DUSTY piles of the Book of Common Prayer at the back of churches and the equally dusty lectures on it to ordinands of earlier generations hardly stimulate one to read about it, even in a Very Short Introduction. Brian Cummings, however, turns the tables on such stereotypes entirely. After his outstanding scholarly edition of the 1549, 1552, and 1662 Prayer Books, here is a remarkable successor. His text is challenging, informative, and even swashbuckling, by turns.
His introduction is exhilarating. The Prayer Book is, of course, liturgy, but it has also been an essential carrier of national identity. Three key words are noted: uniformity, hierarchy, and conformity. The BCP was intended to be inclusive of all, but, ironically, these three words meant that from the start it was anything but that. Cummings’s six chapters take the reader on a rollicking journey; it is a journey rooted in a polymathic tour of scholarship: history, theology, politics, and literature all play their part.
Raw materials from scripture and Patristic times to the Reformation are outlined in his first chapter. This is where Cranmer began. In chapter two, which describes the creation of the book, we note that Cranmer also used material from the Spanish Cardinal Francisco de Quiñones in his revised twofold daily office: Morning and Evening Prayer. Cranmer’s drastic revisionism was no “bloodless revolution”. Some 4000 people from the West Country died in protests against the changes.
In chapter three, more drama is captured. The survival of certain rituals, alongside the repressive exclusion of others, is graphically described. (Cummings includes an interesting brief excursus on the nature of ritual.)
His fourth chapter highlights the inextricable links with English politics, captured in words such as supremacy and succession — Acts of Uniformity requiring tyrannous conformity. At the Restoration, the mildly revised 1662 book in effect ejected 2000 Presbyterian clergy. Chapter five notes that, from the early 18th century, the Prayer Book accompanied the growth of the British Empire. References to shifting sands in the American colonies, South Africa, and India figure here. Cummings notes that, “just as the sun never set, so Evensong never ended in the British Empire.”
Finally, we arrive at modernity. Key criticisms of liturgical revisionism by modernist writers are included: T. S. Eliot’s desire to protect the Prayer Book tradition as he served on the commission for the Revised Psalter; W. H. Auden’s call for a timeless liturgy. Cummings notes too how Gregory Dix’s emphasis on the “performative” rather than the “literary” became a further enemy of the tradition. The publication of Common Worship in 2000 is Cummings’s death knell for the Prayer Book. Here, however, he misses a trick; for the BCP remains the key formulary in acting as a “canon” or measuring line for Anglican doctrine and polity; and Rowan Williams had already been consecrated some years before according to the Welsh rite.
Familiar criticisms of modern language are rehearsed; Cummings notes the idiosyncratic response “And also with you”: “Imagine saying that at breakfast, when asking for the milk.” His book is a must for all, but, take it slowly and savour it: a huge amount is packed into these 120 pages.
The Rt Revd Stephen Platten is a former Bishop of Wakefield.
The Book of Common Prayer: A very short introduction
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