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Small Book, Long Story

A Brief History of the Book of Common Prayer

When you sit in the pew this Sunday morning at St. Luke's Cathedral, you may pick up the small red book on the shelf in front of you. That small, ordinary looking, book is called the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The first thing you are likely to notice about the prayer book is how it can be difficult to read. It is written in English, but it is close to four-hundred-years-old English. I have been assured once you have a grasp for reading it; it becomes easier to follow along. This seemingly ordinary book of services has an eventful history, a large part of which is based on the fact it is in English in the first place.

In 1534, King Henry VIII made the creation of the BCP possible when he established and became the head of the Church of England, a separate institution from the Roman Catholic Church. He did this by instating the Act of Supremacy, and though the churches under this new order were now separated, many continued to follow Latin Mass and traditional Catholic doctrine.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, he was replaced by nine-year-old Edward VI. As Edward was too young to rule, Duke Somerset governed as Lord Protector of England in his place. At this time there was increased pressure for the Church to make Protestant reforms to its liturgy and doctrine. This pressure inspired the first draft of the BCP.

In 1549, the House of Lords passed the Act of Uniformity which issued the first BCP. This new book defined how all clergy were to conduct rites, rituals, and ceremonies in English for the Church of England. According to the Tudor England Encyclopedia, the Act also provided an outline of punishments which included fines, loss of land title, and life imprisonment for all clergy who criticised or refused to follow the newly published BCP.

The creation of the first BCP is often accredited to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury. However, the Society of Archbishop Justus notes this cannot be definitively proven. Instead, according to the Society, the BCP derived from several sources including: Sarum Rite, a Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury; the Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quinones; and a book of liturgy and doctrine by Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne.

In the wake of the BCP publication, a revolt, known as the Prayer Book Rebellion (1549), was spurred in Devon and Cornwall. The Tudor England Encyclopedia notes, though the first prayer book was vague enough to encompass both Catholic and Protestant theology positions, the unfamiliar look and sound of the English service was the primary reason the revolt occurred. However, other sources state Catholic parishioners loyal to the Roman Catholic Church and the use of Latin Mass did not agree with the Protestant reform of the Church of England, which included the removal of crucifixes and banning masses for the dead. According to a BBC History Magazine article written by Charlotte Hodgman several thousand rebels died in a series of battles until the royal army finally put an end to the rebellion.

In 1552, the second Act of Uniformity imposed a revised version of the BCP. This new prayer book also contained penalties for laypeople who refused to attend services conducted with the new BCP liturgy. The Tudor England Encyclopedia states that while Communion had a more Protestant tone in this second version, many Protestant Reformers still believed it was too conservative. To appease the reformers, the Royal Council inserted the Black Rubric into the text, which explained why the congregation was to kneel during communion as a sign of humility.

During Mary I's reign from 1553 to 1558, the BCP was abolished in England and Catholicism was restored. During this time many English Protestant churches continued to use the BCP, and according to Britannia History, in 1555 Protestant parishioners were persecuted and an estimated 300, including Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake.

The BCP was ultimately reinstalled in 1559 when Elisabeth I enacted a new Act of Uniformity, restoring the second BCP, without the Black Rubric, as the official worship service for the Church of England. Since then, while the BCP has gone through several revisions it has remained the legal liturgy for Christian worship for the Church of England.

The BCP created uniformity within the Church and served the English-speaking congregation well by encouraging participation and faith education. This small red book has inspired both unity and division over the years. Its history and importance barely touched upon in this article. Like so many aspects of the Church's history, it is vast with even the smallest of details leading to bigger stories.

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