The Book of Common Prayer

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The Book of Common Prayer

Excerpt from The Book of Common Prayer

    Reprinted in The Book of Common Prayer 1559: The Elizabethan Prayer Book

    Published by the University Press of Virginia, 1976

During the rule of Henry VIII (1491–1547; reigned 1509–47), some religious leaders in England began to call for reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, the country's official religion. They objected to Catholic policies that they considered corrupt, such as the sale of indulgences, which allowed people to pay for their sins and avoid punishment after death. They also felt that the church had strayed too far from the original teachings of Christ. Inspired in large part by the Protestant Reformation (a sixteenth-century religious movement that aimed to reform the Roman Catholic Church and resulted in the establishment of Protestant churches) taking place in Europe, these Protestant reformers wished to transform the English church by eliminating rituals and beliefs that had no basis in the Bible. They objected, for example, to prayers addressing saints who were not mentioned in the Bible. (Saints are deceased people who, due to their exceptionally good behavior during life, have received the official blessing of the church and are believed to be capable of interceding with God to protect people on earth.) They also objected to parts of the Catholic Mass, particularly the communion rite. During this rite a priest performs transubstantiation, or the miraculous change that occurs when a priest blesses the Eucharist (bread and wine) and it changes into the body and blood of Christ, while maintaining the

"The service in this Church of England these many years hath been read in Latin to the people, which they understood not, so that they have heard with their ears only, and their hearts, spirit, and mind have not been edified thereby."

appearance of bread and wine. Protestant reformers disagreed among themselves on this issue; some accepted it, but others believed that the bread and wine were only symbolic, and that the mass should be a ritual of commemoration only.

Despite growing interest in these issues, the Reformation movement did not gain significant political support in England until the 1530s, when Henry VIII severed ties between the English church and the pope, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Henry had no real interest in the Protestant cause and had even styled himself a loyal Catholic. But when the pope refused to grant Henry a divorce so that the king could take another wife who might be able to bear him a son, Henry was desperate to find a solution to his dilemma. In 1533 he named Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556) Archbishop of Canterbury, making Cranmer the highest religious authority in England. Cranmer, who had defied the Catholic rule prohibiting priests from marrying, believed that there was a legal basis for Henry to obtain a divorce, and declared Henry's first marriage invalid. This directly contradicted the pope's decision, and later that year the pope excommunicated the king, depriving him of the right to worship as a Catholic.

The Protestant Reformation in England had begun. To ensure his subjects' loyalty, Henry required them to swear an oath of allegiance recognizing him as the supreme authority of the church in England. Many did so, but those who remained loyal to the pope risked fines, imprisonment, or even death. Henry's actions caused deep religious divisions that led to years of political conflict and violence before England became a wholly Protestant country.

Meanwhile, Henry's break with the pope allowed Cranmer to press for changes that would further distance the English church from Catholic influences. He began working on a book that would prescribe the liturgy, or formal worship service, for the English church. In 1544 he published an early form of this book, the Exhortation and Litany, the first official litany, or the form of prayer used in church services, in the English language. This work not only translated the Latin prayers used in Catholic worship into English but also communicated some of the Protestant desire to rid the English liturgy of corruption. Many prayers to Catholic saints, for example, were eliminated in this book.

When Henry VIII's heir, Edward VI (1537–1553), became king after Henry's death in 1547, Protestant leaders were able to gain more power. Only nine years old when he took the throne, Edward relied on advisors to help him govern, and these men were strong supporters of Protestant reforms. One of the first changes came in 1548, when Cranmer wrote a work confirming Parliament's ruling that the rite of communion should include both bread and wine, and it should be administered in the English language rather than in Latin. At first Cranmer supported the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation and denounced those who rejected it. Later, though, he changed his mind and rejected it.

Despite government actions that strengthened the authority of the new Protestant religion, significant numbers of English people objected to religious reforms and wished to continue worshipping according to familiar Catholic traditions. Concerned that religious conflicts could escalate into violence or even rebellion, Parliament in 1549 passed the Act for Uniformity of Service and Administration of Sacraments throughout the Realm, which called for one official worship service for the church in England. Cranmer, with the assistance of other bishops, was in charge of drawing up this new liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549. This book specified the prayers for daily worship, Sundays and holy days, and the liturgy for the sacraments (sacred rites) of communion, baptism, confirmation, and marriage. In his introduction Cranmer emphasized the need to rid the liturgy of the numerous "uncertain stories, legends, responds, verses, vain repetitions, commemorations, and synodals [church assemblies]" that had made their way into worship services, and that, in his view, distracted the faithful from proper attention to the Bible.

Despite Cranmer's aim to create a distinctly Protestant liturgy, the first edition of The Book of Common Prayer was not considered sufficiently Protestant to please the most influential reformers. In 1552 a new edition was published that contained major changes. Among the most important was the new wording for the communion rite. The earlier edition had specified the words "the body of our Lorde Jesus Christe" and "the blood of our Lorde Jesus Christe" to describe the communion host and wine, but the revised edition eliminated these phrases. The new prayer book referred to communion as only a symbolic remembrance of Christ's sacrifice. The book also eliminated other remaining Catholic influences, including vestments (ceremonial clothing) worn by priests during worship and administration of the sacraments.

The Book of Common Prayer was suppressed when Mary I (1516–1558) took the throne in 1553. Mary, Henry VIII's daughter by his first wife, had refused to accept the new Protestant religion and immediately restored Catholicism as England's official religion. She outlawed Protestantism and persecuted its supporters, burning at the stake some three hundred Protestants for heresy, or having religious opinions that conflict with the church's doctrines. Nevertheless, The Book of Common Prayer survived.

When Elizabeth I (1533–1603) became queen after her half-sister, Mary's, death in 1558, she reinstated the Protestant religion and took firm steps to unify the country in matters of religion. The Book of Common Prayer was republished in 1559, in an edition only slightly changed from the book of 1552. This third edition attempted to satisfy those who missed some of the traditional elements of worship that had been eliminated in the earlier prayer book. The 1559 book, for example, allowed some traditional vestments to be used once again. Though this third edition did not please everyone, it was generally accepted and became the foundation of Protestant worship in England. The Act of Uniformity of 1559 established the The Book of Common Prayer as the legal liturgy of the Church of England.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The Book of Common Prayer:

  • Protestant reformers in the sixteenth century objected to Catholic teachings and rituals that were not specifically authorized in the Bible, calling these corrupt.
  • In many ways The Book of Common Prayer was a compromise. Though it encompassed many Protestant reforms, it also preserved some elements of Catholic ritual.
  • The liturgy established by the 1559 edition of The Book of Common Prayer remained standard in the Church of England for nearly one hundred years.

The Book of Common Prayer

The Preface

There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted, as (among other things) it may plainly appear by the common prayers in the Church, commonly called divine service. The first original and ground whereof, if a man would search out by the ancient fathers, he shall find that the same was not ordained but of a good purpose and for a great advancement of godliness. For they so ordered the matter that all the whole Bible, or the greatest part thereof, should be read over once in the year, intending thereby that the clergy, and specially such as were ministers of the congregation, should, by often reading and meditation of God's Word, be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort other by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries [opponents] to the truth. And further, that the people by daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the Church should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion. But these many years past this godly and decent order of the ancient fathers hath been so altered, broken, and neglected by planting in uncertain stories, legends, responds, verses, vain repetitions, commemorations, and synodals that commonly when any book of the Bible was begun, before three or four chapters were read out, all the rest are unread. And in this sort the book of Isaiah was begun in Advent and the book of Genesis in Septuagesima but they were only begun and never read through. After a like sort were other books of Holy Scripture used. And moreover, whereas Saint Paul would have such language spoken to the people in the Church as they might understand and have profit by hearing the same, the service in this Church of England these many years hath been read in Latin to the people, which they understood not, so that they have heard with their ears only, and their hearts, spirit, and mind have not been edified [improved], thereby. And furthermore, notwithstanding that the ancient fathers have divided the Psalms into seven portions whereof everyone was called a nocturn, now of late time a few of them have been daily said and oft repeated, and the rest utterly omitted. Moreover, the number and hardness of the rules called the pie and the manifold changings of the service was the cause that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter that many times there was more business to find out what should be read than to read it when it was found out.

These inconveniences therefore considered, here is set forth such an order whereby the same shall be redressed. And for a readiness in this matter, here is drawn out a calendar for that purpose, which is plain and easy to be understanden, wherein, so much as may be, the reading of Holy Scriptures is so set for that all things shall be done in order without breaking one piece thereof from another. For this cause be cut off anthems, responds, invitatories [three types of prayers], and such like things as did break the continual course of reading of the Scripture. Yet because there is no remedy but that of necessity there must be some rules, therefore certain rules are here set forth, which, as they be few in numbers so they be plain and easy to be understanden. So that here you have at order for prayer, as touching the reading of Holy Scripture much agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old fathers, and a great deal more profitable and commodious than that which of late was used….

Though it be appointed in the afore written Preface that all things shall be read and sung in the church in the English tongue, to the end that the congregation may be thereby edified yet it is not meant but when men say Morning and Evening Prayer privately, they may say the same in any language that they themselves do understand….

Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained

Of such ceremonies as be used in the Church and have had their beginning by the institution of man, some at the first were of godly intent and purpose devised and yet at length turned to vanity and superstition, some entered into Church by undiscreet [indiscreet; lacking in judgment] devotion and such a zeal as was without knowledge. And forbecause they were winked at in the beginning, they grew daily to more and more abuses, which not only for their unprofitableness but also because they have much blinded the people and obscured the glory of God are worthy to be cut away and clean rejected. Other there be which although they have been devised by man, yet it is thought good to reserve them still, as well for a decent order in the Church, for the which they were first devised, as because they pertain to edification, whereunto all things done in the Church, as the Apostle teacheth, ought to be referred. And although the keeping or omitting of a ceremony in itself considered is but a small thing, yet the willful and contemptuous transgression and breaking of a common order and discipline is no small offense before God.

Let all things be done among you, saith Saint Paul, in a seemly and due order. The appointment of the which order pertaineth not to private men, therefore no man ought to take in hand nor presume to appoint or alter any public or common order in Christ's Church, except he be lawfully called and authorized thereunto.

And whereas in this our time the minds of men are so diverse that some think it a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs, and again on the other side, some be so newfangled that they would innovate all thing, and so do despise the old, that nothing can like then but that is new, it was thought expedient not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God and profit them both. And yet lest any man should be offended whom good reason might satisfy, here be certain causes rendered why some of the accustomed ceremonies be put away and some retained and kept still.

Some are put away because the great excess and multitude of them hath so increased in these latter days that the burden of them was intolerable….

And besides this, Christ's gospel is not a ceremonial law, as much of Moses' law was, but it is a religion to serve God, not in bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of spirit, being content only with those ceremonies which do serve to a decent order and godly discipline, and such as be apt to stir up the dull mind of man to the remembrance of his duty to God by some notable and special signification whereby he might be edified.

Furthermore, the most weighty cause of the abolishment of certain ceremonies was that they were so far abused, partly by the superstitious blindness of the rude and unlearned and partly by the unsatiable [insatiable] avarice [greed] of such as sought more their own lucre than the glory of god, that the abuses could not well be taken away, the thing remaining still. But now, as concerning those persons which peradventure [perhaps] will be offended for that some of the old ceremonies are retained still, if they consider that without some ceremonies it is not possible to keep any order or quiet discipline in the Church, they shall easily perceive just cause to reform their judgments. And if they think much that any of the old do remain and would rather have all devised anew, then such men granting some ceremonies convenient to be had, surely where the old may be well used there they cannot reasonably reprove the old only for their age without bewraying [betraying] of their own folly. For in such a case they ought rather to have reverence unto them for their antiquity, if they will declare themselves to be more studious of unity and concord [harmony] than of innovations and newfangleness, which, as much as may be with the true setting forth of Christ's religion, is always to be eschewed ….

What happened next …

Though The Book of Common Prayer became the foundation of Protestant practice in England, it was not without significant controversy. Puritan leaders considered it too Catholic, and after the queen's death in 1603 began to call for its replacement. (Puritans were a group of Protestants who followed strict religious standards.) When James I (1566–1625) was crowned in 1603, the Puritans presented him with a petition requesting several changes in religious practice. James's government, however, did not take any action except to authorize a new translation of the Bible into English.

Dissent escalated under the reign of James's successor, Charles I (1600–1649), who supported changes that moved the Church of England closer to Catholic practices. These policies further alienated the Puritans and contributed to the growing resentment against the king that led to civil war in 1642. With the war going in their favor, the Puritans succeeded in pressuring Parliament to ban The Book of Common Prayer in 1645. It was replaced with the Directory of Public Worship, which emphasized instructions and rules more than actual prayer. After winning control of the government in 1649, the Puritans abolished the episcopal features of the Church of England, which specified that appointed bishops should govern the church, and structured the English church according to Presbyterian rules, which specified that elected laypersons (non-clergy) called elders should make most church decisions.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II (1630–1685) immediately took steps to reverse these reforms and reunite dissenting factions within an Episcopalian Church of England. In 1661 the Savoy Conference met to work on a new edition of The Book of Common Prayer. Presbyterian leaders at the conference pressed for official acceptance of an alternate prayer book, but did not succeed. As a result they split from the Church of England shortly afterward. The 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer remained the church's standard service book until 1980, when the Alternative Service Book replaced it. In 2000 this new book was replaced by Common Worship.

Did you know …

  • When Mary I became queen and restored Catholicism in England, Cranmer was burned at the stake for heresy.
  • The Act of Uniformity of 1559, which established The Book of Common Prayer as the country's official liturgy, required every person to go to church on Sunday or be fined.
  • The Act of Uniformity was not strictly enforced. Many people did what was necessary in public to conform to the law, but they also maintained some traditional beliefs and practices in private.
  • In addition to specifying a new liturgy, Protestant reformers also changed the way in which church interiors were decorated and furnished. They replaced the crucifix with the royal coat-of arms, replaced the altar with a simple communion table, and removed statues and stained glass windows.

Consider the following …

  • Before publication of The Book of Common Prayer, worship had been conducted in Latin. Why do you think religious reformers thought it was important to create a liturgy in the English language?
  • In the mid-1500s about 20 percent of men and 5 percent of women in England could read. By 1600 literacy had increased to about 30 percent for men and 10 percent for women. What role do you think this increase in literacy played in the government's decision to establish The Book of Common Prayer as the country's official liturgy?

For More Information


Booty, John, ed. The Book of Common Prayer. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Helfing, Charles and Cynthia Shattuck, eds. The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey. Oxford, England and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Singman, Jeffrey L. Daily Life in Elizabethan England. Westport, CT and London, England: Greenwood Press, 1995.


Benton, J. H. "The Book of Common Prayer: Its Origin and Growth." Anglican Resource Collection. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Garrett, David. "Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer." Prayer Book Society of Canada. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Ordained: Authorized.

Exhort: Urge by strong argument.

Confute: Prove wrong.

Synodals: Assemblies of bishops.

Septuagesima: The third-from-last Sunday in Lent.

Nocturn: Evening prayer.

Commodious: Suitable.

Transgression: Violation of a law.

Lucre: Money; profits.

Reprove: Find fault with.

Eschewed: Avoided.

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The Book of Common Prayer

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