A Common heritage: The Anglican tradition of prayer

The Book of Common Prayer: a Biography, by Alan Jacobs (Princeton University Press, €22.00 / £17.95)

Rev. Robert Marshall

Lex orandi, lex credendi is a maxim which underlines the importance of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) in the traditions of the Anglican communion. This history of the BCP in the series Lives of Great Religious Books from Princeton University Press tells how the BCP has evolved over 450 years. 

Commencing in Cranmer’s study at Croydon, Alan Jacobs, an Anglican and professor of Humanities at Baylor University in Texas, tells us how the BCP was assembled, challenged, proscribed by both Queen Mary (1553) and parliamentary puritans (1641), and restored, not without some controversy, by both Queen Elizabeth I (1559) and Charles II (1662). 

Jacobs then recounts how the BCP became venerable and was used in the social worlds of Georgian and Victorian England, before the concluding with chapters entitled ‘Pressures of the Modern’ and ‘Many Books for Many Countries’ dealing with diversity, reform and the future in our computer age.

The influence of the BCP reached its zenith in mid-Victorian times as its purview enlarged with Empire but that disguised pressures emanating from the United States whose liturgies, following the consecration of Samuel Seabury as bishop of Connecticut, drew on the ‘wee books’ and liturgies of the unestablished Episcopal Church of Scotland. So began the process whereby the shape of the liturgy settled by Cranmer in 1552 would be transcended in the revision process that has swept Anglicanism over the last 50 years. 


In reviewing that process Jacobs looks back to the unsatisfactory experience of the BCP in the trenches of the World War I when its language and formularies did not speak to the troops or meet their needs and neither did the revisions of the 1920s that “proceeded on academic and party lines”. 

Also covered is the contribution of Dom Gregory Dix, the Anglican Benedictine, whose work led to ‘trumping language with structure’, notwithstanding the efforts of W.H. Auden, T.S. Elliot and C.S. Lewis in the early stages of revision. 

As the story unfolds, Jacobs notes how uniformity in one polity has given way to a proliferation of books across many ecclesiastical jurisdictions – contrasting the Irish revision of 1877 (published 1878) in an evangelical direction with the opposing momentum then emerging in Canada. 

Jacobs asserts that when writing Tract 3 in Tracts for the Times Tract  (September 1833) John Henry Newman was right to warn that a taste for criticism grows upon the mind, and of the danger that innovation would make the weak sceptical, while offending and paining ‘the better’. 

Perhaps that is why the BCP remains available for worship unaltered in England, but overshadowed by Common Worship, the compendium of Anglican services published in 2000, also authorised for use in England.

Wider history

It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the breadth of this readable, informative and intellectually stimulating book which balances the perspectives of traditionalists and reformers in different ages. 

Space limits the detail that can be covered; for instance, while the translation into Irish (1606) as part of the English colonial enterprise is noted,  there is no mention of the accession of Queen Mary (1553) overtaking introduction of the BCP 1552 in Ireland, nor of the Irish BCP of 2004. 

The index could be fuller and frustratingly there is no bibliography, never the less this book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the wider history of the BCP which has expressed the faith of Anglicans for over 450 years and, together with the translation of the Bible authorised by King James I and the works of Shakespeare, shaped the English language, and so the lives and imaginations of nearly everyone.