LONG described as incomparably excellent, the Book of Common Prayer is also incomparable in other ways. Though it ceased to be the mainstay of Church of England worship in the 1960s, it continues to hold a central place in Anglican identity. By contrast, many other Churches’ service books are solely of liturgical significance, which ceases when they are no longer used in worship.
Bryan Spinks’s survey of the Prayer Book’s history will, therefore, interest many who only rarely encounter it liturgically. Expanding and summarising earlier articles, chapters, and books, and adding new material, he has produced an even narrative with only one brief instance of repetition. Telling the story in just 160 pages, this highly readable account brings its main themes into sharper focus than longer studies do. It offers an overview without being superficial: many for whom the story is familiar will encounter new details and fresh insights.
The book opens with Elizabeth I’s Prayer Book. As Spinks points out, its predecessors’ cumulative lifespan was at most three-and-a-half years. It was the 1559 book (based on that of 1552) that, with modest amendment in 1604 and more extensive revision in 1662, shaped Anglican worship and identity.
Anglo-Catholics having exaggerated the uniqueness of the English Reformation, more recent historiography has swung too far in the opposite direction. The Church of England differed from Continental Protestantism not only in its liturgy’s significance — arguably from the beginning — for its identity, but also in the nature of that liturgy. As Spinks points out, “the Church of England became the sole Protestant Church to base its main Sunday Service on the old divine office.” From this developed, over time, a distinctive lay liturgical spirituality rooted in the Prayer Book.
There are indications that Elizabeth originally intended to re-introduce the more Catholic 1549 book. That was not possible, but she did turn the clock back a few minutes before 1552, notably by adding the 1549 words of administration, which identify the elements as “The body/blood of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Other officially sanctioned publications — about which it would have been interesting to read more — increased the ambiguity of Anglican identity: the 1559 Primer had several more Catholic features, as had the Latin Prayer Book and Orarium or Book of Hours (both 1560) and the Book of Christian Prayers (1569).
The 1559 Ornaments Rubric (which permitted mass vestments) was a time-bomb that exploded only in the later 19th century, but the liturgical arrangements in Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal (altar-wise table, cross and candles, wafer bread, choral music, ceremonial) were a Trojan horse that provided the model for spreading ceremonialism in her successor’s reign. Many of the avant-garde who promoted this were associated with the Chapel Royal. What came to be called Laudianism grew up under James I (liturgical ceremony on royal occasions in Scotland having already been “higher” than in Scottish parishes) and flourished under Charles I, but it was Elizabeth I who sowed the seeds. Her preference for dignified ceremonial with musically embellished liturgy triumphed in the end.
If Spinks had continued his survey up to the present day, he might have noted the continuing influence of royal preference, which ensures that for those broadcast liturgies that attract the largest audiences (on royal occasions such as weddings and funerals), Prayer Book texts are invariably used. After Prince Charles’s second wedding, the Service of Prayer and Dedication was even specially transposed into Prayer Book English. The widespread continuing use of the 1928 marriage liturgy in its Series 1 form arguably owes something, at least, to emulation of royal usage in our own day.
The fact that High Churchmen (influenced by the Non-jurors), rationalists, and — latterly — Evangelicals argued for amendment in three different directions contributed to taking the 1662 book into the 19th century unscathed.
Thereafter, Spinks points out, the “aftershocks” of “the double tsunami of Tractarianism and the Ecclesiologists” would “completely alter the inherited pattern and forms of Church of England worship”, leading to the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline’s famous conclusion in 1906 that official liturgical provision was “too narrow for the religious life of the present generation”, and consequently to liturgical revision.
Spinks concludes his account prematurely in 1906: as his two-page Postscript recognises, the Church of England’s worship continued to be substantially based on the Prayer Book for six more decades. Whatever was done at the altar, either it or the 1947 Shorter Prayer Book (which included 1928 material) was in the people’s hands.
It was publication of the Series 2 services in 1967 which definitively ended the hegemony of the “incomparable liturgy”. And yet it lives on — notably in cathedral evensong (which enjoys increasing popularity as the quality of parochial worship declines), but also within the Common Worship liturgical provision, which embraces the inherited liturgical tradition in ways that its predecessors — like the current liturgies of many other Churches — did not.
Dr Colin Podmore is a former Secretary of the Liturgical Commission.
The Rise and Fall of the Incomparable Liturgy: The Book of Common Prayer, 1559-1906
Bryan D. Spinks
Church Times Bookshop £18