The Book of Common Prayer was written during the English Reformation as the new reference for the services & ceremonies for the new Church of England, and it’s still in use in many churches today. Discussing it on In Our Time were Diarmaid MacCulloch (University of Oxford), Alexandra Walsham (University of Cambridge) and Martin Palmer (Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education, and Culture).
Prior to the break with the Roman Catholic Church all church services were in Latin, and the forms of the services came from several different books depending on what sort of service it was and so on. Even though the English Church’s break with Rome was driven by Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce from his first wife there were genuine supporters of the European flavour of Reformation involved in the process. A key figure amongst these was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who not only orchestrated the original split from Rome but was also (in Edward VI’s reign) responsible for the original versions of the Book of Common Prayer. This was designed to be the single book that contained all the necessary prayers and ceremonies for the Church of England – each parish church had a copy, and used it for its services. The first version was to some degree a compromise between those who wanted a fully Reformed Church and those who wanted a more traditional Catholic theology (with or without the Pope as the head of the Church). As such a contemporary of Cranmer’s (who wasn’t as keen on Reformation as Cranmer) demonstrated that it could quite easily be interpreted in line with traditional Catholic theology. The second edition, again written by Cranmer, was published in the closing months of Edward VI’s reign and it was more hardline Protestant. Edward’s death & his sister Mary’s ascension to the throne returned the country to the Catholic Church and so the Book of Common Prayer was sidelined for a while. When Elizabeth I came to the throne she had the Book of Common Prayer republished, in much the same form as the second edition, and it was again the official prescribed version of the services.
By the time Elizabeth died the book which had once been regarded as “too Protestant” was regarded as “too Catholic” for hardline reformers. There was hope that Elizabeth’s successor would bring about a proper Reformation of the English church – after all James VI & I had been brought up in the Scottish Kirk. Sadly for the reformers James rather liked the ceremony of the English Church, and wasn’t fond of the dour Scottish Kirk – and in particular he liked the hierarchical nature of the English Church which reinforced his sense of his divinely anointed authority. So the Book of Common Prayer (and the concept of bishops) lived on. After the Civil Wars, while Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector the Book of Common Prayer was again abolished – this time replaced with a much more Puritan form of worship. The Restoration of the Monarchy was also the restoration of the Book of Common Prayer – revised another few times subsequently, but the definitive version is the 1662 revision. This was used throughout the British Empire as it grew, and is still used in some churches today.
As well as the history of the Book of Common Prayer they also talked about the language of it in the programme. Obviously it’s in English – and this was one of the important features of the new service book. An important part of the Reformation was the idea that everyone should understand what was going on – both in having access to a bible in their own language and in having services in their own language. The actual phrasing of the book is also important – it has had a significant impact on the sort of language we use today. They were keen to stress on the programme that it was written with its use in mind – in that the same words are to be used time and time again, so the prayers were constructed to be repeatable. Not florid prose that might sound foolish after a while nor witty or full of punchlines that might sound lame the umpteenth time you heard them. For much of the century or so of the reformation process in England there was a requirement to attended Church of England services that used the Book of Common Prayer. This ensured that the words and their underlying theology sunk in, over time, and that all children were properly indoctrinated.
One thing that they mentioned several times in the programme is something that always strikes me when learning about the Reformation in England – how very odd it was compared to the rest of Europe. The English Church tried (and mostly succeeded) in navigating a third way between catholicism and protestantism. A lot of the theology was reformed as compared to the Catholic church (like transubstantiation), and obviously the Pope is no longer head of the C of E. But the C of E still has bishops and a hierarchy, and even though it’s been austere at various times and places it has also still had ceremony and pomp at various times and places. So it didn’t really make either of the extremes happy – and the way the Book of Common Prayer was discarded once for being too Protestant and once for being too Catholic within the space of a century sort of sums that conflict up.