The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662

Cummings, Brian (ed)
OUP (2011)
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In a well-judged and beautifully shaped introduction Cummings remarks that the fans of the BCP do it the greatest injustice by emphasising the stately majesty of its prose when its greater characteristic is its urgency, the problem being that this pillar of the English consciousness has become part of our cultural detritus.

Whereas a novel comes out of an author's head, having got there usually by a wide variety the means, prayer books, being instruments of public worship, generally grow out of theology but the theology of the BCP, formulated between its first Edition of 1549 and it last major revision of 1662, like that of other major Reformation prayer books, grew out of politics, its peculiarity being that it is still being used, unchanged. It is therefore important to know why it says what it says and, stemming from that, important for us to know the meaning of what it says.

Cummings prints all three texts in full of 1549, 1559 and 1662. He explains that he chose not to print the most radical edition of 1552 because it was only in use a matter of months before the Protestant Edward VI died in 1553 to be succeeded by the Catholic Mary who reverted the Church in England to Rome but all the textual variants between the three reproduced versions and 1552 are covered in such good and comprehensive footnotes, amounting to some 133 pages, that I have to say that this is the first book I have ever read where the footnotes are much more rewarding than the text.

Taken together, Cummings traces our current 1662 BCP back through its three previous editions and into the late Middle Ages where the most prominent source was the Sarum Rite, although there never was uniformity of worship in spite of Vatican insistence. For the English Tudor and Stuart monarchy, uniformity was a major component of political stability and the different versions of the BCP reflect the precise balance which needed to be struck at the time between conservative and Calvinist forces. At the beginning this meant a heavy leaning towards the Calvinist to such an extent that the Church of England in the reign of James I can quite properly be characterised as Calvinist with episcopal knobs on but the Lauadian reversal which led to but survived the Civil War moved the Church to a more Sacramental position; but you would have to be a sharp textual critic, as Cummings is, to spot the way that Cosin's interpolations of Cranmer's text reflect the move towards more ceremonial Anglicanism.

Much as I admire Cranmer's prose for its elegance and balance, I still can't take seriously those elements of it which deal with the Consecration and the distribution of Holy Communion which is why, as I said earlier, it is important to read the texts closely. It is also the case, I think, that what in the minds of many passes for magisterial prose is actually more like nicely formulated legislation. I cite one example: where Cranmer says in the Marriage Service that the woman is: "To love,  cherish, and obey" the York Manual which he used as source material says that the woman is to: :"be bonere and buxum in bedde and at the borde". I know, as a husband, which I would prefer!

Overall, for those who use the BCP for worship, this is an indispensable work of reference alongside Bradshaw & Johnson.