Book of Common Prayer

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The Book of Common Prayer is the foundational prayer book of the Church of England (and hence Anglicanism). It was one of the instruments of the English Reformation and was later to be adapted and revised in other countries where Anglicanism became established. The BCP replaced the various 'uses' or rites in Latin that had been used in different parts of the country with a single compact volume in English so that "now from henceforth all the Realm shall have but one use". First produced in 1549, it was drastically revised in 1552 and more subtly changed in 1559 and 1662. It remains, in law, the primary liturgical prayer book of the Church of England, although it has, in practice, been largely replaced by more modern prayer books, the most recent of which is Common Worship. The Book of Common Prayer is also the name of the current liturgical book in the Episcopal Church of America as well as some Methodist churches.


The Prayer Books of Edward VI

The work of producing English language books for use in the liturgy was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury at first under the reign of Henry VIII, only more radically under his son Edward. Cranmer was not one of the "advanced thinkers" and was not initially in touch with contemporary German reform. Nevetheless, his first work, the Exhortation and Litany, the earliest English-language service book of the Church of England, was no mere translation: its Protestant character is made clear by the drastic reduction of the place of saints, compressing what had been the major part into three petitions. Published in 1544 it borrowed greatly from Martin Luther's Litany and Myles Coverdale's New Testament and was the only service that might be considered to be " Protestant" to be finished within the lifetime of King Henry VIII.

It was not until Henry's death in 1547 and the accession of Edward VI that revision could proceed faster. Cranmer finished his work on an English Communion rite in 1548, obeying an order of Parliament that Communion was to be given as both bread and wine. The service existed as an addition to the pre-existing Latin Mass.

It was included, one year later, in 1549, in a full prayer book, set out with a daily office, readings for Sundays and Holy Days, the Communion Service, Public Baptism, of Confirmation, of Matrimony, The Visitation of the Sick, At a Burial and the Ordinal (added in 1550). The Preface to this edition, which contained Cranmer's explanation as to why a new prayer book was necessary, began: "There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted." The original version was only used until 1552, when a further revision was published.

The 1549 introduction of the Book of Common Prayer was widely unpopular especially in places such as Cornwall where traditional religious processions and pilgrimages were banned and commissioners sent out to remove all symbols of Roman Catholicism. At the time the Cornish only spoke their native Cornish language and the forced introduction of the English Book of Common Prayer resulted in the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion. Proposals to translate the Prayer Book into Cornish were suppressed and in total some 4,000 people lost their lives in the rebellion. (Ironically, one of the Articles of Religion was to read: "It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God and the custom of the primitive Church, to have public prayer in the Church, or to minister the sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.")

The 1552 prayer book marked a considerable change. In response to criticisms by such as Peter Martyr and Martin Bucer deliberate steps were taken to excise Catholic practices and more fully realize the Calvinist theological project in England. In the Eucharist, gone were the words Mass and altar; the ' Lord have mercy' was inserted into a recitation of the Ten Commandments; removed to the end was the Gloria; gone was any reference to an offering of a 'Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving' in the Eucharistic prayer, which ended with the words of institution (This is my Body..This is my remembrance of me.) The elevation of the host and all other manual acts were omitted. The part of the prayer which followed, the Prayer of Oblation, was transferred, much changed, to a position after the congregation had received communion. The words at the administration of communion which, in the prayer book of 1549 described the eucharistic species as 'The body of our Lorde Jesus Christe...', 'The blood of our Lorde Jesus Christe...' were replaced with the words 'Take, eat, in remembrance that Christ died for thee..' etc. The Peace, at which in earlier times the congregation had exchanged a greeting, was removed altogether. Vestments such as the stole, chasuble and cope were no longer to be worn, but only a surplice. It was the final stage of Cranmer's work of removing all elements of sacrifice from the Latin Mass. In the Baptism service the signing with the cross was moved until after the baptism and the exorcism, the anointing, the putting on of the chrysom robe and the triple immersion were omitted. Most drastic of all was the removal of the Burial service from church: it was to take place at the graveside. In 1549, there had been provision for a Requiem (not so called) and prayers of commendation and committal, the first addressed to the deceased. All that remained was a single reference to the deceased, giving thanks for their delivery from 'the myseryes of this sinneful world'. This new Order for the Burial of the Dead was a drastically stripped-down memorial service designed to definitively undermine the whole complex of traditional beliefs about Purgatory and intercessory prayer.

Before the book was in general use, however, Edward VI died. In 1553, Mary, upon her succession to the throne, restored the old religion. The Mass was re-established, altars, roods and statues were re-instated; an attempt was made to restore the Church to its Roman affiliation. Cranmer was punished for his work in the Protestant reformation by being burned at the stake on March 21, 1556. Nevertheless, the 1552 book was to survive. After Mary's death in 1558, it became the primary source for the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer, with subtle if significant changes only.

The 1559 prayer book

Thus, under Elizabeth, a more permanent enforcement of the Reformed religion was undertaken, and the 1552 book was republished in 1559, along with laws requiring conformity to the new standards. In its Elizabethan form, scarcely altered, it was used for nearly 100 years, thus being the official prayer book under the Stuarts as well as being the first Anglican service in the American colonies. This was the prayer book of Queen Elizabeth I, John Donne, and Richard Hooker. It was also at the core of English liturgical life throughout the lifetime of Shakespeare.

The alterations of the 1559 Prayer Book from its 1552 precursor, though minor, were to cast a long shadow. One related to what was worn. Instead of the banning of all vestments save the rochet (for bishops) and the surplice for parish clergy, it permitted 'such were in the second year of K. Edward VI'. This allowed substantial leeway for more traditionalist clergy to retain at least some of the vestments which they felt were appropriate to liturgical celebration. It was also to be the basis of claims in the 19th. century that vestments such as chasubles, albs and stoles were legal. At the Communion the words 'the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ' etc. were combined with the words of Edward's second book, 'Take eat in remembrance..' etc. The prohibition on kneeling at the Communion was omitted. The conservative nature of these changes underlines the fact that Elizabeth's Protestantism was by no means universally popular, a fact which she herself recognised; her revived Act of Supremacy, giving her the ambiguous title of Supreme Governor passed without difficulty, but the Act of Uniformity passed through Parliament by only three votes.

Still, the 1559 Prayer Book offered enough to both traditionalists and radical reformers to establish it at the heart of the first relatively stable Protestant state in Europe -- the "Elizabethan settlement." However, on her death in 1603, this book, substantially the book of 1552, having been regarded as offensive by the likes of Bishop Stephen Gardiner in the sixteenth century as being a break with the tradition of the Western church, as it was, by the seventeenth century had come to be regarded as unduly Catholic. On the accession of James I, following the so-called Millenary Petition, the Hampton Court conference of 1604, a meeting of bishops and Puritan divines, resisted the pressure for change (save to the catechism). By the reign of Charles I (1625-1649) the Puritan pressure, exercised through a much changed Parliament, had increased. Government-inspired petitions for the removal of the prayer book and episcopacy 'root and branch' resulted in local disquiet in many places and eventually the production of locally organised counter petitions. The government had its way but it became clear that the division was not between Catholics and Protestants, but between Puritans and those who valued the Elizabethan settlement. The 1559 book was finally outlawed by Parliament in 1645 to be replaced by the Directory of Public Worship which was more a set of instructions than a prayer book. How widely the Directory was used is not certain; there is some evidence of its having been purchased, in churchwardens' accounts, but not widely. The Prayer Book certainly was used clandestinely in some places, not least because the Directory made no provision at all for burial services. Following the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth under Lord Protector Cromwell, it would not be reinstated until shortly after the restoration of the monarchy to England.

The Prayer Book in Scotland

Laud's abortive 1637 Prayer book
Laud's abortive 1637 Prayer book

With the uniting of the two thrones, King Charles I, with the assistance of Archbishop Laud, had sought to impose the prayer book on Scotland. The book concerned was not, however, the 1559 book but very much that of 1549,the first book of Edward VI. First used in 1637, it was never accepted, having been violently rejected by the Scots. Following the English Civil war, the Church of Scotland was re-established on a presbyterian basis but by the Act of Comprehension 1690, the rump of Episcopalians were allowed to hold onto their benefices. For liturgy they looked to Laud's book and in 1724 the first of the 'Wee Bookies' was published, containing, for the sake of economy, the central part of the Communion beginning with the Offertory. Between then and 1764, when a more formal revised version was published, a number of things happened which were to separate the Scottish liturgy more firmly from either the English books of 1549 or 1559. First, informal changes were made to the order of the various parts of the service and inserting words indicating a sacrificial intent to the eucharist; secondly, as a result of Bishop Rattray's researches into the liturgies of St. James and St. Clement, published in 1744, the form of the invocation was changed. These changes were incorporated into the 1764 book which was to be the liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church (until 1911 when it was revised) but it was also to influence the liturgy of the Episcopal Church in the United States (See below). (A completely new revision was finished in 1929, and several revisions to the communion service have been prepared since then.)

The 1662 prayer book

The 1662 prayer book was printed only two years after the restoration of the monarchy, following the Savoy Conference convened by Royal Warrant to review the book of 1559. Attempts by Presbyterians led by Richard Baxter to gain approval for an alternative service book were in vain. In reply to the Presbyterian Exceptions to the book only fifteen 'trivial' changes were made to the book of 1559, some of which were the opposite of what they wanted. Among them was the inclusion of the Offertory. This was achieved by the insertion of the words 'and oblations' into the prayer for the Church and the revision of the rubric so as to require the monetary offerings to be brought to the Table (instead of being put in the poor box) and the bread and wine placed upon the Table. Previously it had not been clear when and how bread and wine got onto the altar. The so-called manual acts, whereby the priest elevated the bread and the cup during the prayer of consecration, which had been deleted in 1552, were restored. After the communion the unused but consecrated bread and wine were to be reverently consumed in church rather than being taken away and used for any other occasion. By such subtle means were Cranmer's purposes further subverted, leaving it for generations to argue over the precise theology of the rite. One change was made that constituted somewhat of a reversion to Cranmerian theology was the re-insertion of the so-called Black Rubric, which had been removed in 1559. This declared that kneeling in order the receive the communion did not imply adoration of the species of the Eucharist nor 'to any Corporal Presence of Christ's natural Flesh and Blood' - which, said the rubric, were in heaven, not here.

Unable to accept the new book 2,000 Presbyterians were deprived of their livings. This revision survives today as the "standard" Parliament-approved Book of Common Prayer in England, with only minor revisions since its publication (mostly due the changes in the monarchy and in the dominion of the former Empire). Many parishes still use it, but usually only for an early morning Sunday communion, or evensong. Most services in the Church of England are from Common Worship, approved by General Synod in 2000, following nearly forty years of experiment.

The actual language of the 1662 revision was little changed from that of Cranmer, with the exception of the modernization of only the most archaic words and phrases. This book was the one which had existed as the official Book of Common Prayer during the most monumental periods of growth of the British empire, and, as a result, has been a great influence on the prayer books of Anglican churches worldwide, liturgies of other denominations in English, and of the English language as a whole.

Further developments

After the 1662 prayer book, development ceased in England until the twentieth century; that it did was, however, a bit of a close run thing. On the death of Charles II his brother, a Roman Catholic, became James II. James wished to achieve toleration for those of his own Roman Catholic faith, whose practices were still banned. This, however, drew the Presbyterians closer to the Church of England in their common desire to resist 'popery'; talk of reconciliation and liturgical compromise was thus in the air. But with the flight of James in 1688 and the arrival of the Calvinist William of Orange the position of the parties changed. The Presbyterians could achieve toleration of their practices without such a right being given to Roman Catholics and without, therefore, their having to submit to the Church of England, even with a liturgy more acceptable to them. They were now in a much stronger position to demand even more radical changes to the forms of worship. John Tillotson, Dean of St. Paul's pressed the king to set up a Commission to produce such a revision The so-called Liturgy of Comprehension of 1689, which was the result, conceded two thirds of the Presbyterian demands of 1661; but when it came to Convocation the members, now more fearful of William's perceived agenda, did not even discuss it and its contents were, for a long time, not even accessible. This work, however, did go on to influence the prayer books of many British colonies.

By the 19th century other pressures upon the book of 1662 had arisen. Adherents of the Oxford Movement, begun in 1833, raised questions about the relationship of the Church of England to the apostolic church and thus about its forms of worship. Known as Tractarians after their production of 'Tracts for the Times' on theological issues, they advanced the case for the Church of England being essentially a part of the 'Western Church', of which the Roman Catholic Church was the chief representative. The illegal use of elements of the Roman rite, the use of candles, vestments and incense, practices known as Ritualism, had become widespread and led to the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 which established a new system of discipline, intending to bring the 'Romanisers' into conformity. The Act had no effect on illegal practices: five clergy were imprisoned for contempt of court and after the trial of the much loved Bishop Edward King of Lincoln, it became clear that some revision of the liturgy had to be embarked upon. Following a Royal Commission report in 1906, work began on a new prayer book, work that was to take twenty years.

In 1927, this proposed prayer book was finished. It was decided, during development, that the use of the services therein would be decided on by each given congregation, so as to avoid as much conflict as possible with traditionalists. With these open guidelines the book was granted approval by the Church of England Convocations and Church Assembly. Since the Church of England is a state church, a further step—sending the proposed revision to Parliament—was required, and the book was rejected in December of that year when the MP William Joynson-Hicks argued strongly against it on the grounds that the proposed book was "papistical" and insufficiently Protestant. The next year was spent revising the book to make it more suitable for Parliament, but it was rejected yet again in 1928. However Convocation declared a state of emergency and authorised bishops to use the revised Book throughout that emergency.

The effect of the failure of the 1928 book was salutary: no further attempts were made to change the book, other than those required for the changes to the monarchy. Instead a different process, that of producing an alternative book, led to the publication of Series 1, 2 and 3 in the 1960s, the 1980 Alternative Service Book and subsequently to the 2000 Common Worship series of books. Both differ substantially from the Book of Common Prayer, though the latter includes in the Order Two form of the Holy Communion a very slight revision of the prayer book service altering only one or two words and allowing the insertion of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) before Communion. Order One follows the pattern of modern liturgical scholarship.

In 2003, a Roman Catholic adaptation of the BCP was published called the Book of Divine Worship. It is a compromise of material drawn from the proposed 1928 book, the 1979 ECUSA book, and the Roman Missal. It was published primarily for use by Catholic converts from Anglicanism within the Anglican Use.

The Prayer book in the Anglican Communion

With British colonial expansion from the seventeenth century onwards, the Anglican church was planted across the globe. These churches at first used and then revised the use of the Prayer Book, until they, like their parent, produced prayer books which took into account the developments in liturgical study and practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which come under the general heading of the Liturgical Movement.


The Episcopal Church in the United States of America separated itself from the Church of England in 1789, having been established in the United States in 1607. Its prayer book, published in 1790, had as its sources, the 1662 English book and the 1764 Scottish Liturgy (see above) which Bishop Seabury of Connecticut has brought over following his consecration in Aberdeen in 1784, containing elements of each.. The preface to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer says that "this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline, or worship...further than local circumstances require." There were some notable differences. For example, after the words of institution there follows a Prayer of Oblation from 1549, but into which were inserted the words 'which we now offer unto thee' (in small caps) with reference to the 'holy gifts' An epiclesis was included, as in the Scottish book, though modified to meet reformist objections. On the whole the book was modelled in the English Prayer Book, the Convention having resisted attempts at deletion and revision and modified the Scottish Liturgy to bring it substantially into line with the English.

Further revisions occurred in 1892 and 1928, in which minor changes were made, removing, for instance, some of Cranmer's Exhortations and introducing such innovations as prayers for the dead.

In 1979, a more substantial revision was made. There were now two rites for the most common services, the first which kept most of the language of 1928, and the second using only contemporary language (some of it newly composed, and some adapted from the older language). Many changes were made in the rubrics and the shapes of the services, which were generally made for both the traditional and contemporary language versions. However, there was arguably a greater degree of continuity than was the case in England, which may account for the fact that all the books of the series, from 1790 to 1979 retain the same title. The 1979 book owes a good deal to the Liturgical Movement and to the 19th century Catholic revival.

Even so the revision caused some controversy and in 2000 an apology was issued by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to those "offended or alienated during the time of liturgical transition to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer".


The Anglican Church of Australia, until 1981 officially known as the Church of England in Australia and Tasmania, became self-governing in 1961. Among other things the General Synod agreed that the Book of Common Prayer was to '... be regarded as the authorised standard of worship and doctrine in this Church ...'. In 1978 An Australian Prayer Book was produced which sought to adhere to this principle, so that where the Liturgical Committee could not agree on a formulation, the words or expressions of the BCP were to be used. The result was conservative revision.

In 1995 a similar process could be observed as elsewhere with the production of A Prayer Book for Australia which departed from both the structure and wording of the BCP. The process was accompanied by numerous objections, notably from the deeply conservatively Evangelical Diocese of Sydney which noted the loss of BCP wording and of an explicit 'biblical doctrine of substitutionary atonement'. On the other hand, the rest of the Australian church has not proved as difficult as prayer book revisers might have supposed. The Diocese of Sydney has developed its own small prayer book, called Sunday Services, to supplement the existing prayer book and preserve the original theology which the Sydney diocese asserts has been changed.


The Anglican Church of Canada developed its first Book of Common Prayer separate from the English version in 1918. The revision of 1962 was much more substantial, bearing a family relationship to that of the abortive 1928 book in England: the language was conservatively modernised, and additional seasonal material was added but, as in England, whilst many prayers were retained the structure of Communion service was altered: a Prayer of Oblation was added to the Eucharistic prayer after the 'words of institution', thus reflecting the rejection of Cranmer's theology in liturgical developments across the Anglican Communion. A French translation, Le Recueil des Prières de la Communauté Chrétienne, was published in 1967.

After a period of experimentation with the publication of various supplements, the Book of Alternative Services was published in 1985. This book (which owes much to Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and other sources) has widely supplanted the 1962 book, though the latter remains authorised. As in other places there has been a reaction and the Canadian version of the Book of Common Prayer has found supporters.


The Church of South India was the first episcopal uniting church of our age, consisting as it did, from its foundation in 1947, at the time of Indian independence, of Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationists, Presbyterians and Reformed Christians. Its liturgy, from the first, combined the free use of Cranmer's language with an adherence to the principles of congregational participation and the centrality of the Eucharist, much in line with the Liturgical Movement. Because it was a minority church of widely differing traditions in a non-Christian culture, practice varied wildly but the retention of Cranmerian language, and a sympathy with his theology, in the 2004 revision, is a reminder of both the richness of his language and the breadth of his influence.

Religious influence

The Book of Common Prayer has had a great influence on a number of other denominations. While theologically different, the language and flow of the service of many other churches owes a great debt to the prayer book.

John Wesley, an Anglican priest whose revivalist preaching led to the creation of Methodism wrote, "I believe there is no Liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety than the Common Prayer of the Church of England." Many Methodist churches in England continued to use a slightly revised version of the book for communion services well into the 20th century.

In the 1960s, when Roman Catholicism adopted a vernacular revised mass, many translations of the English prayers followed the form of Cranmer's translation.

Literary influence

Together with the King James Version of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer has been one of the three fundamental underpinnings of modern English. As it has been in regular use for centuries, many phrases from its services have passed into the English language, either as deliberate quotations or as unconscious borrowings. They are used in non-liturgical ways. For example, many authors have used quotes from the prayer book as titles for their books.

Some examples of well-known phrases from the Book of Common Prayer are:

  • "Speak now or forever hold your peace" from the marriage liturgy.
  • "Till death us do part", from the marriage liturgy.
  • "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust" from the funeral service.
  • "From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil" from the litany.

The phrase "till death us do part" has been changed to "till death do us part" in some more recent prayer books, such as the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer.

Copyright status

In most of the world the Book of Common Prayer can be freely reproduced as it is long out of copyright. This is not the case in the United Kingdom itself.

In the United Kingdom, the rights to the Book of Common Prayer are held by the British Crown. The rights fall outside the scope of copyright as defined in statute law. Instead they fall under the purview of the royal prerogative and as such they are perpetual in subsistence. Publishers are licensed to reproduce the Book of Common Prayer under letters patent. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the letters patent are held by the Queen's Printer, and in Scotland by the Scottish Bible Board. The office of Queen's Printer has been associated with the right to reproduce the Bible for many years, with the earliest known reference coming in 1577. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the Queen's Printer is Cambridge University Press. CUP inherited the right of being Queen's Printer when they took over the firm of Eyre & Spottiswoode in the late 20th century. Eyre & Spottiswoode had been Queen's Printer since 1901. Other letters patent of similar antiquity grant Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press the right to produce the Book of Common Prayer independently of the Queen's Printer.

The terms of the letters patent prohibit those other than the holders, or those authorised by the holders from printing, publishing or importing the Book of Common Prayer into the United Kingdom. The protection that the Book of Common Prayer, and also the Authorised Version, enjoy is the last remnant of the time when the Crown held a monopoly over all printing and publishing in the United Kingdom.

It is common misconception that the Controller of Her Majesty's Stationery Office holds letters patent for being Queen's Printer. The Controller of HMSO holds a separate set of letters patent which cover the office Queen's Printer of Acts of Parliament. The Scotland Act 1998 defines the position of Queen's Printer for Scotland as also being held by the Queen's Printer of Acts of Parliament. The position of Government Printer for Northern Ireland is also held by the Controller of HMSO.

As mentioned above, the ECUSA book is always released into the public domain. Trial use and supplemental liturgies are however copyrighted by Church Publishing, the official publishing arm of the church.

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