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A review for Anglicans Online
A review of
Since 1995, Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series has condensed the wisdom of experts in their fields into entry-level treatments of more than 550 topics. Just at the beginning of the alphabet, one can find Accounting, Adolescence, American Legal History, Ancient Assyria, the Antarctic, Anxiety, Artificial Intelligence, Augustine, and the Avant Garde—all accessible and digested easily in the space of an afternoon. The most recent entry in the series is Brian Cummings’s The Book of Common Prayer: A Very Short Introduction.
Cummings introduces the BCP’s history, contents, and reception under six broad rubrics: Ritual and the Reformation; the Making of the Book of Common Prayer; Word, body and gesture; Politics and religion; Empire and Prayer Book; and Modernity and the Book of Common Prayer. (American readers do well to be aware throughout that “BCP” and “Prayer Book” refer only to the 1549-1662 textual tradition, and not to the 1979 American edition.) He notes at the outset that the complexity of the BCP’s roles as a liturgical text and a carrier of national identity make it difficult as a subject for a Very Short Introduction: “more than most books, [it] has divided users between those to whom it grants a sense of belonging, and those whom it excludes. My Very Short Introduction aims to be inclusive of all readers.”
After fifteen pages on the ritual background of the English Reformation, describing late medieval Latin liturgy, Cummings introduces Cranmer and the reform of worship under Edward VI. This will be familiar ground for practicing Anglicans, but the refresher is helpful and couched in creative terms. In what Cummings calls the “strange counterfactual history of the English Reformation” (with the Roman Catholic reaction of Mary following the Edwardian reforms) he explains clearly the processes through which England “might have remained forever Catholic and European” but instead became more distinctly Protestant and English. The resulting Book codifying this identity was a legal document as well as a religious one, so moderate and susceptible of interpretation that it could be banned by Mary for being too Protestant, and banned by Parliament for being too Catholic.
We next walk through the standard account of the drastic changes in the BCP in years still memorized by scholars of the period: 1549, 1552, 1559, 1604 (minor), and finally 1662. Cummings’s own earlier scholarship in a critical edition of the Prayer Book’s texts, published in the Oxford World’s Classics series in 2013, is a helpful companion here. There are useful introductions to the shape of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, the Holy Communion, Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and the Burial of the Dead.
Perhaps the most interesting chapters are the last two, one on the Prayer Book and British imperialism, and the other on the Prayer Book and modernity.
The first is concerned largely with Prayer Book translation and its role in creating a global Anglicanism as the Church of England traveled with the British navy, assuring “that just as the sun never set, so Evensong never ended in the British Empire.” Translations of the BCP began almost with the beginning of English vernacular worship itself because of the presence of other major language groups in the Church of England. Welsh, Irish, French (for Calais and the Channel Islands), Dutch (for émigré communities in English cities), and Latin (for use at the two universities) were in print in short order. Greek, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish translations appeared to support religious disputation with Roman Catholics, or Anglican self-presentation to Orthodox Christians. As missionary activity expanded in the beginning of the nineteenth century, so the number of BCP translations ballooned to more than 200 languages and dialects; it was occasionally the first book published in a local language, a ready-made blueprint for the inculcation of English social and religious order in a tongue “understanded of the people.”
The final chapter looks at the role of the BCP in times of social, linguistic, and theological change, charting both its stability as an ecclesiastical norm and the various recent efforts to revise it in local Anglican churches. “A battle to the death was drawn between traditionalists, who regarded many of the verbal experiments as banal; and innovators, for whom it was axiomatic that only modern forms of speech could be appropriate for a new age.” There is a sense in which demographic attrition has made these arguments a matter of only internecine importance. Cummings is adept at turning attention away from these conflicts, and instead parsing the attitudes of W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot to BCP revision and the place of language in modern belief and poetry. Nevertheless, and “Alas, the social miracle of the second-person [singular] pronoun is lost to modern English.”
As an experienced student and user of the BCP, I have some minor quibbles with this Very Short Introduction. The first is the consistent application of italics to the title of the Book of Common Prayer. As a constitutional and religious document, it does not need the italics of academic writing, fiction, or periodicals. We do not italicize Bible, Quran, Torah, Talmud, Missal, Breviary, or Constitution because they are canonical texts. The BCP can stand on its own in an introductory text, just as it always does in our own constitutional and canonical material within the Anglican Communion. There is also a slight mistake in a paragraph about Prayer Book debates in which a “high church party” in Virginia and an “evangelical” party in Connecticut resulted in the first American BCP in 1789; the geographies and corresponding churchmanship are reversed. Lastly, Cummings is entirely incorrect in identifying John Keble (1792-1866) as a proponent of later Victorian Ritualism (p. 105).
My quibbles (and that is all they are) aside, there is no better brief introduction to the Book of Common Prayer written with a balance of literary, historical, and religious approaches. Priced at just US$11.95, and with under 120 pages of reading text, the book is ideal for parish book groups, campus ministry studies, stocking stuffers, or even travel reading. It would also be suitable for adult confirmation classes or inquirers’ education. There is a helpful section of suggestions for further reading that could easily serve as a graduate-level syllabus for seminarians studying liturgy. A handful of illustrations give visual support to the narrative, and the index (not always a given in recent books) is useful.