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Book of Common Prayer

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Book of Common Prayer Summary

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The Book of Common Prayer is the most important prayer book of the Church of England, used by all the churches of the Anglican Communion and many churches with historical ties to Anglicanism. First published in 1549 and substantially revised in 1552, The Book of Common Prayer was compiled, edited, and to some extent composed by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury under King Edward VI. Cranmer’s task was to formalize the Protestant beliefs of the post-Reformation Church of England. He sought a compromise between those Anglicans who wanted to preserve most of the beliefs and rituals of the Catholic Church and those Anglicans who wanted a radical break from Catholicism. Although his solution pleased neither faction, as a compromise, it proved successful, and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer is still used today in many Anglican churches. In addition to its religious significance, the Book of Common Prayer is widely regarded as a major literary achievement. Many of its phrases have entered the English language, and generations of English-language writers, including William Shakespeare and John Milton, have been influenced and inspired by it.

The backbone of the Book of Common Prayer is the “Daily Offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, together with the Litany and the service of Holy Communion. The Book also contains “orders” for all the occasional services of the Anglican Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Visitation of the Sick, Ash Wednesday, the Purification (“Churching”) of Women, and the Burial service.

As well as these services, the Book of Common Prayer also sets out the “propers,” that is, the parts of each service which vary from week to week and even from day to day throughout the Church Year, such as the introits and collects, and the epistle and gospel readings for the weekly Sunday service of Holy Communion. The Book includes tables listing daily readings from the Old and New Testaments and from the Psalms. It also provides canticles, prayers to be sung or spoken between readings. An “ordinal,” used in the service of ordination for new ministers, was added to Cranmer’s revised Book of 1552.

The most significant and controversial aspect of the Book of Common Prayer was its Holy Communion service. The Protestants of Cranmer’s day—Cranmer included—were eager to dispel the Catholic idea that the “Mass” (as the service is known in the Catholic Church) is a sacrifice to God. Instead, Cranmer re-framed Communion as a service of thanksgiving for Christ’s sacrifice, and a means of communing with Christ in a spiritual sense. As a concession to Catholic-leaning conservative Anglicans, Cranmer did not entirely throw out the word Mass, giving his service the full title “The Supper of the Lord and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass.” He also retained much of the Catholic ritual, including priests’ vestments, sung parts of the service, and the instruction that priests place the Communion wafer into the receiver’s mouth rather than their hand.

However, in a sharp break from Catholic belief, Cranmer completely suppressed the idea of transubstantiation, that is, the belief that the Communion wine and bread are the literal blood and body of Christ. Nevertheless, Cranmer’s wording left room for those who wished to believe in transubstantiation, without endorsing the belief: “With thy holy spirit and word, vouchsafe to bless and sanctify these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that they may be unto us the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved son Jesus Christ.” At the same time, the Book of Common Prayer does explicitly state—in contrast to the Catholic Canon—that the offering of bread and wine is not identical to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Instead, Christ’s sacrifice is unique: “his one oblation of himself once offered…a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”

Cranmer also made other changes to the Catholic service. Instead of turning his back to the congregation (as in the Catholic service), the officiating priest is instructed to face the congregation. Instead of the wine and bread being offered to God, the “offertory” of Cranmer’s service is a collection for the poor and an offering of prayer from Christ’s sacrifice. Most significantly, to the ordinary believers of Cranmer’s day, he eliminated the Elevation of the Host, the moment in the Catholic service when the priest raised the consecrated bread and wine and invited the congregation to worship the “real presence” of Christ in them.

Cranmer similarly reformed the other services for the Book. Where the medieval Catholic Church had performed baptism as soon as possible after birth, Cranmer limited baptism to Sundays (as he and his fellow Protestants did not believe that baptism was required for salvation). Cranmer took the baptism service of Martin Luther as his model, to produce a much simplified and more elegant version of the medieval service. However, he also retained some of the symbolism of the Catholic service, including the action of making the sign of the cross over the baptized child and a blessing of the baptismal water. Similar simplifications were applied to the Catholic Daily Offices, reducing them to just Morning and Evening Prayer.

Throughout, Cranmer’s choice of language is stirring and eloquent, and many of his phrases are household phrases today, such as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (from the burial service), “fruits of the earth” (from the Litany), and the vows of the marriage service: “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.”