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The simile of St Paul’s

By Brian Cummings


Like many people I first came across the Book of Common Prayer in a church pew; I must have been in my late teens. But it felt as if I already knew the book: many things in it were already familiar, like the marriage vows ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.’ To me, brought up an atheist, other parts seemed very strange. Yet even as a non-churchgoer, the book felt as if it belonged to me. It announced itself as ‘common’ prayer, and also as somehow quintessentially English, everyday, ubiquitous. The Book of Common Prayer wasn’t just a church book; it contained so much else that was evocative of our culture and history – prayers to be said at sea, ways of calculating Easter dates, lists of members of the family you were forbidden to marry.

When I was a student, I was surprised to find that there wasn’t an edition of the text available which also explained the history, interpretations and significance of the Book of Common Prayer. The book was still in print, of course, but only in church editions. By now I knew that what I had thought of as a book of the 1660s was in fact much older, going back to Thomas Cranmer and the beginning of the English Reformation; and also that it had existed in a number of different forms. My favourite guide to this was a huge two-volume book called The English Rite by F.E. Brightman, by now long out of print. This printed different versions of the Book of Common Prayer in parallel text, and also contained a monumental introduction. It had the sprawling, hefty form of old-style scholarship which nobody seemed to author anymore, and no publisher could afford to print in any case. There was also an Everyman edition comprising the 1549 and 1552 texts, which I found in a second-hand bookshop and I continued to treasure for many years, using it in teaching in due course.

When asked by OUP if I was happy to prepare a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, I immediately accepted despite foreseeing that the work would be very time-consuming. It just felt like something you don’t say no to, and I couldn’t help but think of this new edition also ending up in second-hand bookshops in time. The sense of familiarity and commonness I had developed with the text over the years also inspired me to provide an edition for the common reader; one which would explain its contexts, controversies and historical importance as well as the unnoticed ways in which the book has been part of shared experience and lived emotion over several centuries.

I print the text in three versions – a little like Brightman’s old book, only my choice of texts is different. In between the first edition of 1549 and the Restoration text of 1662 my edition contains the Elizabethan version of 1559. This was the text Shakespeare would have been familiar with – and also the one used by John Donne when he was Dean of Old St Paul’s in the 1620s. I also include more or less a small book of explanatory notes, in which I endeavour to explain the politics which brought it into being, the religious motivations which inspired it, its revisions, and how it caused trouble right through the Civil War and beyond.

St Paul's Cathedral

In my mind, I fostered the simile of the Book of Common Prayer as an English church building such as St Paul’s Cathedral. There is what you see at first sight – how this monument appears today; but there is also a kind of visible archaeology of human memory underlying this all. In the case of modern St Paul’s, the cathedral we see now was begun in the 1660s, in the same decade as the 1662 standard edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Yet beneath the present building, you can stand in the crypt amid the stones of the gothic cathedral which preceded it, which by the late sixteenth century was but a dilapidated wreck following a lightning strike in 1561 and human intervention by iconoclasts in the reign of Edward VI. Similarly, the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer rests upon the beleaguered history of the 1549 and 1559 editions.

By 1662, the Book of Common Prayer had become a rich melting pot: of words personally written by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; words written for earlier experiments of Protestant worship including English versions of the Te Deum or the Magnificat; words taken from medieval service books such as the marriage vows. Yet back in 1549, many doubted that the latest service book could work. A rebellion in Devon and Cornwall began when the 1549 edition was introduced, arguing that prayers in English were simply not effective and demanding for the mass in Latin to return. But they were also just as concerned with how the mass was said, insisting that the host should be elevated as it used to be, but which was banned as ‘superstitious’ by the new service book.

A hundred years later these sentiments were reversed in new political trouble surrounding the Book of Common Prayer. By then a more thoroughly Protestant version had replaced the text of 1549, but Puritans in the 1640s nonetheless called the Book of Common Prayer a ‘mass book’ and were just as worried about ritual and manual gestures by the priest (whom they preferred to call a ‘minister’), such as signing the cross on the forehead of the baptized – only they felt such practices were a kind of mumbo jumbo. These were also the two periods in which the Book of Common Prayer was banned. In 1554 Queen Mary abolished the English prayer book and in 1556 Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic. In 1645 these events were mirrored as Archbishop William Laud – associated with a series of ritual practices abhorred by Puritans, including restoring altars to the east end of churches rather than in the body of the nave –was executed in the Civil War, and the Book of Common Prayer was banned once again. Thus, a book which had been taken as destroying Catholic ritual in 1549 was now conceived as restoring Catholicism in 1645.

So, like a church such as St Paul’s with its tumultuous history texturing its current visage, the Book of Common Prayer also contains a kind of archaeology of human emotion. It shows us the everyday rituals of life, how we come to terms not only with a creator but with ordinary and extraordinary pain and suffering or joy or happiness. Why do people bless themselves, or kiss each other in a gesture of peace, or give each other rings, or lay hands on their children’s heads, or throw soil or herbs or flowers onto the coffin of a friend? In addition to seeing this as a religious tome, I want readers to feel this is a book which shows how we have shared a language of emotions over centuries, and still feel the influence of its cultural architecture today.

Brian Cummings is editor of The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662. He is Professor of English at University of Sussex and he currently holds a three-year Major Research Fellowship with the Leverhulme Trust (2009-12).

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