A Case Study in Liturgics, Theology, and Politics—The Life of the Book of Common Prayer


Review of Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton UP, 2014)

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written an elegant history of an extraordinary book—the Anglican Book of Common Prayer–in the Princeton University Press “Lives of Great Religious Books” series.  The subtitle “A Biography” is apropos in that the BCP over the centuries has taken on a remarkable life of its own and exercised influence that goes well beyond the confines of the Anglican tradition.

The most compelling character in this story is Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI, whose liturgical scholarship, political acumen, and literary genius decisively shaped the first editions of the BCP. Cranmer intended that England should have a standardized form of worship for the realm, a common worship that would be enshrined in a single book and enforced politically. He also intended that this common form of worship would reflect and express a distinctly Protestant theology. Thus even in Cranmer we see two sets of relationships—the connection of liturgy and politics, and the relation of liturgy and theology—that Jacobs then seeks to unpack throughout the book.

The relation of liturgy and politics emerges repeatedly in Jacob’s narrative, as the BCP was imposed on Puritans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and as Puritans responded by banning the BCP when they came to power during the English Interregnum. Even well into the nineteenth century legal sanctions were imposed against those who sought to interpret certain “rubrics” in the BCP regarding liturgical practice in too “Catholic” a manner.

Likewise with the relationship of liturgy and theology. Of course the Puritans, with their Reformed regulative principle of worship, had principled objections to set forms, the celebration of holy days, and anything that smacked of Catholicism—in short, to the whole concept of the BCP. But for a considerable period of time both low-church Evangelicals and the traditional Anglican high-church party found that the BCP was a common denominator they could live with. But this not-entirely-comfortable arrangement was decisively upset in the nineteenth century by the Oxford movement’s theological challenge to the Protestant character of the BCP and by the catholicizing liturgical practices they sought to implement, and also by the three-way split of the Anglican Communion between broad-church liberals, low-church evangelicals, and Anglo-Catholics.   The diversity had become too great, and thus a single book could no longer provide liturgical expression consonant with the various theologies represented in the Anglican church.

All this brings us to the liturgical reforms of the twentieth century that were driven not only by an increasing sense that the venerable 1662 BCP was getting long in the tooth but also by the influential liturgical scholarship of Gregory Dix, whose The Shape of the Liturgy shifted attention from the wording of liturgy to the moments or stages of liturgical celebration. This latter development, Jacobs argues, decisively opened the door to liturgical developments that were not tied to the specific language of the BCP.

The end result of all this—especially the political impossibility of enforcing conformity and the ever-increasing theological diversity—was, as Jacobs argues, that the notion of a common book of worship has been replaced by a wide variety of liturgical books and resources.

Jacob’s book is engaging, well written, and quite accessible to non-specialists. His treatment of the Oxford Movement’s response to the Gorham case in the nineteenth century is stimulating and insightful, as is his explanation of Gregory Dix’s remarkable impact on liturgical scholarship.

One niggle has to do with Jacob’s presentation of Cranmer as a Zwinglian memorialist with regard to the Eucharist, where he follows the thesis of Gregory Dix that Cranmer moved directly from Roman Catholic transubstantiation to Zwinglianism. To be sure, this is a vexed question. Jacobs cites Diarmaid MacCulloch’s significant study of Cranmer in support of this position, but MacCulloch’s conclusions are both more nuanced and more complicated than Jacobs allows. In fact, MacCulloch contends that the earlier Cranmer held to “what is quite recognizable Lutheranism,” and he utilizes Brian Gerrish’s distinction between “symbolic memorialism” (Zwingli), “symbolic instrumentalism” (Calvin), and “symbolic parallelism” (Bullinger), presenting Cranmer as “closest to the symbolic parallelism of Bullinger” (see MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer: A Life [Yale UP, 1996], pp. 614-17). All this is to say that Jacobs is a bit less sure-footed when it comes to some finer theological distinctions.

Such minor criticism does not, however, detract from Jacob’s achievement here. While The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography is not the definitive word on the subject, it is nevertheless a splendid first word and a wonderful introduction to the history of a most remarkable liturgical document.