This year, remarkable for many events- the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics amongst them- has another major cultural celebration:  the 350th Anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This book-written all those years ago- is still the official liturgy of the Church of England.  And while its anniversary has been marked in certain circles with some gusto, it has not achieved, in my very humble opinion, anything like the publicity or public acclaim that last year’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible accrued. Which to me is astonishing for, like the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, to paraphrase Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, we all get to know phrases from the Book of Common Prayer, without really knowing how:

But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them everywhere; one is intimate with him by instinct. No man of any brain can open at a good part of one of his plays without falling into the flow of his meaning immediately.”

“No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree,” said Edmund, “from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by everybody; they are in half the books we open, and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions; but this is totally distinct from giving his sense as you gave it. To know him in bits and scraps is common enough; to know him pretty thoroughly is, perhaps, not uncommon; but to read him well aloud is no everyday talent

Mansfield Park Chapter 34,

Of course the way mine and previous generations, including Jane Austen’s, got to know these phrases by heart was though repetition: the 1662 Prayer Book, with slight alterations, was the liturgy with which I grew up and heard at every service in my youth, as did Jane Austen. I was married  and my children were baptised using the beautiful services contained within it. I try to attend services using the Prayer Book, but these days it is getting harder and harder to do so for the rituals contained in Common Worship has replaced it in many, many parish churches and cathedrals. What a pity to lose such a link with the past. And doubly a pity, for we are all, I am sure, very familiar with the following phrases, all culled from its pages, even though some may not be aware it is the source of these phrases we can hear almost every day:

Speak now or forever hold your peace….To love, cherish and to obey…Till Death us do part…Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest…In the midst of life we are in death…Renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world…

I could continue,but will restrain myself, much to your relief, no doubt :)  As it is now the 350th anniversary of this book,  which undoubtedly influenced Jane Austen, and to which she made direct references in her works, I thought I would  post a small series about it. Today, I want to look at a brief history of this very influential book, then my next posting will be about Jane Austen’s use of it.

Thomas Cramner, Archbishop of Canterbury who edited the first Prayer Book of the Anglican Church

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who edited the first Anglican Prayer Book

The Prayer Book was originally complied by Thomas Cranmer in the 16th century. It was published in 1549 during the reign of King Edward VI, and as such it was a product of the English Reformation, following the break with Rome by Henry VIII. The 1549 book  was vitally important as it was the first prayer book written in English to contain all the forms of service for daily and Sunday worship and to do so within a single volume.

This first Prayer Book included services for morning prayer, evening prayer, the Litany, and Holy Communion. The book also  included  other occasional services in full: the orders for baptism, confirmation, marriage, ‘prayers to be said with the sick‘ and a funeral service. It set out in full detail the Epistle and Gospel readings for the Sunday Communion Service. The Old Testament and New Testament readings for daily prayer were also specified  as were the set Psalms.  Canticles, mostly biblical,  were also provided to be sung between the readings. The services in this prayer book were important in the development of the Church for they emphasised the people’s participation in the eucharist, and required that the Bible was to be read from cover to cover. Fast days were retained but saints’ days were not.

The 1549 book was rapidly succeeded by a  revision in 1552 which was again edited by Thomas Cranmer, then Archbishop of Canterbury.  This book  never came into use however because, on the death of Edward VI in 1553, his half-sister Mary I restored Roman Catholic worship to all English churches. On her death in 1558, her protestant half-sister, Elizabeth became Queen and a compromise version- which was  largely the 1552 prayer book with a few amendments from the 1549 edition- was published in 1559.

In 1604, under the reign of James I, there was a minor revision of the Prayer Book, but  the terrible events of  the English Civil War proved disastrous for its continued use.  In 1645 it was abolished for use and the Long Parliament decreed that anyone found to be still using it was to be found guilty of a criminal offence.

Frontispiece of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

Frontispiece of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

After the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660( Hurrah!), the restrictions on the use of the Prayer Book were removed. Charles II initiated another major revision to the Prayer Book, and convened the Savoy Conference in 1661. The purpose of the conference was to decide the manner and content of the liturgy for the 17th century Anglican church. The Revised Book of Common Prayer which resulted was made legal by the Act of Uniformity  of 1662 ,which ordered  the exclusive use of the new Prayer Book,  in all places of worship, from St. Bartholomew’s Day (that is, the 24th August) 1662 onwards,

before which all ministers must publicly declare their assent to it on pain of deprivation…

And since that date, 350 years ago almost to the day,  that edition-with minor amendments- has remained the official Prayer Book of the Church of England, and of most other Churches in the worldwide Anglican Communion. It has been extremely influential:  Christian denominations other than the Anglican Church have adopted and adapted its services and prayers for their own use. For example, traditional Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian prayer books have all borrowed from it. The wording of the Prayer Book marriage and burial rites have been adopted by other denominations and, as we have seen above,  phrases from the book have seeped  into the everyday English language. This all explains why Jane Austen knew the book intimately…and next time we shall discuss how she used it in her writings.