- The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662
The year 2012 marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer, the prayer book which comprises the daily offices, the Communion service, and the Ordinal of the Church of England. Brian Cummings’s edition of three different incarnations of the Book of Common Prayer, including the 1662 text, is therefore a timely publication. Produced in time for, and because of, this major anniversary, Cummings’s text presents in sequence the earliest version of the prayer book, produced during the reign of King Edward VI in 1549, a revised version introduced by Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, and the 1662 version, brought into existence after the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 and the Savoy Conference of 1661.
Arguably the 1662 version is the textual incarnation of the Book of Common Prayer most familiar today, both to adherents of the Anglican Church and to a wider culture beyond. Its familiarity stems on one level from the continued use of the offices for morning and evening prayer as the basis for Matins and Evensong in Cathedrals; these are the services that are the chief point of contact with the Anglican Church for many tourists and visitors. More broadly, the idioms of its language and certain key phrases (‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes’) continue to be familiar in modern English.
Thus as the Book of Common Prayer enters the 350th year of the 1662 edition, it is possible to think of that version as familiar and by now time honoured and hallowed by centuries of unchanged language and theology. Cummings’s collection is therefore a valuable reminder that a book celebrated for the eloquence of its language and the stability of worship which it engendered has in fact charted an uneven passage through history.
By placing the 1549 and 1559 texts in the same collection as the familiar 1662 version, Cummings is able to illustrate the textual transformations that [End Page 202] the Book of Common Prayer experienced over more than one hundred years of development, but also that what exactly comprised the prayer book was by no means a fixed matter. While the daily offices and the Communion are standard elements of all three versions, other aspects of the text have been unstable and subject to shifts in emphasis due to external political pressure. Thus the 1662 version manifests itself as a royalist text, containing services commemorating the martyrdom of King Charles I and celebrating the restoration of King Charles II. It also contains a service of thanksgiving for deliverance from the 1605 Gunpowder Plot. The 1549 and 1559 differ in the services they promote, the level of ritual and gesture they permit, and the sources of their theology. The prayer book, far from being a work characterized by familiarity or stability, comes across in this collection as a volatile text. As Cummings makes clear, the idea of an immutable Book of Common Prayer is difficult to sustain.
While the bulk of this text is the reproduction of the three different textual versions, Cummings has also provided an Introduction in which he makes a number of stimulating observations about the history and influence of the prayer book. One is that for a book which is now enshrined as a classic of English literature, its original reception is striking for the depth and vehemence of the reactions it provoked and the capacity it carried to offend. It also served as an engine of change during the Reformation, driving forward reform of doctrine and liturgy.
The book’s capacity to offend was deep-seated. The 1549 version – the first incarnation of the text and the one overseen by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – was revolutionary in offering services entirely in English and in its approach to the doctrine of Transubstantiation. Cummings also makes clear that a strong irony runs through the history of the reception of...