Book of Common Prayer

The Book of Common Prayer is the prayer book of the Church of England and also the name for similar books used in other churches in the Anglican Communion. It has been through many revisions over the last few centuries. It contains the order to be followed in church services. Within the United Kingdom, it can only be printed by one of the privileged presses, as it is under perpetual Crown Copyright.


History of the Prayer Book

Early Prayer Books

The earliest English-language service book of the Church of England was the Exhortation and Litany. Published in 1544, it borrowed greatly from Martin Luther's Litany and Myles Coverdale's New Testament, and was the only Protestant service to be finished within the lifetime of King Henry VIII.

In 1548, Thomas Cranmer finished work on an English Communion, obeying an order of Parliament that Communion was to be given as both bread and wine. This was the first service to reveal Protestantism that was beginning to influence the English Church. The service existed as an addition to the pre-existing Latin Mass, and much of Cranmer's language in this service has survived through the many subsequent revisions to the present day.

One year later, in 1549, a full prayer book had been finished and was published under the leadership of Cranmer during the reign of Edward VI. (This text of the Communion is online here ( The Preface to this edition, which contained Cranmer's explanation as to why a new prayer book was necessary, began: "There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted". The original version was used until only 1552, when a further revision was released.

In 1553, upon the succession of Mary I to the throne, an attempt was made at a counter-reformation in England. Cranmer was punished for his work in the Protestant reformation by being burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. All further development would continue without his instruction.

The 1559 Prayer Book

Under Elizabeth I of England, a restoration of the Anglican Church was undertaken, and a new prayer book was published in 1559. This book was used for over 100 years, thus being the official prayer book under the Stuarts as well as being the first Anglican service in America. Without Cranmer's direction in the 1559 revision, a number of elements leaned toward more Catholic teachings, if not merely for his absence, perhaps as the effect of years of uncertainty within the church. Amongst these included:

  • Saints' holidays were added to the liturgical calendar;
  • Prayers against the Pope were dropped from the litany; and
  • The suggested use of more traditional vestments by ministers.

This use of this revision was outlawed in 1645 by the Long Parliament as part of the increasingly Puritan ideals then developing in the nation, and, given the religious leanings of Lord Protector Cromwell, it would not be replaced until shortly after the return of the monarchy to England.

The 1662 Prayer Book

The 1662 prayer book was printed but two years after the restoration of the monarchy, and, given the mildly Catholic leanings of the monarchy at the time, the 1662 was a surprisingly Protestant revision. A number of ecclesiastical scholars in England saw merit in the beliefs of the Puritans and worked some of these into the prayer book. This revision survives today as the approved Book of Common Prayer in England, with only minor revisions since its publication (mostly due the changes in the monarchy and in the dominion of the Empire).

The language of the 1662 revision was much unchanged from that of Cranmer, with the exception of the modernization of only the most archaic words and phrases. This book was the one which had existed as the official Book of Common Prayer during the most monumental periods of growth of the British empire, and, as a result, has been a great influence on the prayer books of Anglican churches worldwide, liturgies of other denominations in English, and of the English language as a whole.

Further Developments of the English Book of Common Prayer

After the 1662 prayer book, development did not cease in England. A subsequent, far more Protestant revision was developed later in the 17th Century, but was scrapped as the various parties influencing the work pressed for tolerance of their respective denominations within England as opposed to inclusion in the liturgy. This work, however, did go on to influence the prayer books of many British colonies.

England, then, continued on using the 1662 version. It looked as though this would change in the early days of the 20th century when work was started on a revision slated to be finished in the 1920s.

In 1927, this proposed prayer book was finished. It was decided, during development, that the use of the services therein would be decided on by each given congregation, so as to avoid as much conflict as possible with traditionalists. With these open guidelines the book was granted approval by the Church of England Convocations and Church Assembly. Since the Church of England is a state church, a further step—sending the proposed revision to Parliament—was required, and the book was rejected in December of that year when the MP William Joynson-Hicks argued strongly against it on the grounds that the proposed book was "papistical" and insufficiently Protestant. The next year was spent revising the book to make it more suitable for Parliament, but it was rejected yet again in 1928. However Convocation declared a state of emergency and authorised bishops to use the revised Book throughout that emergency.

The Church of England has not since produced any revisions to the Prayer Book, other than those required for the changes to the monarchy, though a number of books that are not the Book of Common Prayer per se have been developed for the order of services, namely the 1980 Alternative Service Book and the 2000 Common Worship series of books.

In 2003, a Roman Catholic adaptation of the BCP was published called the Book of Divine Worship. It is a compromise of material drawn from the proposed 1928 book, the 1979 ECUSA book and the Roman Missal. It was published primarily for use by Catholic converts from Anglicanism within the Anglican Use.

Anglican Prayer Books in Other Nations

Brief Overview of Several Prayer Books

A number of other nations have developed Anglican churches and their own revisions of the Book of Common Prayer. Several are listed here:

The Episcopal Church in the United States of America has produced numerous prayer books since the inception of the church in 1789. Work on the first book began in 1786 and was subsequently finished and published in 1789. The preface thereto mentions that "this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship...further than local circumstances require." Further revisions to the prayer book in the United States occurred in 1892, 1928, and 1979.

The Anglican Church of Canada developed its first Book of Common Prayer separate from the English version in 1918. A revision thereto was published in 1962. Some supplements have been developed over the past several years to the prayer book, and the Book of Alternative Services, published in 1985, is commonly used in many parishes.

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The Scottish Episcopal Church has had a number of revisions to the Book of Common Prayer since it was first adapted for Scottish use in 1637. These revisions were developed simultaneously with the English book till the mid-17th century when the Scottish book departed from the English revisions. A completely new revision was finished in 1929, and several revisions to the communion service seem to have been prepared since then.

Religious Influence

The Book of Common Prayer has had a great influence on a number of other denominations. While theologically different, the language and flow of the service of many other churches owes a great debt to the prayer book.

John Wesley, an Anglican minister whose teachings are ascribed as the foundations of the Methodism said, "I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England." Presently, most Methodist services have a very similar service and theology to that of the Anglican church. The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992, ISBN 0687035724 ) uses the Book of Common Prayer as its primary model.

In the 1960s, when Roman Catholicism adopted a vernacular mass, many translations of the English prayers followed the form of Cranmer's translation. Indeed, a number of theologians have suggested that the later English Alternative Service Book and 1979 American Book of Common Prayer borrowed from the Roman Catholic vernacular liturgy.

See also

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