The Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer
The Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer contains the liturgy and main theological articles of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church. Still in use today, it has a long history dating back to the Reformation and Elizabeth I.

The Church of England was established under Henry VIII in 1534. Breaking from the Roman Catholic church and influenced by the Reformation, the church still maintained a liturgy that was quite similar to the Catholic Mass. While Henry VIII was not in favor of Protestantism, the succession of his son, Edward VI, to the throne resulted in a decidedly Protestant tilt for England under Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

During Edward’s short reign, at Parliament’s request, Cranmer wrote a communion liturgy in English (rather than in the traditional Latin). In 1549, he completed a prayer book called The Bishops Book, which was used until Edward’s death. Cranmer drafted a statement of faith in 42 articles (sections) in 1551, but this was never officially approved.

A moderate revision was made in 1552 and used until the accession of his half sister Mary I in 1553. Mary, a staunch Roman Catholic, turned England back toward Catholicism (though without complete success), and Cranmer was burned at the stake in 1556.

In 1558, Mary died and her half sister Elizabeth I came to the throne. Elizabeth was determined to have religious peace in England, and so she sought a way for those with both Protestant and Catholic leanings to be together in one national church.

Saying she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” Elizabeth nonetheless desired to bring outward observance into uniformity, without binding people’s consciences unnecessarily. From this effort comes the expression “window-dressing.”

In 1559, the issue came before Parliament. Most of the House of Commons was Protestant-leaning, and in the House of Lords (which included the church bishops), the small number of Catholic-leaning bishops were unable to sway the other lords toward retaining much in the way of Catholic practice.

Parliament requested a new liturgical book that would be a revision of the 1549 and 1551 editions, and work began on the project. Later that year, the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer was approved by Parliament and Elizabeth.

In 1562, discussion regarding the theological articles of faith concluded with the approval by Elizabeth of the 39 Articles. These were based on Cranmer’s original 42 articles with several articles condemning Anabaptism removed.

The 39 Articles were not formally added to the Book of Common Prayer until the edition of 1604. In 1662, after the restoration of the monarchy, a new version was produced that contained modest revisions, making it more accessible to the Puritans.

The 1559 edition contained 21 chapters. Beginning with the Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament, it contains several chapters that gave the order of Bible readings, including psalms and lessons for morning and evening prayers.

Most important were the liturgy for the Sunday church service, including chapters on the litany, collects (prayers), and the Holy Communion ceremony. Finally, there were chapters for the order of baptism, marriage, burial, and other short liturgies.

In 1928, a substantial revision of the Book of Common Prayer failed to pass Parliament. While some of that revision was approved as an alternate form in the 1960s, the 1662 version remains the official version for the Anglican Church of England.

Other Anglican and Episcopal Churches have approved their own versions of the Book of Common Prayer. The composition has widespread influence on Christians today, especially among those desiring structure and tradition in their prayer.

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