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Book review: A Companion to the Book of Common Prayer by Gerald Bray

01 March 2024

Christopher Irvine on an account, sometimes polemical, of the BCP

THIS Companion is a substantial book, written by an acknowledged scholar of primary Anglican sources, and it will be especially welcomed by those who want to discover more about the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and its antecedents. The material is arranged in ten chapters, and each chapter heading gives a clear steer to the reader of the focus of its attention.

The first and somewhat extended chapter deals with the historical background. Here, a wide narrative arc is drawn, following the trajectory that one would expect from a convinced Evangelical, but with little engagement with the more recent historical writing on the so-called English Reformation and the reception of the successive 16th-century English Prayer Books. “Tendentious” would be too strong a word, but, in parts, Bray’s writing is rather polemically charged and he is most emphatic in dismissing views with which he disagrees. His denial, for instance, that the word “priest” in the BCP carries any theological weight of meaning is an argument that is difficult to maintain when a sense of the priest’s having authority to declare God’s forgiveness and pronounce God’s blessing on God’s people is utterly reasonable when one reads across the different prayer texts, rubrics, and Ordinal in the 1662 BCP.

Similarly, the author’s preoccupation with the term “transubstantiation” in his discussion of holy communion rather overrides the possible reading that what we have in the 1662 communion service is a transposition of a sense of “real presence” to that of “real participation”, a theological view first enunciated in the reign of Elizabeth I.

Bray’s book is a labour of love and is possibly just a little too laboured. The historical overview has the makings of a book. The subsequent chapters treat the whole contents of the Prayer Book, from the introductory material, through daily prayer to the Articles of Religion; and each chapter provides some of the historical and theological context. There are also occasional nods towards the contemporary multi-volume liturgical provision of Common Worship, but the author’s preoccupation with doctrine rather overrides what could be regarded as the spiritual meaning of these classic prayer texts.

Nevertheless, the comparisons drawn between the successive revisions of the 1549, 1552, 1559, and 1662 Prayer Books in each chapter are instructive and well illustrate how shifting and competing theological opinions and disagreements lie behind the production of each recension of the English Prayer Book. These successive revisions of the Prayer Book, shaped as much by political as well as by theological convictions, could be read as a charter for a plural Church, in which uniformity has been, and continues to be, more of an aspiration than a reality for the Church of England.

Given our present ecumenical horizons and the advances in liturgical scholarship, some may say that many of the controversies of the past are no longer relevant. But they are part of the story, and one that help us to navigate the present, especially in times of crisis. Of course, not everything remains applicable. For example, church buildings were closed during the Covid-19 pandemic for “the common good”, and yet a directive in the Prayer Book service for the visitation of the sick directs the parish priest to encourage parishioners to attend the celebration of holy communion in the church during times of infectious diseases. Circumstances change and new understandings, “following the science”, shape attitudes and actions.

In another book that opens some fresh lines of inquiry, The Rise and Fall of the Incomparable Liturgy (Books, 20 April 2018), Bryan Spinks quizzically concluded that, like the poor, the Book of Common Prayer would always be with us. The book stands as a source of Anglican faith and worship and as a marker of Anglican identity, and for this reason we need to be reminded, as Bray has sought to do in this volume, not only of the complex story of its making, but also of its contents, texts, and contexts.

The Revd Christopher Irvine teaches at St Augustine’s College of Theology and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.


A Companion to the Book of Common Prayer
Gerald Bray
James Clarke & Co £30

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