect of Advent Sunday: the Sunday before Advent is known as Stir-Up Sunday, from Cranmer’s translation of the Sarum collect (said this evening): ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’. (Though the modern Feast of Christ the King has relegated the old Stir Up collect to a Post Communion.) Cranmer dropped the Sarum collects for the start of Advent, and these had extended the Stir Up theme to Maranatha, the yearning for Christ’s coming. Instead, he inserted his famous collect about casting away the works of darkness. So, if I’m taking Morning Prayer on Advent Sunday, I cheat a little by inserting a Cranmer-style translation of Sarum after Cranmer’s collect. The congregation thinks it’s Cranmer, but don’t tell the bishop! It runs:
Stir up, we beseech Thee, Thy power, O Lord, and come among us; that by Thy merciful protection we may rescued from the imminent perils and dangers of our sins, and saved by Thy mighty deliverance; Who livest and reignest &c.
Finally, why is it that the Prayer Book has dominated Anglican worship for so long? In part, it reflects Cranmer’s felicitous turns of phrase, and the Prayer Book also set down liturgical standards in English. Unlike the contentious tone of the 39 Articles which rubbished ‘papistical superstition’, it generally stated belief positively. One of the few exceptions was a part of Cranmer’s English Litany, removed in 1559, which ran: ‘from the tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities’/‘Good Lord, deliver us’. Perhaps a more subtle reason for the Prayer Book’s success was how it had originally been compiled. Cranmer’s preference was to preserve previous liturgical practice where possible, but to adapt it for Protestant worship: so, for instance, Evensong, now seen as quintessentially Anglican, is largely pre-Reformation. Given the close connection between liturgy and belief in the Anglican communion, this is very important. Even the Prayer Book’s structure reflected the medieval liturgical library: the Breviary (Morning and Evening Prayer), the Missal (Collects, Epistles, Gospels, and the Communion), and so on. His Eucharistic Prayer also adapted the Roman Canon, where continental reformers discarded it. So now, the very Anglo-Catholic church of southern Africa includes the Roman canon as one of its Eucharistic prayers, the only Anglican province to do this. But look at the Eucharist there: it has Cranmer’s opening Collect for Purity, and also his Prayer of Humble Access: both are mandatory – unlike our own Prayer Book. So even with the Roman canon, the Eucharist looks Anglican. The Book of Common Prayer thus remains a bond of unity across the Anglican communion, uniting provinces of very different churchmanship. Inspired by God, this is Cranmer’s genius speaking to us across the centuries, inviting us to a form of worship which is both Catholic and Reformed.