This feast is appropriately observed on a weekday following the Day of Pentecost.
The first Book of Common Prayer came into use on the Day of Pentecost, June 9, 1549, in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth. From it have descended all subsequent editions and revisions of the Prayer Book according to the use of the several Churches of the Anglican Communion.
This first Book of Common Prayer kept the structure of the Latin rite and preserved – in English translation – many of the prayers of traditional use, some of them altered according to reformed theological emphases. The preparation of the Book was undertaken by “the Archbishop of Canterbury and certain of the most learned and discreet bishops and other learned men of this realm”, known to us only as the Windsor Commission. Cranmer did confide that the Commission’s membership were representative men, “some favouring the old, some the new learning”. The man who did most to reform the English liturgy was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer himself. He had studied the life of the patristic Church and was familiar with such of the Eastern liturgies as were known in the West at the time (for example, Erasmus’ edition of the Liturgy of St John Chrystostom, to this day the chief eucharistic liturgy of the Eastern Church). Because new rites and ceremonies that obscured the Word of God and gave rise to distorted sacramental theology had crept in over the centuries, he recognized that the whole liturgical corpus needed overhauling and simplifying.
The principles governing the new Book were stated in its Preface (which may be found on page 866 in the Book of Common Prayer (1979)). First, the reformed lectionary was designed such that, instead of the broken and interrupted pieces of Scripture read in the medieval liturgy, the “whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof)” would be read over the course of a year. By such reading and by meditation on God’s Word, the clergy “should…be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine”. By the daily hearing of the Scriptures in church, the people “should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.”
Second, the English language replaced Latin, “whereas St Paul would have such language spoken to the people in the Church, as they might understand, and have profit by hearing the same”. Third, the number of rubrics and the complex character of the offices, which required the use of many books, were reduced only to what was necessary and “plain and easy to understand”, and the many books reduced to one. Fourth, the diversity of English liturgical use – “some following Salisbury use, some Hereford use, some the use of Bangor, some of York, some of Lincoln” – would yielded to the uniform rites of the Book of Common Prayer.
In his book, The Liturgies of the Western Church, Professor Bard Thompson suggests that there were other principles implicit in the Book. Its liturgies and offices were meant to be as comprehensive as possible of all parties in the Church of England, those “favouring the old” and those the new learning. In other words, it was meant literally to be a catholic (“universal”) Book. The very title, The Booke of Common Prayer…After the Use of the Church of England, and The Supper of the Lorde and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass” invited the sympathy of conservatives and reformers alike. An overarching principle was the rule of charity, that “every man…be satisfied with his owne conscience, not iudging other mennes myndes or consciences” (Exhortation to Communion). The Windsor commissioners distinguished between those ceremonies of the medieval rites that were vain and superstitious, and those which served order and edification, a distinction made explicit in an appendix, “Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retayned”. Appeal is made in this essay not only to St Paul the Apostle but also St Augustine of Hippo for the removing the “intolerable burden” of excessive and superstitious ceremonies.
While the structure of the Latin Mass was retained, some of the chief marks of the medieval cultus were abolished; viz., the Elevation, holy water, the veneration of images, the doctrine of purgatory, and the invocation of saints. The sanctoral calendar was drastically pruned only to those holy days commemorating the apostles and other New Testament saints closely associated with them, All Saints Day, and the major feast days of our Lord: Christmas Day, the Circumcision, the Purification of Mary (Candlemas), the Annunciation, the Visitation, Ascension Day, and Transfiguration. While the calendar of commemorations was pruned only to these, we should not fail to note that the observance of them is a sign of liturgical continuity with the pre-Reformation Church, as was the retention of the liturgical seasons and feasts of Advent, Christmastide, the Epiphany, Pre-Lent, Lent, Holy Week, Eastertide, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday and the season after Trinity. The continued use of the Psalter at the daily office, and the preservation of the ancient canticles of the office: the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis, and Te Deum laudamus also stand as signs of liturgical continuity with the pre-Reformation Church.
Finally, this was a Book of common prayer, in the English language, ruled by the English Bible (the “Great Bible”, authorized by King Henry the Eighth in 1539, was the source of several of the biblical passages in the new Prayer Book), expecting the people’s attention and participation, requiring communion in both kinds and forbidding private masses. The originality of the Prayer book lay not only in its felicitous translations, paraphrases, and amendments of the old Latin forms, but also in its simplication of the complicated liturgical usages of the medieval Church, so that the book was suitable for use by the laity as well as by the clergy.
Cranmer and the commissioners drew on several sources that expressed both continuity with the pre-Reformation Church and with the Protestant Reformation. In simplifying the daily office of the Sarum Use of the Latin Rite from eight to two offices, Matins (Morning Prayer) and Evensong (Evening Prayer), the reformed breviary prepared in 1535 by Cardinal Quiñones in Spain provided a model. The Litany is based on a litany drawn up by Archbishop Cranmer during King Henry’s reign, and that litany was itself based on the Sarum Processionale, a form with precedents in a Greek litany brought to England c. 700, and on a German litany drawn up by Luther. Cranmer would later amend this earlier Litany to the form that we know as the Great Litany. The sources of the eucharistic liturgy were several: 1) the English Great Bible, from which the Psalms and Lessons were taken (save one); 2) the Latin rite according to the Sarum Use, that of Salisbury, the most influential liturgical use in England at the time; 3) the Orthodox liturgy, from which were taken the Prayer of St Chrystostom in the daily office and the epiclesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, in the eucharistic Prayer of Consecration; 4) the reformed liturgy of the Church at Cologne, prepared for Archbishop Hermann von Wied by the reformer Martin Bucer and others, and the Antididagma of Cologne, a conservative response to that liturgy; and 5) Cranmer’s own Order of the Communion of 1548, which had drawn on Lutheran precedents.
All in all, the first Book of Common Prayer was what Thompson characterized as “a reverent adaptation of the Latin rite, possessed of liturgical fitness and a deep eucharistic piety” (Liturgies, page 236). Cranmer and his colleagues had reformed the liturgy not only according to the reformed theology of the time but also by the use of earlier liturgies, maintaining and expressing liturgically (and theologically) continuity with the undivided Church of the first millennium through the pre-Reformation Church in England.
Almighty and everliving God, whose servant Thomas Cranmer, with others, restored the language of the people in the prayers of your Church: Make us always thankful for this heritage; and help us so to pray in the Spirit and with the understanding, that we may worthily magnify your holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of the First Book of Common Prayer are published on the Lectionary Page website.