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Rise and fall of the BCP

24 January 2014

David Martin praises a 'biography' of the English Prayer Book

The Book of Common Prayer: A biography
Alan Jacobs
Princeton University Press £16.95
Church Times Bookshop £15.25 (Use code CT639 )

WITHIN a mere 200 pages, one could not wish for a more engaging introduction to the history of the Prayer Book. It is beautifully written and produced, and would make a perfect gift to go (say) with John Drury's Music at Midnight: Thelife and poetry of George Herbert. I say this, because access to the temper of English devotional writing such as one finds treated in the St Andrews Studies in Reformation History is being progressively cut off by the contemporary Bonfire of the Humanities: English teaching that barely reaches back more than two centuries, offers "Shakespeare" in modernised versions, and does not require you to read a book; and history-teaching focused on recent events, served up in memorised formulae that require no coherent understanding. To understand the Prayer Book (and English politics) you do need to have heard of the Reformation and the Civil War.

In his concluding chapters,Alan Jacobs, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Baylor Baptist University, considers the social, linguistic, and liturgical changes that led in the 1970s to the eclipse of the Prayer Book after its time of greatest influence in the 19th century, an influence in part due to the Tractarians, and to the advance of empire and the Anglo-sphere.

He attends to the needs of wartime and the mission field, the tensions created by attempts to control physical bodies through rubrics governing ornaments, the entanglement of the Prayer Book in the staid formalities of certain kinds of class structure, the shifts in language use, the accumulation of liturgical scholarship, and the demolition work of Gregory Dix in promoting structure at the expense of expression.

Understandably, he does not consider the point made by John Habgood: how can clergy be immune to a general trahison des clercs? Nor does he focus on the unreal politics of ecumenism which drove many of the revisers.

In his earlier chapters, Jacobs handsomely acknowledges Brian Cummings's Introduction to the Book of Common Prayer, and the historical work of Judith Maltby. He expertly navigates the constant political changes that affected the Prayer Book, from the moment Cranmer first recreated the Litany in English in the 1540s to the work of Sanderson and Cosin after the Great Ejection in 1662. He also evokes the indifference in the 18th century, the clash between the emotional rhetoric of a figure such as Whitefield and the sober piety of the Prayer Book, the strange link between the American and the Scots Episcopalians after the American Revolution, and the low point of practice in the opening decades of the 19th century. This is a triumph of compression and lucidity.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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