Reviewed by Carole McDonnell
The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography
by Alan Jacobs
Lives of Great Religious Books
Princeton University Press
256 pages, September 29, 2013, ISBN: 978-0691154817
The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography is part of the series by the University of Princeton Press called the Lives of Great Religious Books.
Thus, the conception, birth, adaptations, rehabilitations, aging and influential of the book’s life is being examined in Alan Jacobs’ book.
Few books hold as unique a place in history as The Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican/Episcopal Church. It is at once: a spiritually elegant and beautiful book, heartfelt and insightful in its knowledge of the human heart and deeply honoring of an omnipotent and loving God; a symbol of what English religion; a call to communal celebration and prayer; a historical and a political compromise to Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and changing social demands.
It was born during a time when Protestantism and Catholicism vied for primacy in England.
Those who have lived in the aftermath of some powerful influential movement often are unaware of the traditions they have inherited. In the case of Anglican worship, the Book of Common Prayer changed much. The prayers, litanies, Scriptures, and directions on how to worship that were place in the first Book of Common Prayer were largely the work of Thomas Cranmer. They represented his hope that educated and uneducated Christians in England should understand the Bible and the doctrines of Christianity.
Alan Jacobs lists many of the doctrinal questions Cranmer and others faced when composing or revising the book. Some of them might seem amusing to modern Protestant Eyes. For instance, Cranmer had to battle the heartfelt belief in the mind of many worshipers that the Lord’s Prayer would “work” if it was said in English. The notion of everyone saying the same prayer in English throughout the church was fought against by both the extreme Puritans who thought it reeked of Catholicism and by the Catholic clergy.
Jacobs shows how historical incidents and the birth and death of royalty had a hand in creating, demoting, and revising the Book of Common Prayer. Politics, sectarian concerns, and demotions (with the chance of literally losing one’s head) all were in the mix.
Additionally, because of the Act of Uniformity which made it required for all churches, it changed the way the English populace worshipped for many years, as it became more and more equated with England and English traditions.
But it was always an embattled book, representing at various times, “too much Catholicism,” “too much Protestantism,” too much tradition, too much irreverence toward tradition, too limited in its reach or too inclusive as to be almost wimpy and unclear, an example of the poetic beauty of the English language, or too old-fashioned, incomprehensible, and quaint in its language. It was a thing that symbolized something to be rebelled against or something to be upheld.
Reading the history of the Book of Common Prayer is to come face to face again with the great work of the Protestant Reformers, but it also shows the work (great or otherwise, depending on the current reader’s traditional leanings) of later Reformers who revised the book.
Alan Jacobs does a great job in showing the times and personnages that have influenced subsequent revisions of the book or who have battled the book’s influence.
About the reviewer: Carole McDonnell is a writer of ethnic fiction, speculative fiction, Christian non-fiction, and Christian fiction. Her works have appeared in many anthologies and at various online sites. Her fantasy fiction novels, Wind Follower and The Constant Tower are published by Wildside Press. Her short story collection is Spirit Fruit: Collected Speculative Fiction by Carole McDonnell. Her self-published books are My Life as an Onion, A Fool’s Journey Through the Book of Proverbs, Oreo Blues, and Seeds of Bible Study: How NOT to study the Bible. She can be found at http://carolemcdonnell.blogspot.com/