I love my historical anniversaries. (Regular readers will know this, as do members of my church!) Anyway, 350 years ago today, on 19 May 1662, The Act of Uniformity received the royal assent in England. This enforced use of the Book of Common Prayer. There is a sad side to compelling the consciences of some Christian ministers, who preferred different ways of ordering their public church assemblies, but I will return to that another occasion.
Today I want to share a little about the famous 1662 BCP, as it’s often called for short. For a start, it has almost been as influential on the English language as the King James Bible! Think of such resonant phrases like “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (Burial of the Dead), or “till death us do part” and “for better for worse” (both in the Solemnization of Matrimony). These come from the BCP, not the Bible! Of course, on the other hand, the concepts and phrases found in such prayer book services reflect deep immersion in the biblical worldview.
The Book of Common Prayer emphasised the centrality of the Bible as God’s word to mankind. It urged its systematic reading at some length, in the language of the people. So it was a book to learn of God, and by which to worship God with others or alone. But it was also a book to live, love and die to! Millions of English-speaking people—both believing and forgiven or indifferent and wicked—have been baptised, married, or buried to its words.
It has travelled the world wherever there were English colonists, traders or missionaries: Canada to Brazil, Nigeria to Sri Lanka. It has also been translated into Gaelic, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Maasai, Hausa, French, Dutch, Italian, Cantonese, Japanese, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, Burmese, Fijian, Vietnamese and Inuit! Sometimes it has been a nation’s first printed book.
Now it is mostly ignored, a mere cultural memory, copies piled up in church cupboards or gathering dust on dining room bookcases. People today think of its old-fashioned language as being lofty and stately. But I understand that in its day, the BCP’s prose had a certain direct urgency and energy in its exhortations to do business with God, or rather to let him do business with you. And of course, for those who believe its wording is sacrosanct and should never be altered, the BCP’s own preface recognised that language changes over time, and its expression must be updated and adjusted to local circumstances. But its doctrine and patterns remains a legal standard for Anglicans, and its shape influences modern efforts today.
Of course the BCP had a history prior to 1662. The English Protestant Reformer, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer published a first version in 1549. It moved right away from mediaeval Catholicism but was only halfway reformed. It was soon followed in 1552 with a version that gave full expression to Cranmer’s Reformed evangelical doctrine, made politically possible under the keen young Protestant but short-lived King, Edward VI. It was banned under Queen Mary’s bloody counter-Reformation. It was restored under the moderate Protestant Queen Elizabeth I in 1559, but retreated a little from Cranmer’s clarity over the Lord’s Supper. And this pattern continued after the brief English Republic, when the Monarchy returned and as part of that BCP was restored in the standard form that we have today.
Apart from its biblical phrasings, the part I love best is that it ensures all our public praying and exhorting of one another is based solely on the worthiness of the Lord Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death for our sins. The Anglican monk Dom Gregory Dix, (with very Catholic leanings) said the BCP was “the only effective attempt ever made to give liturgical expression to the doctrine of justification by faith alone”. Long may its influence continue!