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How the Book of Common Prayer Came into Being

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer


By Sue Careless

HERE in a Q&A format is a quick glance at how the Book of Common Prayer emerged. We do not have space to track its evolution across the whole Anglican Communion but have concentrated in a cursory way on its development in England and Canada. We begin with a look at the liturgical texts used in the medieval church and how they were reworked by Thomas Cranmer, the chief architect of the Prayer Book.     


By the eighth century how many daily prayer services were there in cathedrals, monasteries and convents?

Eight services held every three hours.


What were they called? 

Midnight:             Matins                 Midday               Sext

3 am                        Lauds                  3 pm                     None

6 am                        Prime                  6 pm                     Vespers

9 am                        Tierce                  9 pm                     Compline


During the Late Middle Ages (1307-1485) which were the three main languages spoken in England?

The common folk spoke only English and most could not read. The Royal Court, however, spoke French. And church services were conducted in Latin (although the actual marriage vows, the sermon & the bidding prayers were in English).


In the Late Middle Ages how many service books did the priest use?



What were they and what services did they cover? 

The Breviary contained all the necessary texts in Latin for the eight Daily Offices: psalms, hymns, lessons and prayers.  

The Missal contained the priest’s words and actions for the Mass which were to be said daily by the priest, even if no one else was present.   

The Manual contained the Pastoral Offices so the priest could conduct baptisms, marriages, purification after childbirth, visitation of the sick and burials. (The popular Sarum Manual was printed in 1508.)

The Processional contained the Litany which was sung while walking down the long centre of the nave in cathedrals and large churches before the main Sunday mass. It included many intercessory prayers as well as invocations of the saints.  


What was the name of the Bishop’s liturgical book and what services did it contain? 

The Pontifical contained texts for confirmations, ordinations, consecrations of altars & churches, & coronations


What was the name of the directory for sacristans and others preparing various services?

The Pie or Pica was the directory which contained complicated calendars of saints & feast days and explained which should take precedence when. 


What two liturgical texts were available for the literate laity?

The Primer or Book of Hours was for royalty, aristocracy and educated laity for their individual private devotions. (The first English printed version was published in 1534.)

The Lay Folk’s Mass Book was in the vernacular and often in rhyme.


Who re-organized the priest’s four service books and the bishop’s service book into one volume, including in it prayers, canticles and responses for the laity?

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) compiled into one service book for everyone’s use – bishop, priest and layperson – every service complete. He also included rubrics or instructions explaining each service along with various calendars.

What language did he use?

English. Few of the laity could read but all could listen and understand the English text.


What were some of the changes that Cranmer made to the medieval Litany?

Instead of being said while walking in procession, the Litany was now said by the laity kneeling in pews. Prayers which invoked the Virgin Mary & the saints to pray for believers were removed from the Litany. Elsewhere, as in Collects on Feast Days, such prayers concerning saints were rewritten to encourage believers simply to follow their good example.


How many Daily Offices were included in the Book of Common Prayer?

Cranmer reduced the eight medieval offices down to just two: Morning and Evening Prayer. (Midday and Compline were reintroduced in the 20th century.)


What were some of the changes that Cranmer made to the Eucharist?

What had been a stone altar was now to be “The Lord’s Table” with a “fair white linen cloth” upon it during Communion. At the Lord’s Supper we make “a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” for Christ’s one sacrifice. In the medieval church the laity had received only the bread; Cranmer, like other reformers, insisted on Communion “in both kinds.” All communicants should receive both bread and wine. Cranmer also moved away from the doctrine of Transubstantiation to recognizing the Communion elements as spiritual food but that no physical change occurred in the bread and wine. He also instructed: “There shall be no celebration of the Lord’s Supper except there be at least one person to communicate with the priest.” 


What were the Words of Administration in the First BCP 1549 (which was more Catholic)?

“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”


What were the Words of Administration in the 1552 Second BCP (which was more Protestant)?

“Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith and thanksgiving. Drink this, in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” 


What were the Words of Administration in the 1559 Third or ’Elizabethan’ BCP which blended the Catholic and Protestant traditions (and which are retained to this day in our Canadian BCP)?

“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith and thanksgiving. The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” 


What did extreme Protestants (extreme Puritans) want removed before the 1662 BCP was published?

The instruction to wear a surplice. The making of the Sign of the Cross at Baptism. The blessing and use of a ring in the Marriage Service. The Benedicite: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord” in Morning Prayer (since it was from the Apocrypha) and Te Deum since it is not scriptural. Other canticles such as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittus were considered too particular, and thus not suitable for public worship. Any lessons from the Apocrypha. The use of the term “priest”. Kneeling for receiving Communion since to Puritans it suggested adoration of the host and they were accustomed to sitting at a table to receive Communion.     


Which of these Puritan objections were acknowledged in the 1662 BCP?

All their objections were virtually ignored in the 1662 Prayer Book although Lessons from the Apocrypha were made optional. The wedding ring was retained but not blessed.  Kneeling was retained since it suggested humility before God.


Which creed was added to the 1662 Prayer Book?

The Athanasian Creed.


What translations of the Bible were used in the 1662 BCP?

The King James Version of the Bible was adopted for the Epistles and Gospels. Instead of just portions of Psalms, the complete Psalter was now included but instead of the KJV, Coverdale’s powerful translation was used.


What were some of the prayers, services and teachings that were added in 1662?

“Prayers and Thanksgivings upon Several Occasions” and the “General Prayer of Thanksgiving.” The Service for Adult Baptism and Service at Sea. The Catechism was expanded to include teaching on the sacraments. Confirmation must now occur in church and include a renewal of the baptismal vows.


What services were added to the Prayer Book in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Induction and Institution. Consecration of church, chapel & graveyard. Accession Service (on the anniversary of when the reigning monarch came to the throne). In addition, the “Prayers and Thanksgivings” section was expanded.


What were some of the prayers, services and documents that were added in the 1918 (1922 authorized) First Canadian BCP?

The Solemn Declaration 1893. Summary of the Law (as an alternative to the Ten Commandments) in Holy Communion. Specific prayers for Canadian institutions.

Service for Children (called “Service for Young People” in 1962 BCP). Special Service for Missions. Harvest Service. Family Prayers.


What services and teachings were added to the Second Canadian BCP of 1962?

The Service at Mid-day and Compline. The Supplementary Instruction in the Catechism regarding the Church, the Bible and a Rule of Life 


What Psalm is missing from the 1962 Prayer Book and why was it removed?

Psalm 58 along with some verses from other imprecatory psalms (that is, harsh ones which invoke divine vengeance). They were considered unsuitable for public worship. 


What prayers and services were dropped from the 1962 Canadian BCP?

The “Flood prayer” was removed from Baptism. The Service for Missions was removed and its prayers scattered throughout the book. The Service at Sea lost many of its robust prayers and the Accession Service was dropped entirely.


What are some of the languages into which the Canadian BCP has been translated?

French, Inuktitut, Gwinch’in, Mohawk and Cree.    TAP



A Timeline

1526   First printed Sarum Missal (Salisbury). By 15th century the Sarum Missal had become the most popular mass text in most of England, Wales & Ireland. Although in Latin, it was the primary source for the First BCP.

1534   Miles Coverdale (1488-1568) produced a Psalter in English.

1535   Coverdale produced the first completed English Bible.  

1536   Wm. Tyndale (1494-1536) was executed for translating the Bible into English.

1539   Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) convinced Henry VIII (who reigned 1509-1547) to have an English translation of the Bible placed in every parish church.

1543   One chapter of the English Bible was to be read in church every Sunday and holy day.   

1544   Cranmer revised and translated the Litany into English.

1547    First Book of Homilies with Reformed theology published to be read in parishes since there were few well-educated preachers. Death of Henry VIII and accession of Edward VI.

1549    First BCP under Edward Sixth (reigned 1547-53, from age nine to 15.)  Catechism only covered Apostle’s Creed, Ten Commandments & Lord’s Prayer.

1550    The Ordinal, the book of services for ordinations, was published and bound with the 1549 BCP and included in all subsequent printings.

1552    Second BCP more Protestant. Gloria in Communion moved to post-Communion.

1553    Forty-two Articles, the doctrinal formulae which formed the basis of the later Thirty-Nine Articles, was published. Death of Edward VI and accession of Mary I

1553-1558    BCP was banned for five years by the Roman Catholic Mary I who reigned from 1553 to 1558. She imprisoned Cranmer and when he refused to convert back to Roman Catholicism, she ordered him burned at the stake in 1556.

1558    Mary Tudor died childless so her half-sister Elizabeth I ruled from 1558-1603.

1559    Third BCP “Elizabethan Prayer Book.” The BCP was restored with a few small changes and used for the next 86 years. Shakespeare (1564-1616) would be familiar with this Prayer Book and the Fourth BCP.

1571    Anglican reformers finalized the Articles of Religion (Thirty-Nine Articles) that give theological answers to arguments posed by both Roman Catholicism and Extreme Protestantism.

1603    Elizabeth I dies. James I (James VI of Scotland) ascends to the throne.

1604    Fourth Book of Common Prayer included the Thirty-Nine Articles.

1611    Authorized Version of the Bible published which, since it was authorized by King James 1, is also known as the King James Version.

1625    Death of James I. Accession of Charles I.

1642    Beginning of the English Civil War.

1645-1660    A Puritan-dominated Parliament banned the Prayer Book for 15 years. A worship manual called the Directory was established which only outlined services. It did, however, urge that prayer services should be held at sea for sailors. Puritans gained control of Parliament and in 1649 beheaded Charles I. The BCP was forbidden not only for congregational use but even for private devotions. If the BCP was found in your possession, you could be fined or imprisoned. Puritans opposed all “set” prayers and even forbade the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. The episcopacy (church government by bishops) was abolished. The Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was imprisoned in 1641 and executed in 1645.

1660    The monarchy was restored and Charles II became King of England. The Anglican Church was also restored along with the episcopacy and the Prayer Book.

1662    Fifth BCP This version has remained the official book of worship of the Church of    England to this day and is the basis of our current 1962 Canadian BCP.

1689    Act of Toleration guaranteed religious freedom for all Protestant dissenters.

1778, 1791, 1829    A series of laws passed giving religious freedom to Roman Catholics.

1918    BCP for use in the Church of England in the Dominion of Canada

1962    BCP for use in the Anglican Church of Canada



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