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Alan Jacobs

So Blessed a Liturgy

The Book of Common Prayer.


In 1549, during the reign of King Edward VI of England, the first Book of Common Prayer was printed and promulgated. Three years later a second, revised edition appeared and the first one was discarded. One curious feature of the 1552 book was a paragraph that came to be known as the Black Rubric, and on it hangs a tale or two about the perils of this great endeavor in public worship.

The Black Rubric was added to the 1552 prayer book at the last minute, and in the first printing was simply inserted as a separate leaf. The greater part of it reads thus:

Although no ordre can be so perfectlye devised, but it may be of some, eyther for theyr ignoraunce and infermitie, or els of malice and ob-stinacie, misconstrued, depraved, and interpreted in a wrong part: And yet because brotherly charitie willeth, that so much as conveniently may be, offences shoulde be taken awaye: therefore we willing to doe the same. Whereas it is ordeyned in the booke of common prayer, in the administracion of the Lord's Supper, that the Communicants knelyng shoulde receyve the holye Communion. whiche thynge beyng well mente, for a sygnificacion of the humble and gratefull acknowledgyng of the benefites of Chryst, geven unto the woorthye receyver, and to avoyde the prophanacion and dysordre, which about the holy Communion myght els ensue: Leste yet the same kneelyng myght be thought or taken otherwyse, we dooe declare that it is not ment thereby, that any adoracion is doone, or oughte to bee doone, eyther unto the Sacramentall bread or wyne there bodily receyved, or unto anye reall and essencial presence there beeyng of Christ's naturall fleshe and bloude.

It is hard to imagine a better capsule summary of the difficulties Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had landed himself in when he accepted the task of overseeing—and to a considerable extent creating—a single prayer book to be used in churches throughout the realm of England.

Why is the Black Rubric so perfect an image of this challenge? To understand, we must think back to the vagaries of Henry VIII's attitudes toward Rome and toward medieval Catholic theology. For Henry, the Bishop of Rome's claims to spiritual dominion in England were simply tyrannical: from the time that he decided that he wanted to cast aside his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, he was unwavering in his disdain for papal authority. But in regard to those who resisted the Roman church on more strictly theological grounds, Henry responded inconsistently but mostly unsympathetically. He became uneasy with early attempts at setting a Reform-minded theological direction for the English Church, and insisted on the promulgation of the Six Articles of 1539: these reaffirmed certain traditional doctrines, including clerical celibacy and transubstantiation (the physical transformation of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

Cranmer, who had been named Archbishop of Canterbury six years earlier and who had spearheaded attempts at reform of the English church along Lutheran lines, responded to the Six Articles by moving his wife and children—he had obviously repudiated clerical celibacy some time back—to the Continent. He feared for their safety, and feared also that he might have to join them in exile. From this point on he continued to pursue reform, but with great tact and delicacy. For instance, his first major attempt to write a liturgical rite in English rather than Latin, the Great Litany of 1544, was filled with prayers for the king's success in his wars, along with denunciations of the king's enemies. It would have been hard for Henry to cavil at such a ceremony.

When Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son Edward, rule of the kingdom effectively passed to a small group of lords devoted to the Reformation; so now Cranmer could proceed with his liturgical projects more quickly and assuredly. But it remained a complex task. Though he was more committed to the Protestant cause than Henry had ever been, he shared with his former king a deep affection for the traditional forms of worship. It seems that he never thought to abandon the Eucharistic liturgy; and in any case, whatever his own inclinations, there was the matter of public opinion to deal with, and the English public was deeply attached to the traditional forms of worship. (Just how deeply the reader can learn by consulting Eamon Duffy's comprehensive and magisterial study The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 [1992].)

Thus, when that first Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549, a great many people were disoriented and angered by its imposition. Protests occurred all over the kingdom, but were especially intense—amounting to a full-scale rebellion—in the west country, where Cornish rather than English was the native tongue. The Cornish rebels said that the new rite was "but a Christmas game," and frankly thought that a Mass celebrated in English simply wouldn't work—would not achieve any reconciliation between a wrathful God and sinful men. Many native English speakers felt the same: they perceived the rite as a something like a magical incantation, depending for its efficacy on the precise recitation of strange words. (Throughout much of the Middle Ages, when people were allowed to receive Communion only once a year, the focused their attention in the Mass on the moment when the consecrated Host was elevated, accompanied by the words Hoc est corpus meum—"This is my body"—a phrase easily and naturally corrupted to Hocus Pocus.)

Even among the hierarchy of the Church there were powerful dissenting voices. In December of 1549, John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, cheered on iconoclasts who broke into churches to destroy the altars on the ground that no sacrifice occurs during the Communion service: therefore only wooden tables should be present, not stone altars. Yet the prayer book issued just months earlier freely and consistently referred to the place for celebrating "The Supper of the Lorde, and the holy Communion, commonly called the Masse" as an altar. (Note Cranmer's willingness to use all three of the common terms for this service, though throughout Christendom there were people willing to fight to the death to mandate one and ban the others.)

Given such deep unhappiness from the ascendant reforming party, Cranmer had no choice but to undertake an immediate revision. (Indeed, he may well have wanted to, not finding the original book reformed enough for his own liking.) But he was absolutely unwilling to jettison centuries of liturgical tradition in order to placate the more passionate Protestants.

This brings us back to the Black Rubric. The 1552 book had eliminated the term "Mass," and Cranmer had changed the wording of certain passages that described (or were widely thought to describe) what exactly is happening to the elements of the Supper, but he would not acquiesce in the demand made by many reformers, including the aforementioned Bishop Hooper and the passionate Scot John Knox, to eliminate the people's longstanding habit of kneeling while receiving Communion. For Knox this was idolatry plain and simple, the worshipping of the creature instead of the Creator; Cranmer disagreed. In Cranmer's view enough had been done to combat the traditional popular desire to worship the consecrated elements: "Heave it higher, sir priest!" the people used to call out during the elevation of the Host, and one of the demands of the Cornish rebels was "to have the sacrament hang over the high altar and there to be worshipped as it was wont to be." But the new Book of Homilies that Cranmer had overseen heaped scorn on these superstitions, and he went so far as to forbid the elevation of the bread (for him it was manifestly not the Host) altogether. But he would not tell the people they couldn't kneel simply because that gesture could be "misconstrued, depraved, and interpreted in a wrong part." Kneeling was in fact appropriate—far more appropriate than the sitting posture Knox preferred—and "well mente, for a sygnificacion of the humble and gratefull acknowledgyng of the benefites of Chryst, geven unto the woorthye receyver." At one point in the debate, Cranmer pointed out to Knox that if he wanted this Supper to be performed New Testament-style, then all the congregants should take the sacrament reclining on one arm, since that was the ancient Palestinian custom.

Kneeling, then, would continue, with this rubric added to placate, if possible, the radicals. Of venerable practices of Christian worship, Cranmer said—in his own words and, more important, in the liturgies he assembled and mandated—we will dispense with what we must, but keep what we can.


How did Cranmer get himself into this impossible situation? Largely by perceiving that his role as Archbishop of Canterbury—in the new Henrican dispensation that denied the authority of Rome—required him to bring some order and discipline to a national church whose practices were variable at best and chaotic at worst. Services were performed using a bewildering variety of books: missals and breviaries, pontificals and processionals, manuals and psalters. The language and organization of the Mass (the "use") differed from place to place: there was the use of Sarum, the use of York, the use of Bangor, and several others. Cranmer took it upon himself to create a single book that would contain all the key services of the church, and in English, so that due consistency of worship would be maintained everywhere in Henry's (and then Edward's) kingdom.

Moreover, as Cranmer complains in the preface to the 1549 book, the greatest fault of the medieval church lay in its failure to proclaim the whole of Scripture to the congregation. It is somewhat surprising to see him emphasize this point almost to the exclusion of others, and to focus his readers' attention on the "Kalendar" (or, as we would say, lectionary) that scheduled the biblical readings, and made a particular point of getting through the whole of the Psalter—the "prayer book of the Bible," as it has often been called—each month. One of the prayers that Cranmer composed himself and included in the prayer book calls out to the "Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to bee written for our learnyng," and asks him to "grant us that we maye … heare them, read, marke, learne, and inwardly digeste them." So regularization of the liturgy was to go hand in hand with the systematic reading of Scripture, and the simplification of worship materials. As Cranmer wrote in the preface: "by this ordre, the curates shal nede none other bookes for their publique service, but this boke and the Bible: by the meanes wherof, the people shall not be at so great charge for bookes, as in tyme past they have been." It is especially interesting to see Cranmer's assumption that serious Christian laypeople will, if they can afford it, buy their own copies of Bible and prayer book.

For many, especially for students of all ages, for teachers and priests, monks and nuns, the sentences of Matins and Evensong lay down the ground-bass of life.

If anyone could achieve this dauntingly interwoven set of tasks, Cranmer was the man. His learning in the history of liturgy and worship was massive, perhaps unparalleled in his age; his library, largely devoted to such texts, was probably the largest in England. He balanced a love for the old ways with a deep commitment to the evangelical cause of the continental Reformers. His English style was superb, and his ability to find a language to render venerable Latin prayers into his native tongue simply matchless. The Book of Common Prayer is his lasting memorial, and while one can scarcely imagine a nobler monument, in point of historical fact the book never seemed to satisfy anyone—at least, not anyone in power or hoping for power. As Brian Cummings points out in his marvelous new edition of three versions of the Prayer Book—1549, 1559 (largely a reprint of 1552), and 1662—"in practice, the Book of Common Prayer seemed to please almost no one. Many Elizabethans were still Catholic at heart, and conformed only reluctantly to a church now bereft of spiritual comfort and external signs. Puritans, on the other hand, mocked even the use of the surplice; rejected the wafer in favor of ordinary bread; objected to the sign of the cross in Baptism, kneeling for Communion, the ring in marriage, … and bowing at the name of Jesus."

Elsewhere Cummings writes, "Cranmer's doctrinal subtlety and literary skill combine in his masterly service for Communion. Yet to call it masterly may seem perverse, since it perhaps satisfied nobody fully: for traditional Catholics it was a mockery, refusing the elevation of the host and suppressing the bodily presence of Christ in the elements of the Mass. For the Reforming party, on the other hand, it retained more of the ritual spectacle than was comfortable." That this rite, and indeed the whole book, would be subject to ongoing revision, ongoing adjustment in light of changing political conditions and the variable eloquence of theologians associated with different parties, was surely inevitable.

The immensely difficult task that Cummings has set for himself in making this edition—intended for scholarly study rather than devotion—has multiple subsets. First, there was the need to establish accurate texts of the three books, which itself required many decisions about spelling, formatting, and general presentation. Then, Cummings had to provide an introduction that in short compass summed up the histories of these books—"histories" in the plural because the story involves Acts of Parliament, various printers and publishers, theological and political debates, the deaths, successions, depositions, and restorations of multiple monarchies, and the role that these books have played in the lives of countless English-speaking people over the past 450 years. And finally, the three texts had to be accompanied by extensive explanatory annotations.

It was in this third area of responsibility that Cummings ran into what may have been insurmountable obstacles. For the three texts are in many places identical to one another. Cummings may very thoroughly and illuminatingly annotate a passage in the 1549 version; but what if I happen to be reading the identical passage in the 1662 version, see a curious turn of phrase I'd like to know more about, turn to the notes—and find nothing? There's nothing for it but to check whether the same passage appears in either of the other two versions, and then to see if it is annotated there. This requires a good deal of flipping from page to page and back again. Frustrating as this is, I can't think of a better way to handle the task; and in any case Cummings' annotations are superb and very much worth reading in full. He describes with patience and scholarly tact the many subtleties of variation among these editions and the reasons for them.

His achievement is all the more impressive because these subtleties often seem bottomless—as do the changes enforced by means anything but subtle. In 1554, when young King Edward died of tuberculosis and was succeeded by his sister Mary, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer was suppressed and England became Catholic, and obedient to Rome, once more. Cranmer was deprived of office and, in 1556, burned at the stake in Oxford's Broad Street. When Mary died childless her Protestant sister Elizabeth came to the throne, at which point the English church's restored leadership pulled the 1552 book out of mothballs and commenced debating how to revise it. (In the end it was scarcely altered, though the Black Rubric disappeared.) A century later the prayer book was banished again, this time not by Catholics but by Oliver Cromwell's Puritan government, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660 the earlier story was largely repeated: a banished book retrieved, episcopal squabbling about how to revise it resumed. The Book of Common Prayer that emerged two years later would last—and last, and last. Though not often used in parish worship today, it remains the one official Book of Common Prayer for the Church of England, and Anglicans around the world, especially in the Global South, regularly defer to its liturgical and theological authority. Cummings's authoritative edition helps readers understand how a politically fraught, theologically disputatious era managed to produce such a masterpiece—insofar as such a miracle can be understood at all.


For many reasons, the prayer book's service for "The Supper of the Lorde, and the holy Communion, commonly called the Masse" has received a great deal of attention over the centuries, as it does in Cummings's edition. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the question of what happens in this rite continually gave rise to theological odium and political tumult. Moreover, the great and lasting influence of the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, with its deep sympathy for Catholic tradition, led millions of Anglicans around the world to experience Holy Communion as their central, essential public encounter with the Crucified and Risen Lord. (This has certainly been true for me in my quarter-century as an Anglican.) But beautiful as the Communion rite is, in each of its varied forms, it does not mark the apogee of prayer-book spirituality, nor the height of Cranmer's achievement and influence. To understand those matters we must look elsewhere.

First, there are Cranmer's magnificent "collects" (pronounced with the stress on the first syllable). These are brief liturgical petitionary prayers that, when made by skilled composers, can be marvels of concise profundity; and no one has ever been more skilled at the making of collects than Cranmer. Some he wrote himself, but most he translated and adapted from old sources. Among the most famous is the so-called Collect for Purity, which Cranmer got from the Sarum Eucharistic rite:

Almightie God, unto whom all hartes bee open, and all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hid: clense the thoughtes of our hartes, by the inspiracion of thy holy spirite: that we may perfectly love thee, and worthely magnifie thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.

The best of Cranmer's collects are deeply resonant, so logical and rhythmical that they almost memorize themselves; it is no wonder that they have been lasting sources of comfort and meditative focus for so many Christians for so many centuries.

But perhaps even more influential over the past 450 years has been Cranmer's decision to adapt the ancient canonical hours of monastic life to the needs of ordinary laypeople. Even the monks had found it unsustainable to pray the horae canonicae, the original eight daily "hours" of prayer: their bodies' need for sleep forced them often to condense the sequence. But they prayed frequently, and a common understanding in medieval European society was that those prayers could be offered on behalf of those who had to work instead. However, Cranmer had inherited from Martin Luther a disdain for such a complete division of labor within the church: the Christian calling is a common one, he thought, and needs insofar as possible to be lived out by all in a common manner. Daily prayer is an obligation and an opportunity for all.

It was this conviction that led Cranmer to create Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, which I consider to be his liturgical masterpieces, and which certainly have done more to shape the lives of ordinary Anglican Christians than anything else that he achieved. In the 1549 book they are "Mattyns" (Matins) and "Evensong," and those terms are still often used, especially the latter—unsurprisingly, given its beauty. Cranmer's chief purpose in creating these rites was to allow people to begin and end their days by hearing and responding to the Word of God. Medieval clerics had fallen into the bad habit of conducting their liturgical business at some distance from the congregations, often in unintelligible mumbles, and these habits Cranmer was determined to eradicate. Morning Prayer is prefaced with this instruction: "The Priest beeyng in the quier, shall begynne with a loude voyce the Lordes prayer." When the time comes for the reading of Scripture, the guidance is equally firm: "Then shalbe read ii. lessons distinctely with a loude voice, that the people maye heare."

Having heard and given thanks for the Word at the outset of their day, the people are sent away with a collect "for grace":

O Lorde oure heavenly father, almightye and everlivyng God, whiche haste safelye brought us to the beginning of this day: defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and graunt that this daye wee fall into no synne, neyther runne into any kinde of daunger, but that al our doinges may be ordered by thy governaunce, to do alwaies that is righteous in thy sight: through Jesus Christe our lorde. Amen.

The pattern is repeated at day's close, as darkness falls on a world with few means of artificial illumination: "Lyghten our darkenes we beseche thee, O lord, & by thy great mercy defende us from all perilles and daungers of thys nyght, for the love of thy onely sonne, our saviour Jesu Christ. Amen."

It would be the sheerest romanticism to think that the whole of English-speaking Christendom ever built its days around these rites; it also must be remembered that for generations the English government used the Book of Common Prayer an an instrument for coercing conformity, excluding from the center of English society those who could not affirm its theology, whether Protestant Dissenter or Catholic. But for many, especially for students of all ages, for teachers and priests, monks and nuns, the sentences of Matins and Evensong—"O Lorde, open thou my lippes," "And my mouthe shall shewe forth thy prayse"; "O God, make spede to save me," "O Lorde make haste to helpe me"—lay down the ground-bass of life.

So for hundreds of years the orders for Matins and Evensong presented and preserved the most common, best known, and most influential words of praise and worship among Anglicans—and not just among Anglicans. My colleague Tim Larsen has shown me a wonderful Victorian-era production, A Free Church Book of Common Prayer, produced by Dissenters who nonetheless affirmed that "it remains the peculiar and unfading glory of the Church of England to have given the Christian world … fresh and copious waters from the well of English undefiled." Brian Cummings' edition provides an outstanding introduction to this great book in the first and crucial century of its making.

Perhaps the last word here may be given to a group of Anglicans from Cheshire, who in 1641, noting the increasing political dominance of Puritans who disdained the Anglican traditions, petitioned Parliament for the preservation of their beloved prayer book: Almost "any Family or Person that can read," they wrote, owns a copy of it, "in the conscionable Use whereof, many Christian Hearts have found unspeakable joy and Comfort; wherein the famous Church of England our dear Mother hath just Cause to Glory: and may she long flourish in the Practice of so blessed a liturgy."

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. His edition of Auden's The Age of Anxiety was published last year by Princeton University Press. He is the author most recently of The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Oxford Univ. Press) and a brief sequel to that book, published as a Kindle Single: Reverting to Type: A Reader's Story.

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