Book of Common Prayer Turns 350

The Book of Common Prayer, a work considered by many to be as influential as the King James Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare, turned 350 this month.

The Rev. Richard Hoyal, vicar of Christ Church in Bristol, England, told a British publication that even in an increasingly secular England the BCP holds an appeal.

"The people who come here to worship do so because they enjoy hearing this traditional form of service – there is a continuity and beauty to it that the more modern versions of Anglican service just don't have," said Hoyal to the Western daily Press.

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As with the Bible and Shakespeare, phrases from the 1662 Prayer Book permeate everyday English, including "peace in our time," "ashes to ashes," and "'til death do us part."

"The language is beautiful. It is lyrical and poetic in form, and despite being the language of 16th century England, it remains remarkably accessible, and for churchgoers in particular, reassuringly familiar," said Hoyal. "It is the message of the Church of England."

In honor of the milestone, on May 2 the Anglican Communion held a special evening service at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London with outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams presiding.

The history of the BCP began in the fallout of King Henry VIII's decision to split from the Roman Catholic Church and form the Church of England.

Initially, the Church of England worshipped the same way as Catholic churches; the one difference was that under Henry VIII the monarch became head of the church instead of the Pope. However, soon after the split Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer oversaw an effort to replace the Latin missals for services and sacraments with an Anglican alternative.

The eventual result of this effort to break away from the Latin past was the revised Prayer Book created in 1662. It was written in the English vernacular, much like the Authorized Version of the Bible or King James that was published a half century earlier. There were theological alterations as well, with less focus on saints and intercessory prayers.

In addition to being opposed by the Catholic Church, the Prayer Book also had its share of Protestant critics. Many "non-conformist" sects of Protestantism felt that the BCP was too ritualized. Groups like the Puritans and the Pilgrims, who would found colonies in North America, were among the top critics of the Anglican work.

In the present day, the BCP has several variants used by the many member churches of the Anglican Communion.


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