What Is the Book of Common Prayer?

First English Language Prayer Book of the Church of England

Old Book of Common Prayer
Old Book of Common Prayer (1792).

221A / Getty Images

The Book of Common Prayer is the abbreviated title of the official liturgical service book of the Church of England, originally commissioned by King Edward VI (1537–1553) to direct the worship of the Anglican Church. The earliest work, published in 1549, was the first prayer book to contain the complete forms of service for daily and Sunday worship in the English language.

Key Takeaways: Book of Common Prayer

  • The Book of Common Prayer expresses the faith and identity of the Anglican Church.
  • The unabbreviated title of the Book of Common Prayer is the Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church.
  • The book was originally compiled to reform, simplify, and consolidate the Latin services of the medieval church and to produce a single, convenient, and complete volume in English as an authoritative guide for the priests and people of the Church of England.

Origin

Four versions of the Book of Common Prayer were produced during the period of the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, the service books of the Church of England were mostly in Latin, including the Missals, Breviaries, and other liturgical forms of the Roman Catholic Church, but also included some existing English liturgy.

The original prayer book was compiled primarily by Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556), the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the leaders of the English Reformation. In 1548, King Edward VI appointed Cranmer and a committee to draw up a eucharistic liturgy in English, the first of its kind. This forerunning Book of Common Prayer was approved by Parliament and put into use in 1549, a step which constituted the Church of England’s first significant move toward Protestant worship and reformed theology.

Revisions

In 1552, Cranmer and his team composed a second edition Book of Common Prayer, which was decidedly more Protestant and reformed in nature. Along with other critical documents produced by Cranmer, this Book of Common Prayer established the foundation of Anglicanism.

After the death of King Edward VI, the Catholic Queen Mary (1516–1558) abolished the use of the Book of Common Prayer and restored medieval Catholic services. In 1553-54, under the relentlessly anti-Protestant reign of Queen Mary, Cranmer was imprisoned, tried for treason and heresy, declared guilty, and excommunicated. Finally, in March 1556, he was burned at the stake.

Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor's Gate
'Thomas Cranmer at the Traitor's Gate' (1926) by Frederick Goodall. The Print Collector / Getty Images

Two years after the death of Cranmer, Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ascended the throne of England, sending the Church back toward Protestantism. She restored the use of the Book of Common Prayer with several revisions in 1559.

In 1604, under King James I, and in 1662, under King Charles II, the final alterations of the prayer book were made. The 1662 edition was instituted with the Act of Uniformity, making its use compulsory in the Church of England. It remains the church’s official prayer book to this day.

As the Church of England became an international (Anglican) movement, the Book of Common Prayer was published in Scottish, Irish, Canadian, and American formats. The American prayer book of 1789 (used in the Episcopal Church in the United States) underwent substantial updates in 1892, 1928, and 1979.

Contents

The Book of Common Prayer was compiled originally to reform, simplify, and consolidate the Latin services of the medieval church and to produce a single, convenient, and complete volume in English as an authoritative guide for the priests and people of the Church of England.

The Prayer Book contains morning and evening prayers, the complete Psalter (book of Psalms), and services for communion, baptism, funerals, and almost all occasions, including marriage and ordination. The book also contains 39 Articles of Religion outlining the essential beliefs of the Anglican church.

The second edition of 1552 eliminated many of the Roman Catholic forms including prayers for the dead and the invocation of the Spirit in the Communion Canon. This distinctly more Protestant version of the prayer book also replaced references to “the altar” with “communion table,” and introduced the Black Rubric to specify that kneeling to receive communion does not constitute adoration of the sacrament. The surplice also replaced Mass vestments.

Alternative Prayer Books

In 1927, the Assembly of the Church attempted to introduce a more liberal revision of the prayer book called Common Worship, but it was accepted only as an optional supplement to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Common Worship offers a variety of alternative forms of service for worship and is the culmination of several revision attempts.

The Book of Common Prayer has significantly influenced the worship practices of many different Christian churches traditionally associated with the Anglican Communion. Even denominations outside of Anglicanism, such as the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches, use prayer books based in large part on the Book of Common Prayer.

Although revised over the years, the Book of Common Prayer retains Thomas Cranmer’s distinctive imprint and is still used today by millions of Anglicans around the world.

Sources

  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 374).
  • Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (p. 27).
  • Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship (p. 29).
  • Book of Common Prayer.” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (p. 161).
  • The Complete Book of When & Where in the Bible and Throughout History (p. 232).