Today’s Kalendar commemorates the publication of the Church of England’s First Book of Common Prayer. Printed in 1549, it translated liturgical texts from Latin into English, with Archbishop Cranmer as the principal translator and compiler. The move to translation was in keeping with the 16th C. Reformation principle that public worship should be conducted in “a language understanded of the people.” The book represented conservative reform. In many ways Cranmer’s translation stayed close to his Roman Catholic Latin sources, while he made some adjustments in a direction away from Roman Catholic thought and practice at that time.
The book shows two major features of continuity and change, which remain in Anglicanism today. First, Cranmer combined the traditional daily monastic services into one for morning, Matins, and one for evening, Vespers. What was new was that all parishioners were invited to participate, and the services were required to be held every day in every parish church. There was also a schedule for daily reading aloud from the Bible sequentially, such that the entire Old Testament was read through once a year and the New Testament was read through four times a year. Second, much of the Latin text of the Mass was translated directly, keeping the overall shape of that liturgy. Rubrics required that traditional mass vestments were to be worn by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon (and the second printing of the book was a musical edition, with provision for the celebrant’s singing the entire prayer of consecration). All that was very familiar in look. But some important changes were made. Everyone present was to communicate, receiving both bread and wine, and parish Mass was to be celebrated at least once a week after Matins on Sunday, if not more often. The offertory was reduced in scope, with the people offering themselves, “our souls and bodies” rather than the priest’s offering gifts of bread and wine on behalf of the people. And the sense of “sacrifice” was that of “praise and thanksgiving”—these and other changes were deliberate deviations from Roman Catholic understandings at the time. (Space limits prevent detailed discussion here of the pros and cons of this.)
The book was immediately condemned both by extreme conservative Roman Catholics as “heretical” and by radical Protestant reformers as not going far enough in reaction against Romanist “idolatry.” But the book’s relatively even-handed character has formed worship and belief in a way that over time has become distinctly Anglican. The book emphazed set prayers and other texts from monastic communal worship, public Bible reading, and the importance of the communion service—especially the importance of the worshiping community’s receiving the Sacrament, not just watching the liturgy being enacted.
This “both/and rather than either/or” approach was later called “via media”—a middle way—so as to be both Catholic and Reformed. It is our heritage as Anglicans, and today we give thanks for that, as manifested especially in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington