The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs

Willy Maley on one of the most important works in the English language

January 16, 2014

The architect of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer was burned to death on 21 March 1556, outside the University of Oxford’s Balliol College. The fate of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, exemplifies the challenges – and indeed perils – that faced those seeking to reform Christian worship in England. Cranmer’s book was a sampling of scripture aimed at bringing together a nation in transition. Its translation of Latin liturgies into English met resistance in Cornwall as well as on the Continent. Radical reformers saw it as a deal with the Devil, a “way station” with a “Romish residue”. Catholics considered it heresy. The book, commissioned by Henry VIII, displeased his unreformed daughter, Mary I; hence Cranmer’s fiery fate.

Henry’s effort to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was just one bone of contention between London and Rome. The Reformation was England’s struggle for national liberation, underpinned by the discovery of a great natural resource: land. Behind the hymns and holy war of words lay a conflict about sovereignty. In separating from Rome, England declared itself an empire. Cranmer’s book is a founding national document that proved vital in spreading the word – and with it the English language – to the colonies.

Alan Jacobs calls The Book of Common Prayer “an instrument of social and political control”, but underplays its political dimensions in favour of an elaborate account of its reception as a religious text. Evangelical contemporaries objected to Cranmer countenancing kneeling at Communion. For John Knox this was tantamount to idolatry. Cranmer’s own equating of transubstantiation with idolatry was one of the “doctrinal errors” for which he was executed.

Radical Protestants objected to the remnants of Catholicism in Cranmer’s book, such as the retention of “altar” for table and “priests” for ministers. As Jacobs observes, “they wanted elimination of anything in the book that smelled of Rome”. In Eikonoklastes (1649), Milton saw set prayers as inherently prescriptive, placing fetters on faith. The Book of Common Prayer was, he argued, just “an Englished mass-book” whose provenance and purpose Milton mistrusted. Banned by Parliament in 1641, the book was revised and reissued in 1662 after the restoration of the monarchy. Jacobs traces the further revisions that followed, from the US’ first Book of Common Prayer in 1789 to A Liturgy for Africa in 1964, an update of the 1662 version intended to reflect the context of African independence struggles.

For Jacobs, Cranmer’s language, which moved and inspired writers from Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson to W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, is crucial to the book’s lasting power. Jacobs might have added that George Orwell knew passages by heart, or more intriguingly, that James Joyce, famously caught between two empires – Roman and British – had two copies in his possession.

Jacobs’ treatment of the afterlife of one of the most important works in the English language – perhaps the only afterlife there is – is elegant and authoritative. For him, The Book of Common Prayer is more than a vital historical document or magisterial piece of poetic prose: it is “living words in the mouths of those who have a living faith”. And there’s the rub. Insightful and informative as Jacobs’ commentary is, a more thoroughly contextualised analysis of the work would show how far its fusion of faiths combined aspirations for a reformed commonwealth with the claims of an imperial monarchy in a compromise formation. I share Jacobs’ passion for the fascinating story of its journey, but his scrupulous study of this hugely significant text needs to be supplemented by scholarship attentive to the complex interplay of empire and independence that prompted its composition and haunted its reception.

The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

By Alan Jacobs
Princeton University Press, 256pp, £16.95
ISBN 9780691154817 and 97814008480 (e-book)
Published 31 October 2013

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