In Our Time: The Book of Common Prayer

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.

Henry VIII’s Enforcer: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is primarily remembered for the dissolution of the monasteries and for his (probable) hand in Anne Boleyn’s fall. This programme presented by Diarmaid MacCulloch was a biography of the man which discussed how there was more to him than a cynical destroyer. It also featured footage from 3 of the 4 towns I’ve lived in – Cambridge & Oxford weren’t exactly surprises, and Ipswich shouldn’t’ve been but somehow was and it was a bit of Ipswich that’s only a 10 to 15 minute walk from our house too.

I know the overall shape of the Cromwell story but there are a lot of details I didn’t already know (I’d’ve enjoyed watching it anyway, but it’s nice to also learn stuff). It was good to see MacCulloch showing us so much of the primary sources for things, the actual documents that the information for these events comes from, right from the very start of the story. Cromwell was born in poverty, in Putney in London. His father was a brewer, and pub landlord, and MacCulloch described him as running the sort of pub you wouldn’t go to twice. He then showed us the court records for the region, which include 48 occasions where Walter Cromwell was fined for watering his beer. Thomas Cromwell left home and the country around the age of 17 (his date of birth isn’t known for sure, but a good guess is 1485). The next 14 years are unclear, later sources suggest he spent some time as a mercenary fighting for the French and subsequently working for a banker in Florence. Whether this is right or not when he returned to England he’d acquired an education (in languages & law) which allowed him to mix with a much higher social class and to marry up (to the widowed daughter of a financier, pretty good for a brewer’s son).

After Cromwell’s return he acquired a reputation as a man who could fix things. An important step in this was work he did for a Guild in Boston, Lincolnshire. The main income of this Guild (I forget which one MacCulloch said it was :/) in Boston was from the sale of Indulgences – they had a licence form the Pope to do so which was due to expire soon. So the Guild employed Cromwell to head a delegation to Rome to negotiate with the Pope for a renewal of the licence. MacCulloch showed us the documentation of the expenses that the Guild paid to Cromwell for this undertaking – he said it was the equivalent of £600,000 in today’s money, which both shows the trust they were putting in Cromwell and also how important this income was to them. Cromwell did his job well – and in a style that would characterise his future dealings. Instead of following the rules & protocol & joining the queue for an audience with the Pope he engineered a “chance meeting” – as the Pope was returning from a hunting trip he came across Cromwell & his entourage who were singing. Once he’d met once with the Pope Cromwell then at future meetings catered to what he knew as the Pope’s weaknesses – he was known to have a sweet tooth, so English delicacies were offered to him. Cromwell’s methods worked, he returned to Boston with a new (and extended) licence for the sale of Indulgences – the Guild’s income was assured. MacCulloch didn’t spell it out, but I was amused to note how ironic this was given Cromwell’s later evangelical zeal.

Cromwell now got himself into the employ of Wolsey & this is where Ipswich came into the programme. Wolsey was also of low birth (in Ipswich) and had risen to the rank of Cardinal in the Church – and had also become Henry VIII’s “man who got things done”. MacCulloch said that when Henry took the throne he wanted the glory & prestige of being King, but was less keen on the work that was needed to actually run the kingdom and Wolsey became the man who did the work. So Cromwell became the fixer for Henry VIII’s fixer. One of the jobs that Cromwell did for Wolsey was to do with the establishment of Wolsey’s two colleges. Wolsey had benefited from an Oxford education and wanted to make sure more of his home town’s people would have this opportunity, so he established a college in Ipswich (which no longer exists, only the chapel remains – the church of St Peter’s at the Waterfront which J & I actually visited the other day) and a college in Oxford (now Christchurch College). Cromwell was involved in the actual set up of these, and presided over the dissolution of several monasteries which paid for these colleges – an act that resonates with his later career.

Wolsey fell from power with his failure to negotiate the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Eventually he was charged with promoting the rule of a foreign power and removed from power – effectively he was charged with doing his job as a Cardinal aka the representative of the Pope in England. Which as MacCulloch pointed out wasn’t exactly fair. Cromwell feared that his time in the sun was over because his career was tied to Wolsey’s, but still he continued to do his duty to Wolsey and also ameliorated some of the effects of Wolsey’s fall (in particular ensuring that Ipswich still had a school even if not the grand college Wolsey had envisioned).

The King’s Great Matter (his divorce from Catherine) was still not solved, and here is where Cromwell managed to put his talents for organising things to use and get himself into Wolsey’s old position as Henry’s fixer. Cromwell went through old histories of England to find some precedent that Henry could use to ignore the Pope (effectively), MacCulloch was saying that the King had to have come up with this idea but Cromwell was the man who implemented it. The legal fiction they used was based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of Britain, where King Arthur is said to have authority over the Roman Empire. Complete myth, but a useful one – if Arthur was an Emperor then so is his successor Henry and Emperors do not answer to anyone, not even the Pope. Cromwell now set about making this have some legal standing – he was by now a Member of Parliament (and had been for a while) so he was able to engineer the passing of an Act of Parliament that stated that Henry was (and always had been) an Emperor. MacCulloch said this had greater significance even than in the King’s Great Matter. Previously Parliament had only had two functions – passing on petitions from the people to the King and raising taxes. But with this Act for the first time Parliament had created a part of the constitution of the country, so MacCulloch was saying that this was the first step towards our current political system. And also that other European countries were gradually losing their councils and concentrating power with the monarch, but by solving the King’s Great Matter in this way Cromwell had ensured that the English Parliament continued to be relevant & powerful. I had the feeling that MacCulloch was overstating things here to make his point, but then again he’s the historian here not me 🙂

This then is the decisive split of the English Church from Rome, and Henry appoints Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Who annuls Henry’s marriage to Catherine (on the basis of being illegal due to her prior marriage to Henry’s brother) and marries Henry to Anne Boleyn. We now come to the period of Cromwell’s life that he’s most remembered and vilified for. As Henry’s righthand man he presided over the dissolution of monasteries all across England. This wasn’t just done for the money, it was also done through a desire to reform the Church. The Reformation is sweeping across Europe at this time, and the wealth and corruption of the Church is one of the driving factors. Cromwell has, at some point previous to this, become a part of the Reform movement (I’m struggling with phrasing here – “movement” sounds a bit too organised, I mean this is where his religious sympathies lay and he was in contact with others in the court who also felt this way, like Anne Boleyn). So this is partly about cleaning up what Cromwell sees as the corruption of the English Church – some of the monasteries are dissolved after their “relics” are demonstrated to be false (and so the income they got from pilgrims is ill-gotten gains which they aren’t entitled to).

Henry, despite the break with Rome, isn’t really an Evangelical but he welcomes the extra money so is perfectly happy with dissolving the monasteries. However Anne & Cromwell fall out over where the money should go – Anne believes it should be used for good causes, Cromwell is the King’s man and believes it should go to the King to do with as he sees fit. Anne & Henry are also not on as good terms as they were, so Cromwell engineers the downfall and execution of the Queen. (Obviously MacCulloch is in the “Cromwell did it” camp (c.f. the Anne Boleyn programme that aired the day before this one for the other theories (post)). And MacCulloch admits that this is a pretty dark point in Cromwell’s career, hard to spin as anything palatable.

Now Cromwell is riding high. He’s made a Knight of the Garter & Earl of Essex (after the previous Earl died without an heir). He continues with his Reform efforts – he even gets the King to authorise an English Bible. This is a key part of the Protestant Reformation, it is a movement that wants to get back to the word of God as set down in the Gospels and to make that happen the Bible needs to be available to all worshippers, not just those that have learnt Latin. Henry has been against this in the past, and yet Cromwell still takes the risk & gives the King a copy of an English Bible. He’s counting on his popularity with the King and on the fact that with his third wife pregnant (hopefully with an heir) the King is in a generous mood. The risk pays off and the Bible is authorised, MacCulloch showed us the frontispiece of a copy of this Bible. King Henry VIII presides at the top of the page (below God but bigger than God) handing Bibles down to Cranmer & Cromwell who pass them along to the clergy (Cranmer) and the laity (Cromwell).

Cromwell is also the most probable hand behind another Reformist undertaking at this time. Zwingli in Switzerland is even more radical in his rejection of Catholic “superstition” than Martin Luther had been – he goes so far as to say that in the Mass (which he re-moulds as Holy Communion) the bread and the wine do not become the body & blood of Christ, instead they are a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for the sins of mankind. Henry regarded Zwingli as a heretic, as did Archbishop Cranmer. Yet still an official looking delegation of Oxford graduates went to visit Zwingli & learn from him. MacCulloch points out that Cromwell is the only man with both the power & the inclination to send this delegation, and that this did in the end become the dogma of the Anglican Church.

It’s not just in matters of religion that Cromwell had a lasting effect on the country. As a result of the closure of the monasteries there was much higher unemployment in the country, and Cromwell took measures to counteract this. To our ears his laws about parishes being able to force able-bodied men to work doesn’t seem a good thing, but MacCulloch was presenting this as a necessary first step on the way to our modern welfare state – the previous “solution” would’ve been to just drive them out of the parish, which only gives the people involved more problems. Cromwell was also responsible for the law against homosexuality – MacCulloch showed us the document of the law against “the sin of buggery”. This had been one of the charges laid against the monasteries, part of how they were seen to be corrupt, and Cromwell was keen to make this forbidden even after the monasteries were shut.

So Cromwell is well established, and getting his own way even in matters of religion. But he fatally missteps when Henry is looking for his next wife, after Jane Seymour’s death. MacCulloch showed us a 17th Century summary of a now lost contemporary record of a conversation between Cromwell & Cranmer on the subject – Cranmer is urging Cromwell to consider the King’s comfort (that the woman should be someone he likes the look of & can talk to) but Cromwell wants the woman to be a proper Protestant Princess to further lock England away from the Roman Church. He sends Holbein off to paint Anne of Cleves, his preferred candidate for the next Queen – and looking at the portrait she seems a pretty woman, and Henry agreed so the marriage was arranged. Unfortunately the reality did not please the King as much as the portrait, and so he had this marriage annulled. This was easier than the annulment of his first marriage, but more humiliating because he had to publicly admit to impotence & an inability to consummate the marriage. Henry blamed Cromwell both for the failed marriage and for the humiliation and Cromwell had not enough friends in court to stick up for him. He was arrested, and executed. Henry is said to have regretted this later – to have said that he had put to death the most loyal servant he had. But a bit too late for Cromwell.

I was struck throughout this programme how much I recognised of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell (post about “Bring Up the Bodies”) – a sign, I think, that she did her research. I’m not sure I entirely agree that we should look at Cromwell as a principled statesman instead of a cynical thug. I think rather that he was both.

“A History of Christianity” Diarmaid MacCulloch

I think I’ve been reading this book off and on for most of the year, which is an awfully long time for me to take to read a book! It’s subtitled “The First Three Thousand Years” which gives you a hint of the scale of it. Over the thousand pages in the book it covers the development and history of Christianity across the whole world from the Jewish and Greek underpinnings of the time and place that Jesus was born into right up to the beginning of the 21st Century. Given it doesn’t just cover the history (both of the Church and of the time period in general) but also goes into the various theological developments (and arguments and schisms) through the history of the Church, it ends up a very information dense book. Which I knew it would be going in, I’ve read a previous book by MacCulloch about the Reformation which was similarly pitched. This is part of why it took me so long to read – I needed to be in the right frame of mind to digest it properly 🙂 But despite this it was a clearly written & readable book, and I should read it again sometime.

Because it took me so long I’ve not got a good grasp of the whole thing in my head any more but I am still attempting to write a summary of sorts (and I really wish I’d written up notes after each section, I have a plan to do that with future books, writing about what I’ve read helps solidify it in my head). It opens with a couple of chapters that set the scene – a brief history of the Greeks & their philosophy (and their conquest by & absorption into the Roman Republic), followed by a brief history of Israel & the Jewish religion & philosophy. The next chapter deals with what can be teased out of the Gospels about the historical person of Jesus, and the immediate aftermath of his crucifixion – in terms of what happened in the very early Church, which at the time was really a branch of Judaism. The separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots comes with Paul (who isn’t one of the original disciples), and with the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD which disrupted the still Jewish leaning part of Christianity.

Historical accident or circumstance plays a large role in the early development of the Church, in contrast to later on when the Church has a hand in creating the political history (in Europe, anyway). At first the centre of gravity of the Church was towards the east of the Mediterranean – Egypt, Syria, and even further east to Baghdad & beyond were important centres of Christianity. The westward shift comes from the intertwining of the Church in Rome with the Roman Empire, and then the later rise of Islam in the Middle East which marginalises those Christian communities. Latin & Orthodox Christianity become dominant not because they’re closer to the original (they really aren’t) but because they get political power and hook themselves into the state apparatus of the Roman Empire & its successors.

A common theme through the whole history of the Church is schisms based on arguments about what the stories in the Bible mean, and what they should teach us to believe & how they should teach us to behave. This starts right at the beginning with Paul and his not-necessarily-Jewish form of Christianity (that ended up completely dominating) and James the brother of Jesus, whose Christianity was a flavour of Judaism. There are splits over the nature of Jesus (both divine and human, but is that mixed or separate within the body of Christ?), splits over the concept of the Trinity, splits over whether icons are permitted or prohibited, splits over the meaning of the Eucharist (literally magical or metaphor), splits over who is in charge (Pope vs monarchs, priests vs elders), splits over the construction of the afterlife (purgatory? or not?), splits over free will or predestination. And more. It seems a bit like every possible stand one can take about the nature of God and of the message that Jesus was preaching, someone has taken and has proclaimed to be a revelation directly from God.

Another strand running throughout the history of Christianity is the imminent arrival of the end of the world. Jesus and his early followers were expecting the End to begin during their own lifetimes – his message was an apocalyptic one. One of the re-adjustments necessary in the mainstream Church after this was a move away from a literal interpretation of the end as nigh to a more metaphorical one where it is “soon” in the time of God not necessarily in human terms. But the idea keeps returning, time and time again various sects and parts of the Church have begun to believe that the End will come in their lifetimes, and time and time again it hasn’t. It has survived even into modern times, affecting the political landscape – there is apparently a significant strand of support for the Israeli state that comes from a belief that a Jewish homeland is a necessary pre-requisite for the second coming of Christ. (As an aside, I find it a bit mind-boggling that people are out there trying to encourage the right conditions for the end of the world, I guess if you “know” you’re going to go straight to heaven in the Rapture maybe you have a different perspective, but I just don’t really understand the point of view that thinks “hey, everyone & everything will die if we just get things organised like this, let’s go do it!”.)

The book ends on an optimistic note for the future of the Church – the secularisation of Europe gives an impression that numbers of Christians are dwindling and it’s dying out, but globally speaking this is not the case. Two of the growth areas that he talks about are South Korea and Africa, the latter being particularly surprising because you might’ve thought that Christianity would be linked to colonialism and thus not popular with the African peoples. But instead they have developed their own forms of Christianity, derived from but different to the Western Christianities they’ve grown out of.