A Book for the Ages

Classic Books and Ideas, Editors

Dynestee Fields

What images come to mind when you think of the word “timeless?” Is it sunrise climbing over a mountaintop? Is it Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? Is it Meghan Markle’s wedding dress? The Book of Common Prayer also belongs on this list. Ever since it was published in 1542, the Book of Common Prayer has remained in circulation. Visit any church of Anglican origin, and you will see this book gracing the pews during service, resting in the hands of church attendees as the litany is read, or holding a position of honor behind the pulpit. But why? Why is this book, which saw its beginning in the sixteenth century, still being printed? Times have changed, and surely the way that people worship has changed as well?

The answers to these inquiries do not require much of an investigation to uncover, because, in fact, they were never missing in the first place. Its persistence lies in the fact that it addresses common human practices. That is the key to the survival of the Book of Common Prayer. The basic life cycle of human existence has changed very little in the last five hundred years. People are still being born, getting married, and dying. They still have the same concerns about safety, the same desire to overcome sickness, and the same need for hope that they had in ages prior.

If an example is needed for the relevance of the Book of Common Prayer today, just imagine being invited to a wedding and sitting in the chapel during the ceremony. If the vows are traditional, and the roots of the ceremony lie in the biblical definition of marriage, then you likely will hear the officiant say: “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond…”

This vow is deeply embedded in American culture due to its transcription in the Book of Common Prayer. This is perhaps the most prominent example of how elements from the Book of Common Prayer have become embedded in our culture. Another example is the funeral liturgy that says, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Along with the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer has become one of the greatest contributors to the lexicon of the English language.

Another reason that the Book of Common Prayer has survived this long is that different editions have appeared to correspond with different ages and reformations. The book has not been static but has evolved with history, with new editions appearing with consistent frequency. Take for example the second edition of the book, which appeared three years after the first book was published. The reason behind the quick republication is that Henry the VIII had just died, and Thomas Cranmer’s heart was set on cementing the practice of Protestantism in England. Cranmer chafed at several Catholic traditions, including the belief of transubstantiation. According to Alan Jacobs (author of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography) Cranmer’s thoughts on traditional Mass were as follows,

“the traditional Mass offered at best a series of distractions from the real business of understanding and giving thanks for the grace offered to the faithful believer in Christ; at worst—and he was inclined to believe the worst—it was the sheerest idolatry (121).

Cranmer’s efforts were short-lived. Henry’s young son, Edward, assumed the throne but died shortly afterward. Mary, who would later be called “Bloody Mary,” then assumed control of the kingdom. She immediately established a pure Catholic rule, with no tolerance for Protestant worship. Her reforms swept through the country, including reinstating laws against heresy, which allowed her to burn three hundred Protestants at the stake. Needless to say, the Book of Common Prayer was outlawed during this time in favor of the restoration of the original Latin rites of the Catholic Church. However, when Mary died in 1558 her Protestant sister Elizabeth took the throne, and the Anglican Church was restored.

Despite her Protestant leanings, Elizabeth recognized that in order to foster peace in her kingdom she could not prohibit the practices of Catholicism. Therefore, she had a new version of the Book of Common Prayer published that was decidedly less Protestant than the 1552 version. This edition of the book was well received until 1645 when the Long Parliament outlawed it during the English Civil War. This is just one example of how the Book of Common Prayer was adapted to fit a time period, which happened quite frequently.

Finally, the Book of Common Prayer connects history in many ways. Specifically, it connects humans today with those who lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation and onward. Each edition that is printed tells a story about the specific time period that it was written in. The absences of new editions also tells a story about what took place during a time period.

This last example is demonstrated in the fact that for at least 150 years after the Restoration, there was no new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. It aligns with the fact that the people who lived during this time period were not overtly religious; therefore, there was no need for a new Book of Common Prayer. However, that does not mean that people did not regain interest in the book in later time periods.

A quote in Jacob’s book perfectly sums up the book’s state: “Rather than being a beacon set firmly on a peak for all to see and to navigate by, the prayer book became something contingent and historical, and therefore potentially unfinished” (123).

Combined with the fact that the prayer book is in some ways just as relevant now as it was in the beginning, it is safe to say that Cranmer’s project was a success.