Monday, 30 April 2012

‘Read, Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest’: 350 years of the Book of Common Prayer

Cathedrals and churches across the world are this year marking the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  Along with the King James Bible, the BCP is one of the cornerstones of the Church of England.  Its words and phrases have been spoken at baptisms, weddings and funerals since its inception.  But what is its history, and what will the next 350 years hold?

Frontispiece of the 1662 BCP © The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral

Before the Reformation, most prayers were recorded and spoken in Latin.  However, this changed when Henry VIII initiated the break from Rome, making himself head of the new Church of England.  It was central to the Protestant faith to provide church services in the vernacular so that people could understand them.  The first English Prayer Book was written by Henry VIII’s archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, and published in 1549.  Cranmer’s main source was the ‘Sarum Rite’, the main Latin liturgy used in England before the Reformation.  Although it was not a direct translation, the 1549 Prayer Book retained many of its features, reflecting the piecemeal nature of Henry VIII’s changes during the 1540s.  Henry was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, in 1547.  As Edward was only 9 when he came to the throne, power was transferred to a Regency Council, led by the staunchly Protestant Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.  Cranmer took the opportunity to revise his work, publishing a second English Prayer Book in 1552.  It was to be short-lived, however, because six months later Edward died and Mary I reintroduced the Catholic rite.  Cranmer himself was burned at the stake in 1556 for refusing to renounce his Protestant beliefs.  Remarkably his 1552 Prayer Book survived, and became the basis for Elizabeth I’s 1559 edition.  This was used right up until the Civil War when the Puritans demanded a radical overhaul of religious ceremony.  The Prayer Book was again put in abeyance.  However, the monarchy was restored in 1660, and the book came back from the brink once more.  In 1662 the Act of Uniformity prescribed universal adherence to a fixed set of prayers, rites and ceremonies.  The Book of Common Prayer was reborn.

The BCP contains a number of phrases which have become part of the fabric of our culture.  For example, the wedding vow:

‘To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.’

And the prayer said at a funeral:

‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection.’

Matrimony © The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral

Worcester’s copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer contains the seals of the five commissioners who authorized its use.  Only 27 of these ‘Sealed Books’ are known to survive, many of which are in Cathedral Libraries.  They contain handwritten corrections to the text which were incorporated into the official 1662 edition.

 The Commissioners' Seals © The Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral

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