Author and theologian J. I. Packer says of the Book of Common Prayer’s influence on the British people, “Long before the age of fish and chips, the Book of Common Prayer was the Great British invention, nurturing all sorts and conditions of Englishmen and holding the church together with remarkable effectiveness.”
Before the Book of Common Prayer, the prayers and worship of the Church of England were in Latin. The Book of Common Prayer changed all of that by giving English-speaking people everywhere prayers in their own language for the first time in history! Its influence on English-speaking people cannot be overestimated.
The words of the Prayer Book have become a familiar part of the English language and after the Bible, it is the most frequently cited book in the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.” Like the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, many words and phrases from the Book of Common Prayer have entered popular culture.
Not only is it widely used throughout the English speaking world, but it appears in many variants in churches in over 50 different countries and in over 150 different languages. Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians alike have borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer, and the marriage and burial rites have found their way into those of other denominations and into the English language.
So who was the main influence behind this influential book?
The strange and complex history behind the Anglican Church and the Book of Common Prayer centers around one man: Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer was the most influential religious leader of the English Reformation and instrumental in producing the second most widely read English religious book next to the King James Bible.
Cranmer was one of the most complex and paradoxical leaders in all of church history. His influence spanned the reigns of three monarchs –Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. He was a brilliant theologian and church man who was strong leader when he needed to rise to the occasion, but at times he was also weak and frail. In the end, his lasting contribution to the church cannot be overestimated.
Life and Times
Cranmer was born on July 2nd, 1489 at Nottingham to a poor family. Cranmer studied at Jesus College, Cambridge for the priesthood in 1510, which he lost when he married the daughter of a local tavern-keeper. She died in childbirth, at which point he was re-accepted by the college and devoted himself to study. At Cambridge, Cranmer was a brilliant student of theology and finally became a priest in 1523.
A plague forced Cranmer to leave Cambridge for Essex where he came to the attention of King Henry VIII. From there Cranmer went to Germany to learn more about the Protestant Lutheran movement, where he met Andreas Osiander, a Lutheran reformer whose theology and ideas influenced him. In Germany Cranmer meet and married Osiander’s niece Margaret.
Henry called on Cranmer to return to England and become the new Archbishop of Canterbury. On March 30, 1533 Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury which began an unusual relationship where both Cranmer and the King used one another to accomplish their own personal goals and ambitions. The King went through a series of marriages and divorces and sought for Cranmer’s assistance in granting permission. The Catholic Church would not allow it. Cranmer consented believing that the King was God’s sovereign ruler over England not the Pope. This began a series of marriages and divorces by the King and proved to be one of the most controversial periods in English history.
Cranmer was no man’s fool. He used his new found religious influence to openly embrace and promote Reformation ideals throughout England. Thomas Cranmer carefully danced around the politics of his position, and was able to push through the changes that led gradually to the reformation of the Church of England. Cranmer sponsored the Great Bible in 1539 and under the reign of young Edward VI, Cranmer was allowed to make the doctrinal changes he thought necessary to the church.
The Prayer Book
Cranmer’s greatest achievement was realized in 1549, where he helped organize the Book of Common Prayer. Crammer and a committee of twelve of “the most learned and discreet bishops, and other learned men” compiled the prayer book from various sources, including ancient prayers of the early church, Catholic and Orthodox liturgies, as well as private devotions of the Middle Ages. They translated many of these sources into the English language. In June 1553, Edward VI gave his agreement to Cranmer’s ‘42 Articles’. These became the backbone of the ‘39 Articles’ that were introduced in Elizabeth’s reign in 1563.
Into the Fire
After Edward VI’s death, Thomas Cranmer supported Lady Jane Grey as successor. Her nine-day reign was followed by the Roman Catholic Queen “Bloody” Mary, who tried him for treason. After a long trial and imprisonment, he was forced to proclaim to the public his error in the support of Protestantism, an act designed to discourage followers of the religion.
In March 1554, Cranmer defended his religious views against a delegation appointed by the Queen. His views were declared heretical by the Catholic Church and he was commanded to recant his beliefs and declare his support for Catholicism.
In an interesting turn of events, Cranmer recanted in private. On March 21st, 1556, Cranmer was to do the same in public to which he refused to do and he was burned at the stake as a heretic on the same day. At his execution on March 21, 1556, he withdrew his forced confession, and proclaimed the truth of the Protestant faith. He placed his hand in the fire, the hand with which he had falsely signed his renouncement of his beliefs, and said, “This hath offended!”
Cranmer was by no means a perfect leader. Despite his support of a worldly king, and his recantations, he still stands out as one of the most influential leaders of the Reformation. He helped author one of the most beautiful devotional books ever composed, The Book of Common Prayer, which has been read by millions around the world and still influences Christians today.
Winfield Bevins is the Director of Church Planting at Asbury Theological Seminary. He frequently speaks at conferences on a variety of topics and is a regular adjunct professor at several seminaries. As an author, one of his passions is to help others connect to the roots of the Christian faith for spiritual formation and mission. His latest book, Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation examines young adults who have embraced Christian liturgy and how it has impacted their lives. He and his wife Kay have three beautiful girls Elizabeth, Anna Belle, and Caroline and live in the Bluegrass state of Kentucky. You can find out more about him at his website, www.winfieldbevins.com.