Formation of Christian society

Daily Reading for June 4 • The First Book of Common Prayer, 1549

There are suggestions that Cranmer was engaged in drafting services in the late 1530s, but nothing was published. As early as 1536 Hugh Latimer, in a sermon to Convocation, had called for the services of baptism and matrimony to be conducted in English. In 1538 it was stipulated that a Bible should be placed in every church, that the creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Ten Commandments should be recited in English, and that no one should be admitted to communion without having learnt them. A surviving draft form of the Daily Office seems to date from this period: the service was in Latin, but there was already an emphasis on the people being instructed by the readings, which suggests that vernacular scripture reading was envisaged.

Two issues were uppermost in all these moves: comprehension and the formation of a Christian people and society. In his preface to the Great Bible of 1540, Cranmer speaks of the good effect of Bible reading as a social as well as an individual good. . . .In 1543, Tudor rationalization ordered that ‘this realm shall have one use’: the rite of Sarum. But thus far it was simply one medieval rite supplanting others. 1544 saw the publication of the first service in English: the Litany. . . . Other reforms, small but significant, were ventured during the last years of Henry’s reign. . . . Most important, however, was the ‘Order of the Communion’, which made provision for vernacular communion devotions within the Latin Mass, consisting of exhortations, confession and absolution, and what would come to be known as the Comfortable Words and the Prayer of Humble Access, along with a formula to be used at the administration of communion. Communion was now to be given in both kinds; that is, lay people were allowed to receive the consecrated wine as well as the bread. There was also provision for additional consecration of the cup, perhaps because the small chalices of the time were inadequate for congregational use, or to allow for communities unfamiliar with the practicalities. All these items, except for the last, would later appear in the Prayer Book.

While the country was becoming accustomed to the new communion devotions, Cranmer and his colleagues were completing a draft of the first complete English Prayer Book. In September 1548 there was a conference of representative senior clergy at Chertsey Abbey. It is hard to imagine this group examining the whole text of the new Prayer Book; rather, the meeting seems to have been intended to reach consensus on points of principle ahead of a debate in Parliament. Later, in a letter to Queen Mary, Cranmer avers that the conference was unanimous in agreeing to adopt the vernacular. Unfortunately, unanimity in eucharistic doctrine was more difficult to achieve, and disagreement between the divines spilled into public view in the House of Lords debate in December. Nevertheless, the new Prayer Book was passed by Parliament on 21 January, and was required to be in use by Whitsunday, 9 June 1549.

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

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