A Prayer Book for All

Daily Reading for May 29 • The First Book of Common Prayer (1549)

The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was as much the child of worship in the preceding centuries as it was a product of the Reformation. But there is an essential difference. Whereas the 1549 was intended to establish this new, universal relationship between every worshipper and the single, authoritative service book for the whole nation, the preceding era was different altogether. A number of different books were in use for different groups of people and different occasions. Each one started its life long before the invention of printing. In that sense, the Book of Common Prayer, provisional as it came to be, was also the child of the printing press, and its effects and legacy would have been impossible in other circumstances.

What were the original motivations behind the production of such a book? These were partly doctrinal – to embody a liturgy that put Reformation teaching into praying words – and partly social – to signal and spread the use of the vernacular. Above all they were liturgical, bringing together the main services of the (now reformed) Church of England under one cover and placing them in direct relationship not only with the clergy who presided at them, but the laity as well – few could read, but all could listen to and understand the English text. Even though not everyone could afford to pay for a copy (3s.4d. was the price fixed by law), the notion of having the same book in the hands of potentially anyone attending a service was a novel idea, reinforced by the new technology of printing and the new (but also very ancient) conception of the church as the baptized people of God.

From “Worship by the Book” by Kenneth Stevenson, in The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey, edited by Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck (Oxford, 2006).

On View: Transfiguration: Dwellings by Susan Tilt, as seen in Image and Likeness at Episcopal Church and Visual Arts

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