THE SOUL’S EYE
The Book of Common Prayer
“Only when the human spirit does not cut itself off from the divine spirit, only then has man’s word enough power to keep hold of things.”
—Max Picard, The Flight from God, p. 121.
Give me, O Lord, the assistance of Thy Spirit and comfort of Thy grace, truly to know Thee, entirely to love Thee, and assuredly to trust in Thee. And that as I do acknowledge to have received the government of this Church and kingdom of Thy hand, and to hold the same of Thee, so grant me grace, O Lord, that in the end I may render up and present the same again unto Thee a peaceable, quiet, and well-ordered state and kingdom, as also a perfect reformed Church, to the furtherance of Thy glory
—From a Prayer of Queen Elizabeth I, 1574
Queen Elizabeth I’s little island kingdom (she reigned 1558 – 1603) had been sorely troubled, like the waves of the sea, especially after the efforts of her half-sister, “Bloody Mary” (reigned 1553 – 1558) to restore the Roman faith. In what seemed like a judgment of God, the three males born to their father’s Spanish Queen, Catherine of Aragon, had died, leaving only the daughter, Mary. King Henry’s surviving son, Henry Fitzroy, was illegitimate. In this ironical dilemma the King, who was a theologian, had conned the Scriptures. Why had he not been blessed with offspring ? Perhaps God had with-held the vital heir from him, notwithstanding the dispensation from the Pope which permitted that marriage, because he had transgressed the prohibition in Leviticus 20 : 21 ? “If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity : he hath covered his brother’s nakedness ; they shall be childless”.
Like his grandfather, King Edward IV, whom he resembled, King Henry changed the destiny of his Kingdom in his desire for a woman. Driven by his longing for the dark, enigmatic Anne Boleyn, sister of a former mistress, and by the urgent need for a male heir, the King sought another Papal dispensation, this time to get rid of his wife by means of an annulment, with consequences that have become one of the best-known, tales in history. The abolition of serious history from school curricula has not erased bluff King Hal who figures in the mass media. The dispensation would have given little trouble, had Rome not been besieged at that very time by the army of the Emperor Charles V, Queen Catherine’s nephew, who had no intention of letting Pope Clement VII reduce his aunt to an unmarried woman and render her child a bastard. The King’s subsequent actions — his breaking from Rome, his marriage to an already pregnant Anne Boleyn, and the shocking dissolution of the monasteries which followed — filled his coffers and rid him of significant opposition, at a cost which he could not have foreseen and did not live to know.
He had to establish his dynasty, he needed money for his new alliances, but a Catholic he remained, bequeathing to his royal successors his title, “Defender of the Faith”, which Pope Leo X had bestowed on him in 1521 for his work against Luther, “Declaration of the Seven Sacraments”. The King may have had little interest in Church reform as such, notwithstanding this venture into theology, but by the time of his death in 1547 movements for revision of the liturgy (the forms of worship in the Church), were well under way, with momentous consequences for the shape of English life and worship. The violent reformation of the Church that the King had rammed through hastened changes which had been coming for some time. Over the centuries church worship had been overlaid with many a curious and variant custom ; for instance, numerous festivals were taking up so much time during the Church year, that they disordered the proper saying of the Psalms (the whole Psalter was meant to be recited each week). For many people the celebrations in Latin were unintelligible.
The liturgy, the word, conveys doctrine. Mindful of this, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the principal compiler of the new Prayer Book, consulted many sources in his mission to write a liturgy in the vernacular, in a language “understanded of the people”. The most popular, the widely used Sarum (Salisbury) rite, in Latin, had been developed in the thirteenth century from very ancient versions. The most significant of these, the Roman Sacramentary, survives in three parts. The earliest rendering, a mutilated manuscript from the seventh century, the “Leonine Sacramentary”, apparently a compendium of private prayers, had been assembled before the reforms of Pope Gregory the Great (reigned 590 – 604). Next came the “Gelasian Sacramentary”, liturgical prayers used in Gaul (France) at the beginning of the eighth century ; and finally the “Gregorian Sacramentary”. This last, despatched by Pope Hadrian (772 – 795) to the Emperor Charlemagne at the end of the eighth century, had eventually gathered an appendix added for Frankish use by the famous scholar from York, Alcuin (735 – 804), and superseded the Gelasian Sacramentary. Mediaeval versions had been founded upon these two, with some material from the Leonine Sacramentary and other prayers. Alcuin had revised a well-known collection of readings, the Lectionary (or Comes) and as a result of his work and other modifications the continuous reading of Scripture was dropped and specific lessons provided for Sundays, Festivals, particular Vigils, and Fasts.
The Sarum Breviary (from the Latin breviarium, abridgement = a book of the entire canonical office) contained the Hours (prayers recited at fixed times during the day, intended for monastic use), the Psalms distributed through the week, antiphons, versicles, and responses, and Little Chapters (very short lessons). Cranmer made tactful use of this Sarum Breviary, of the old Latin Missal, and of the Manual. A new, unofficial breviary, drawn up by Cardinal Quignonez in 1535, intended for the Clergy in saying the offices, retained the canonical Hours, omitted the antiphons, versicles, responses, and Little Chapters , and redistributed the Psalms. The Scripture lessons were long so that the Priest could read through in one year almost the whole of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament, with the Epistles of St. Paul twice over. Parts of the prefaces at the beginning of the English Prayer‑Book are free translations from the Cardinal’s breviary. A calendar of Bible readings presented the “thread and order of holy Scripture” in an annual sequence. To make Mattins and Evensong, Cranmer abbreviated the offices from the Cardinal’s book, and he drew as well upon work by Hermann, a reforming Archbishop of Cologne, but he introduced very little new material, depending mostly on the ancient rites and ritual and on Scripture. A revised edition of the Sarum Breviary with very slight changes had appeared in 1542, and in the next year the order came down that a chapter of the English Bible (which had been set up in Churches since 1536) was to be read publicly each Sunday and Holy Day. A revised English Litany (a series of petitions, with responses) in 1544, to be used “in time of processions”, which retained no controversial invocations of saints, also came in useful. All these were used in shaping The Book of Common Prayer.
Protestant noblemen guided and directed the boy King Edward VI, who came to the throne on 28 January 1547. The Royal Injunctions issued in the very first year of his reign ordered, among other things, that the Epistle and Gospel at High Mass should be read in English ; Compline was sung in the Royal Chapel in English ; and the First Book of the Homilies (sermons) was published. In the following year Parliament effectively abolished a long-standing mediaeval practice by passing an act for the receiving of Holy Communion in both kinds (bread and wine). The closing benediction or blessing was to be in English.
The “Order of the Communion”, used for little more than a year, was superseded by the first complete English service, in the first Prayer‑Book of Edward VI, Cranmer’s masterpiece. The Records of Convocation (the ecclesiastical assembly) which would have told the tale of its making perished in the Great Fire of London in 1666, however, and little is known for certain about the composition. It seems that a Committee sat to prepare the new book and that it was submitted to Convocation for approval. Parliament in the First Act of Uniformity mentions the Archbishop of Canterbury and other learned men appointed by the king to “draw and make one convenient and meet [fitting] order, rite, and fashion of common and open prayer and administration of the sacraments, to be had and used in his Majesty’s realm of England and Wales”. This Act, passed by both houses on 21 January 1549, ordered the book to come into general compulsory use not later than Whitsunday (June 9).
The ancient services of the Church condensed, simplified, purified, and published in English, which Cranmer declared, quite truly, to be the same which the Church of England had used for 1500 years, caused a rebellion in the West Country. Five thousand people were killed in the quelling of the unrest and the clamour for the abolition of this rite which was “but like a Christmas game”.
In the Preface, Cranmer had written : “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely 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”.
Cranmer aimed to make the services understandable and to clarify doctrine. But he did not go far enough for such “precisionist” reformers as Bishop Hooper, an outspoken critic who was destined, poor man, to be burned alive in the reign of Queen Mary. Hooper thought the book “very defective and of doubtful construction, and, in some respects indeed manifestly impious.” Distinguished immigrants like Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr, appointed Divinity Professors at Cambridge and Oxford respectively, also had much to say, and in consequence of such “Lutheran” influences a revised book issued forth in 1552. The Act of Uniformity which authorised it made an almost apologetic defence of the new version, and instituted changes, especially to the Communion Service, to please the Protestant party. At the very last minute an Order in Council of 27 September 1552 stopped the printing to obliterate the “Black Rubric” which required kneeling at the Holy Communion, but Cranmer refused to yield to “glorious and unquiet spirits which can like nothing but that is after their own fancy, and cease not to make trouble and disquietness when things be most quiet and in good order”. And the offending rubric (direction) was pasted right back in. King Edward died in July of 1553, just six months later, and the world turned again when his half-sister, Mary Tudor, repealed the Act of Uniformity, restored the Latin services, and brought back Cardinal Pole and other Prelates of the old persuasion.
The accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558, ushered in a new Act of Uniformity and a revision of the second Prayer‑Book of Edward VI. The new Queen wanted one realm. An instance of the skill and subtlety with which tendentious questions were settled appears in the words of administration of the Communion. The 1549 book directs the priest to say : “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” And the Minister delivering the Sacrament of the blood, and giving every one to drink once and no more, shall say, The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” The 1552 Book, however, prescribed this : “Then shall the minister first receive the Communion in both kinds himself, and next deliver it to other ministers, if any be there present (that they may help the chief minister,) and after to the people in their hands kneeling. And when he delivereth the bread, he shall say : Take and eat this, in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving. And the Minister that delivereth the cup, shall say, Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.” The 1559 Book combined them. That got round the controversy over the Eucharist, as being either the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, or a “memorial”.
Several Saints’ days and festivals were added to the calendar in 1561 and minor changes made in 1604 on the accession of King James I. The most important alteration lengthened the Catechism (summary and exposition of doctrine) by adding sections on the Sacraments. The Biblical texts came from the Great Bible of 1539. The tendentious “Black Rubric” was dropped, prayers against the Pope taken out of the Litany, and a note added to the rubric for Morning Prayer prescribing the wearing of vestments, a return to catholic worship which horrified the “precisionists”. Percy Dearmer, Prayer Book historian, has written : “The familiar petty objections were raised to the cross in Baptism, to the square cap, and the surplice (‘ a kind of garment,’ said they, ‘which the priests of Isis used to wear’) ; the wedding ring, the word ‘priest,’ bowing at the name of Jesus ; the Puritans also disliked the Thirty‑nine Articles as not sanctioning Calvinism ; they desired that Baptism should never be ministered by women . . . that ‘the longsomeness of service’ should be ‘abridged’ and ‘Church songs and music moderated,’ that the Lord’s Day should not be ‘profaned’ (by the playing of games), that an uniformity of doctrine should be prescribed”. When, in the following century, these malcontents achieved power, they banned the Book of Common Prayer, in the Long Parliament of 1645.
The revisions of 1604 and other alterations carried out in the time of King Charles II (reigned 1660 – 1685) made the Book more “Catholic”. The upheavals of the seventeenth century, with Civil War, the execution of the King, and the abolition of the Prayer Book — even its private use became a penal offence — had ended with its restoration in 1660 along with King, Parliament, and Church. Following a meeting of twelve Bishops at the Savoy Conference Parliament passed a Bill of Uniformity (9 July 1661), and in November Convocation appointed a Committee of Bishops to revise the Prayer Book, a fifth revision which was annexed to the Bill of Uniformity, received royal assent (19 May 1662), and remains in use.
Robert Sanderson, Bishop of London, said in the Preface : “It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her public Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it . . . . Yet so, as that the main Body and Essentials of it (as well in the chiefest materials, as in the frame and order thereof) have still continued the same unto this day, and do yet stand firm and unshaken, notwithstanding all the vain attempts and impetuous assaults made against it, by such men as are given to change, and have always discovered a greater regard to their own private fancies and interests, than to that duty they owe to the public . . . . And having thus endeavoured to discharge our duties in this weighty affair, as in the sight of God, and to approve our sincerity therein (so far as lay in us) to the consciences of all men ; although we know it impossible (in such variety of apprehensions, burnouts and interests, as are in the world) to please all ; nor can expect that men of factious, peevish, and perverse spirits should be satisfied with any thing that can be done in this kind by any other than themselves : Yet we have good hope, that what is here presented, and hath been by the Convocations of both Provinces with great diligence examined and approved, will be also well accepted and approved by all sober, peaceable, and truly conscientious Sons of the Church of England.”
The revised book provides better directions for the officiant, the alteration of obsolete phrases, the use of the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible, especially for the Epistles and Gospels, some new prayers for use at sea and thanksgiving, an order of service for Adult Baptism, and a form for publishing the Banns of Marriage. Some of the additional prayers are among the most beautiful : the Prayer for All Conditions of Men (written by Dr. Peter Gunning, afterwards Bishop of Ely), the General Thanksgiving (composed by Edward Reynolds, Bishop of Norwich), and the Thanksgiving for Public Peace.
Dr. Gunning’s prayer, originally intended to replace the Litany, in an effort to appease the Puritans, ended by being shortened into an alternative to it : “A Collect or Prayer for all Conditions of Men, to be used at such times when the Litany is not appointed to be said. GOD, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind, we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men : that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially, we pray for the good estate of the Catholic Church ; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those, who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or
estate ; [especially those for whom our prayers are desired ;] that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them, according to their several necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we beg for Jesus Christ his sake. Amen.”
The Collect, a concise prayer peculiar to the Churches of the west, means the gathering of the people, the garnering up of their thoughts and petitions into a single request. It usually falls into five parts : the address or invocation, the acknowledgement, a petition, an aspiration, and a pleading. Cranmer’s Christmas Collect, which he wrote himself, provides a typical illustration :
- Almighty God
- Which has given us thy only begotten son to take our nature upon him, and this day to be born of a pure Virgin ;
- Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace,
- May daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit
- Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost now and ever.
In this prayer, Cranmer encapsulated the whole faith : the Incarnation, the coming to the world of the Christ ; the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the inward renewal through that Spirit.
The first Collect for Christmas, a translation from the sixth century Gregorian Sacramentary, recalls both redemption and judgment : the season of Advent that precedes it anticipates the coming of Christ as a judge as well as a rescuer. “God, which makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only son Jesus Christ ; grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him, when he shall come to be our judge, who liveth and reigneth, &c.”
Revisers dislike the theme of sin in such prayers as the General Confession to be said at Morning and Evening Prayer : “Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done ; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done ; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent ; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”
Or this General Confession before Communion, all humbly kneeling : “Almighty God, father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men, we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy divine majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us, we do earnestly repent and be heartily sorry for these our misdoings, the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burthen of them is intolerable : have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful father, for thy son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter, serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy name : Through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This Confession had been composed in 1548, partly from the Latin prayer and partly from Hermann’s Consultation, the doctrinal and liturgical work by the Archbishop of Cologne. Cranmer wisely termed such remembrances “intolerable”, that is, “not to be borne”, and his prayer has become especially worth saying and reflecting upon in an age of “toleration”, a word certainly not “understanded of the people”.
The prayer for the King had appeared first in a book issued by the King’s printer at the end of Henry the Eighth’s reign, and then in a reformed Primer of 1553, and not in the Prayer Book itself. “O Lord Jesus Christ, most high, most mighty, king of kings, lord of lords, the only ruler of princes, the very son of God, on whose right hand sitting, dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth : with most lowly hearts we beseech thee, vouchsafe with favourable regard to behold our most gracious sovereign lord king Henry the Eighth, and so replenish him with the grace of thy holy spirit, that he alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way. Keep him far off from ignorance, but through thy gift, let prudence and knowledge alway abound in his royal heart. So instruct him, O Lord Jesu, reigning upon us in earth, that his human majesty alway obey thy divine majesty in fear and dread. Endue him plentifully with heavenly gifts. Grant him in health and wealth long to live. Heap glory and honour upon him. Glad him with the joy of thy countenance. So strengthen him, that he may vanquish and overcome all his and our foes, and be dread and feared of all the enemies of his realm. Amen.” An altered, shortened version had appeared in the 1559 Book at the end of the Litany.
The beautifully written and cleverly edited book remained faithful to the ancient practice of the Church and to Scripture. Drawn from the Bible, the traditional Latin services of the English Church, and from Greek, Gallican, Lutheran and Swiss sources, The Book of Common Prayer was properly “catholic” in its outlook. Its worship comprehended different schools of thought but retained the fundamentals of the faith, allowing for some latitude of theological opinion. When the Elizabethan settlement decided on the 1552 revision, the dropping of the Black Rubric, of petitions against the Pope (“from the tyranny of the Bysshop of Rome and al hys detestable enormities”), and the addition of an Ornaments Rubric, attempted to bring as many as possible into a common worship. A latter-day historian, Walter Howard Frere, in words that would come to seem prophetic, pointed out in his history of the Prayer Book that the later Conferences at Hampton Court (1604) and at the Savoy (1661) aimed at comprehensiveness : “Compromise is an attractive way of dealing with difficult situations ; but very rapidly compromise becomes compromising. The Church had to show that it would allow liberty of opinion and diversity of view and use, so far as such liberty and diversity did not prove dangerous ; but also to show that it could draw a definite line of limitation, and refuse such compromises as would be derogatory either to the Catholic faith or to liturgical order and decency”.
In his last hour, just before he was burned for heresy, Cranmer had reasserted his convictions in an astonishing witness to his faith, coming as it did after a long, wretched process of recantations, made when he was worn down by his adversaries. On the Four Hundredth Anniversary of Cranmer’s death the Dean of Lincoln, preaching in the very Church from which the Archbishop had hurried to his martyrdom, described how the prayer book had spoken throughout his life. He could still hear the voice of his Headmaster reciting the fortifying words : “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord ; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night”. Later, Cranmer was at the Confirmation, speaking through the Bishop : “Defend, O Lord, this thy child with thy heavenly grace, that he may continue thine for ever” ; and at Communion came the petition to the Lord of mercy “that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us”. Cranmer’s familiar and accessible prose, his sonorous phrases, his distinct and simple style, proved powerful to calm, hearten, and console. In making possible a properly comprehensive Church this rather timid chaplain of the Boleyn family, who was to be dragged into controversy and martyrdom, achieved serenity in the book, which speaks for the English church and which holds to a middle course, nourished by the verities of all the ages, largely undistracted by the bitter struggles of the hour, following “the godly and decent order of the ancient Fathers” which was neither the Papal mediaeval church, nor the Reformers like Luther or Calvin. Cranmer achieved his purpose not just through his rhetoric, the flowing periods that characterise the age, but through intelligent planning and singleness of purpose. Hilaire Belloc exaggerated when he said that he “constructs with a success only parallelled by the sonnets of Shakespeare”, but it is true that Cranmer produced a superbly designed system of prayer for all occasions and seasons. Based on the classic and traditional inheritance, on the most popular English Bible translation, and on some original devotions, Common Prayer was uncluttered, avoiding both complex mediaeval rites and the lengthy devotions favoured by the Puritans. The long tedium of former liturgies was broken up, the repetition pointed and pertinent, and the language itself direct : “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep . . . . We have left undone those things which we ought to have done ; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. Cranmer considered that in worship “all the whole that is done should be the act of the people, and pertain to the people, as well as to the priest”. This he did without detracting from the majesty of God, who was to be approached in humility and awe. Long centuries later the quest for “relevance” would lead to the ruthless unravelling of his work in the “updating” of the liturgy to match the mundane tones of a world that had lost the power of the word.
The Book of Common Prayer, founded on the old Benedictine rule and on the ancient rule of Office, Eucharist, and Personal Devotion, provided an order for devotion, both public and private, in heightened language full of gravitas, suitable to address God himself. The genius of Cranmer and his successors established a standard, a rhythm of natural and spiritual life, and was so compiled that, in the words of Bishop John Cosin “men, before they set themselves to pray might know what to say and avoid, as near as might be, all extemporal effusions of irksome and indigested prayers”. Its abandonment has coincided with confusion in leadership and doctrine. The bemused spirit of the passing age has vitiated worship, so that some Church services resemble coffee parties or night club entertainments or even rock concerts. Truth becomes elusive. It is enough to see through a glass darkly. The age which has seen off the word lacks both qualifications for rewriting prayers and the authority to abandon the style and form of worship framed to help the faithful know what they should perceive and do. The editor of an anthology of Elizabethan prose, Michael Roberts, excoriated “the deodorized and disinfected writings” of modern times and said that the Elizabethans wrote with the whole man, “not the retina and cerebral cortex”. According to another latter-day writer, Martin Thornton, in his book English Spirituality : “Our task is to recognize and rediscover this true tradition and to work and pray that by God’s grace it may lead us into our third golden age.”
In the first “golden age” of the Elizabethan time, the word had power because it was not separated from things. The second “golden age” in the next century was founded on the Elizabethan achievements. The resulting spiritual flowering of the seventeenth century that included Nicholas Ferrar, a Deacon of the Church of England, made possible the community at Little Gidding, near Cambridge, which worshipped and worked according to Prayer Book principles and a strict rule. Ferrar, who took seriously the Biblical injunction to “watch and pray”, stayed up two or three times a week, slept only four hours on other nights, and ate and drank little. At the beginning of every hour from morning to evening, some of the community said the Office for about fifteen minutes, singing a hymn and reading portions of psalms and gospels. From 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. two or three recited the Psalter (Psalms), which was gone through each day and the gospels once a month. The community wrote books, fasted with great rigour, and in other ways embraced voluntary poverty, so that they might have as much money as possible for the relief of the poor.
The poet and priest, George Herbert, left his papers to Nicholas Ferrar and the option of publishing his verses, which were issued as The Temple (1633). Several of the poems in this collection, especially “The Collar”, “The Pulley” and “Easter Wings”, have kept his name and are included in school curricula. After Nicholas died in 1637 the community was forcibly dispersed by Oliver Cromwell’s army, but it came to life again when a twentieth century poet, T.S. Eliot, reflected on it in his Four Quartets (the poem called “Little Gidding”). In 1970 a new community was founded there.
The Book of Common Prayer could be lived out, therefore, in daily life and action ; it formed the basis of the liturgy, and it was a private prayer manual. Compiled in times of trouble, and when the English language was rich, varied, rhetorical, and subtle, its rhythms and phrases passed into common speech and comforted (strengthened) many in the crises of life. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” “Keep us as the apple of an eye, hide us under the shadow of thy wings.” “Give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light”. “Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee ; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also have grace and power, faithfully to fulfill the same”(Collect for the first Sunday after the Epiphany). “Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour in our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and all virtues”. “Speak now or forever hold your peace.” “Till death us do part,” “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil”.
The Puritans had never ceased to agitate, and on the other hand thundered the Roman Church ; but more than three centuries were to pass before the book itself was undermined. Dr. Gareth Bennett in his Preface to Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1987-1988, remarked on
“ the virtual disuse of the prayer books based on the English Book of Common Prayer . . . . In England within a generation the Book of Common Prayer has been virtually eliminated by services which are in theory only permissible alternatives to it . . . . nothing is more apparent than Anglicanism’s break with its liturgical past, and any attempt to define Anglicanism by reference to its tradition of worship is now on very insecure ground.” After the disgraceful clerical outcry and journalistic frenzy which followed his simple, truthful, exegesis Dr. Bennett killed himself.
He was the victim of an age lacking standards and the proper idea of the common good. Not the modernisers, but Richard Hooker, great defender of the Elizabethan settlement, should have the last word on common prayer, which was devised “to help that imbecility and weakness in us, by means whereof we are otherwise of ourselves the less apt to perform unto God so heavenly a service, with such affection of heart, and disposition in the powers of our souls as is requisite. To this end therefore all things hereunto appertaining have been ever thought convenient to be done with the most solemnity and majesty that the wisest could devise. It is not with public as with private prayer. In this rather secrecy is commended than outward show, whereas that being the public act of a whole society, requireth accordingly more care to be had to external appearance. The very assembling of men therefore unto this service hath ever been solemn.”