Book of Common Prayer marks 460th birthday
Originally published May 30, 2009
By Ron Cassie
It wasn't until 1549, two years after Henry VIII's death, when Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, is believed to have written the Book of Common Prayer, the first complete liturgy for the English Church.
The historical work contains the calendar of daily morning and evening prayers as well as epistles and "gospelles" in the old English" style. It includes the traditional Church of England instructions for the celebration of the "lordes Supper and Holy Communion through the yere, with proper Psalmes and Lessons, for diverse feastes and dayes."
"It is the basis of worship for Anglicans of all kinds throughout the world," said the Rev. Arthur Woolley of St. Michael the Archangel Anglican Church in Frederick, Maryland.
In celebratation of the 460th birthday of the Book of Common Prayer, St. Michael the Archangel will use the 1549 edition of this volume, written in the beautiful language of Renaissance England, at its service this weekend.
First introduced on Whitsunday, also called Pentecost, during the reign of King Edward VI, the Book of Common Prayer formally brought together the forms of service for daily and Sunday worship. Whitsunday falls on May 31 this year and the public is invited to attend the St. Michael the Archangel's service.
Five hundred years before Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s called for Catholic Mass to be said in the native language of its faithful, Woolley noted, Cranmer translated the Bible and holy Communion celebration so that the educated and uneducated alike could comprehend God's words.
The Archbishop explained why in the Common Book of Prayer's preface: "And moreover, whereas s. Paule (St. Paul) would have suche language spoken to the people in the churche, as they mighte understande and have profite by hearyng the same; the service in this Churche of England (these many yeares) hath been read in Latin to the people, whiche they understoode not; so that they have heard with theyr eares onely; and their hartes, spirite, and minde, have not been edified thereby."
The Book of Common Prayer became one of the most influential works ever written in English, preceeding the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare by six decades.
"It has been so widely used, and for so long, that it has given the English language many of its common sayings and phrases, such as 'the apple of my eye,' 'out of the mouth of babes,' and 'little lower than the angels,'" said Judy Warner, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Anglican Church.
Much of the prayer book's marriage service, she added, is familiar. For example, "forsaking all others ... so long as you both shall live" ... "to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health ... till death us do part"... "with this ring I thee wed."
"Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" is thought by some to be in the Bible, Warner said, "but although the idea is biblical, the words come from the burial service of the Book of Common Prayer."
These phrases, and other parts of the Book of Common Prayer, have been used for centuries and have been adopted by other Christian denominations.
"The English is even older than Elizabethean English, the language, especially the spelling, had not settled down as much," as when even Shakespeare began writing, Woolley said. "We'll be using a version with updated spelling for the service, otherwise I don't think we wouldn't be able to get through it."
However, he did point out that one young couple in the congregation has decided they want to use the original Common Book of Prayers vows for their wedding ceremony this summer.
Woolly read: "With his ring I thee wed; this gold and silver I thee give, with my body I thee worship and with all my worldly goods I thee endow. In the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Ghost. Amen."
"The spelling is often archaic," Woolley said, "but the writing is remarkable."