This year marks the 350th anniversary of the final version of Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.
Thomas Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, published the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, over 100 years before the Psalter was added in 1662 to complete the version we now have.
The fact that the Book of Common Prayer remains relevant today is a testament to its power, depth, lucidity, and universality.
For, who hasn’t heard these celebrated words at a wedding:
“If either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
Or these sober words at a funeral:
“We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.”
Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer in hopes to make the worship material of the Latin liturgy available to the English laity. The impact this had on the English-speaking world was far-reaching.
Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch calls the Book of Common Prayer “one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language.”
And Daniel Swift, author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayer’s,” describes the Book of Common Prayer as the “skeleton beneath the skin” of all of Shakespeare’s works.
The skeleton or the core of the Book of Common Prayer that Swift speaks of is no doubt the community of people who recite its words and prayers. These communities orient their lives around the prayers for baptism, communion, marriage, and funerals, and it is because of this communal nature that the book is known to religious and nonreligious worlds alike.
James Wood, a nonbeliever, recently wrote a piece for the New Yorker on why the Book of Common Prayer remains of such religious, political, and cultural importance.
Wood says that the most important reason for the endurance of the Book of Common Prayer is Thomas Cranmer’s use of language.
Here is Wood’s description of the language used:
Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic and grandly alienated, the words of the Prayer Book are notable for their simplicity and directness. C. S. Lewis called this quality “pithiness”; I would add “coziness” or “comfortability.” … In the Book of Common Prayer, the language seems not to refer to the epoch (our time) but to something more local (my days); and tranquillity and peace have become the comfier “rest and quietness.”
Wood later describes the language as “a kind of binding agent, a rhetoric both lofty and local.”
However, Wood’s closing words to the piece are a sobering reminder that although our society still possesses the language of the Book of Common Prayer, we have collectively lost the religious belief that was central the book’s meaning and binding capabilities.
The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.
The Book of Common does not remain “empty” in all communities, to be sure, but the fact that it remains that way in many communities is reason enough to re-open its pages and learn how Cranmer and the early Protestant believers understood how communities truly bind together.