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The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography


For those who enjoy biographies and love books, what could be better than a good biography…of a great book? Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books series promises many happy hours learning more about old friends and making new acquaintances, from Augustine’s Confessions to Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, from the book of Genesis, to the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Alan Jacobs’s biography of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) certainly provides a stimulating introduction to a fascinating life. In seven highly readable chapters, he takes us from the BCP’s conception and birth in the mid-sixteenth century to its dotage in the early twenty-first. Throughout, he demonstrates enviable skill in simplifying complex material—covering several centuries and half the globe, and integrating multiple disciplines—without being simplistic. 

Chapter one sketches the background of late-medieval English Christianity and the theological, ecclesiastical, and political roots of the English Reformation during Henry VIII’s reign. It introduces the BCP’s ancestors (the multiple Latin rites of the medieval English Church), conception (in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s English Litany), and birth.

Chapter two describes the BCP’s baptism and troubled childhood. The brief reign of Henry’s young son, Edward VI, enabled the publication of the first Prayer Book in 1549 and the second in 1552. It was de-authorized by his Catholic sister, Queen Mary in 1553 (Cranmer was himself martyred under Mary in 1556), and then restored, with light revisions, by Elizabeth I in 1559.

Chapters three and four cover the suppression of the BCP under Oliver Cromwell; its restoration, with the monarchy, in 1660-62; and the tragedy of the 1662 Great Ejection, when 2000 nonconforming ministers who could not in conscience subscribe to the BCP were ejected from the Church of England and forced underground. In these chapters, we see the Prayer Book “becoming venerable.” But we also see it increasingly sidelined by evangelicals, many of whom by the end of the eighteenth century tended to push it to the background of Christian piety.

As the Prayer Book passed through late-middle and into old age in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (chapters five and six), its dress and demeanor began to seem old-fashioned and out of touch with contemporary developments. In the nineteenth century, the rise of the Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement reintroduced much medieval ritual and symbolism, ornament and architecture into Anglicanism, while the latitudinarianism of F. D. Maurice sidelined the BCP’s doctrinal significance. In the twentieth century, the discovery of a rich variety of historic liturgical practices made the Prayer Book’s unabashed Protestantism seem positively dowdy, whilst its archaic language was increasingly that of another age. In the same period, the spread of Anglicanism around the world, and the desire for liturgies to reflect the Anglican Communion’s theological diversity, led to the birth of many younger siblings in the Prayer Book family. Some of them share much DNA with Cranmer’s book; others have markedly different genomes. 

Good biographies enrich our understanding of their subjects by setting them against the wider canvas of their time. In a work that covers more than five centuries, Jacobs portrays, at times vividly, the various social worlds the prayer book has occupied. For example, the lovely Collect for Aid Against all Perils in the service of Evening Prayer is edifying in 2013. But how much more comfort it must have given in a world with limited artificial light, “marked by extreme anxiety about the dangers of the nighttime,” when “friend could not be distinguished from foe, nor animate objects from inanimate ones,” when night air was considered dangerous, and evil spirits were thought to haunt the dark:  “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.” 

The best biographies also give insight into the personality of the subject, and as an English professor Jacobs is well placed to examine the BCP’s literary beauty and significance. This is perhaps a sin of omission in this book. The Prayer Book is one of the great masterpieces of early modern English. Cranmer stands alongside Shakespeare and Tyndale (mediated through the Authorized Version of the Bible) as foundational to later English style. Jacobs clearly relishes the Prayer Book’s “highly rhythmical” and “somberly magnificent” prose, and offers moments of insight into them. Nevertheless, I could have wished for more time spent exploring his claim that “Almost every page of the Book of Common Prayer contains…a miniature textbook of rhetorical effects, typically executed with virtuosity.” (63)

One of the strengths of Jacobs’s interpretation is the way he explores BCP’s character and achievements. Jacobs understands that good liturgy is designed to shape a life of Christian discipleship. Taken as a whole, the Prayer Book provides a way of organizing time on three axes. First, the Kalendar (the lectionary, the table of daily Scripture readings) leads worshippers through the events of salvation history each year. Second, the occasional offices—rites for baptism, marriage, the visitation of the sick, and the burial of the dead—give a gospel shape to the major events of each human life. Third, the daily rhythms of Morning and Evening Prayer bracket each day in corporate prayer. 

Jacobs also, rightly, presses the point that Cranmer’s goal for the BCP was to steep the English people in Scripture. A common liturgy in the vernacular, “one use” for the whole English Church, was important to him. But, as the preface to the 1549 Prayer Book makes clear, this was primarily so that the Bible, so long a closed book, might become thoroughly known. It is through the Bible that ministers and their congregations are “stirred up to godliness,” exhort one another in the truth, refute error, grow in knowledge of God and become “inflamed with love for his true religion.” To saturate people in Scripture, Cranmer saturated his liturgy with Scripture. Over the course of a year, virtually the whole Bible is read in Morning and Evening Prayer, and the psalms once a month; Scriptural phrases also form the warp and woof of the liturgical language. For many centuries in the Church of England, whether the priest believed the gospel or not, whether the preaching was powerful or weak, congregants heard the Reformation gospel and the teaching of the whole counsel of God in the words of Cranmer’s liturgy itself.

By the present day (chapter seven), Cranmer’s “one use for the whole church,” has given way to great diversity of forms, and to a modular approach to worship; those conducting Anglican worship now have great freedom in a game of “liturgical Legos” (191). Within this diversity, Cranmer’s liturgies have been retired to the old folks home, where they smile benignly from their wingback chair as other, younger, rites now run the family business.

For many Anglicans, especially those in the growing, vibrant churches of the global south, the BCP retains its authority as Anglicanism’s chief doctrinal standard alongside the 39 Articles. For this reason alone, those wishing to understand global Christianity in the twenty-first century would benefit from reading this book. Among younger evangelicals, there is a growing interest in, and re-appropriation of, liturgical worship. This biography would be a welcome aide in that recovery, giving an entry point into one of the foundational, and greatest, evangelical liturgical texts. But growing rejection of the Prayer Book’s doctrine in the west, and the archaism of its language, mean that it is possible that Jacobs’s fascinating book is not just a biography but also an obituary and a eulogy for Cranmer’s BCP.  For as he notes, “Cranmer’s book, and its direct successors, will always be acknowledged as historical documents of the first order, and masterpieces of English prose, but this is not what they want or mean to be. Their goal—now as in 1549—is to be living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith.” (194).