Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

The first English Book of Common Prayer 1549 was largely the work of Thomas Cranmer.  He had been working on the revision of the daily services for at least ten years previously.  It is in his work on the daily services that Cranmer’s liturgical genius reached its highest expression.  The Roman Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer described the Offices of Mattins and Evensong as performed in English churches and cathedrals as “one of the purest forms of Christian common prayer to be found anywhere in the world.”

Cranmer succeeded in pruning the intricate Medieval Latin services to produce the simple services of the Prayer Book.  He reduced the eight daily offices to two by fusing element of Matins, Lauds and Prime to produce the morning office, and elements of Vespers and Compline to produce the evening office.  Cranmer’s guiding principles were,

  • The greater part of the Bible and the whole of the Psalter should be read over the course of the year.
  •  Vernacular English was chosen as the new ritual language. This meant underlining the break with Catholicism by rejecting the Latin of the Catholic service books in favour of a tongue “clearly understanded of the people”.
  • Services would be simplified, briefer and more straightforward.  Only a Bible and Prayer Book would be required for their performance.
  • Only scriptural material was to be used and non-biblical material was to be omitted.  This was in accord with the Reformation principle of purity of doctrinal content, tested by conformity with Holy Scripture.
  • There was to be a single ‘use’, that of the Book of Common Prayer, to be observed throughout the Church of England.

It is clear that, unlike the pre-Reformation elaborate Latin services, these services were intended for the laity as well as the clergy.  The emphasis is on the need for intelligent participation in simplified services in conformity with Holy Scripture.

Both Mattins and Evensong began with the Lord’s Prayer. In the second Book of Common Prayer 1552 the reading of a sentence of scripture followed by the exhortation ‘Dearly beloved brethren etc.’ was added.  This led to the general confession and a form of absolution.  The opening versicles and responses follow.  The medieval Hallelujah became ‘Praise ye the Lord’ with the response  ‘The Lord’s name be praised’.  The Venite, Psalm 95, was retained from the medieval services as an introduction to the psalmody for the day at Mattins. The central part of both offices consists of psalms and canticles interspersed with lessons giving equal weight to the reading of Scriptures.  The psalms and the Old Testament lesson are linked to the New Testament lesson by a biblical canticle.  This has always been recognised as one of Cranmer’s master-strokes. 

The first canticle at Mattins was to be the Te Deum Laudamus, traditionally ascribed to St Ambrose of Milan (d.397). This canticle follows the outline of the Creed with a poetic vision of the heavenly Liturgy and a declaration of faith. The second is the Benedictus while at Evensong the two canticles are the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. The Apostle’s Creed follows in which the Faith is reaffirmed as the context within which the readings of the day are to be understood. This leads to the responses and prayers, again much simplified. 

The Collect for the Day is followed by two set collects one for peace (a different one at Evensong) and a third collect related respectively to morning or evening.  The revision of 1662 made provision for the singing of an anthem before the set of occasional prayers and thanksgivings. The original translations of the Psalms by Miles Coverdale from the Great Bible were retained and are now regularly sung by choirs to Anglican chants making them treasures of English culture.  The Book of Common Prayer to this day is the doctrinal standard of the Church of England which every priest accedes to by solemn oath at his/her ordination.

In his liturgy Cranmer bequeathed to the newly reformed English Church a magnificent heritage of worship imparting to Anglican Christianity its distinction. Even more than this Cranmer’s masterpiece (“the means of Grace and the hope of glory”) remains of the greatest comfort, providing consolation and hope today just as it has done down the long corridors of time.

Christopher Jobson

One thought on “Thomas Cranmer and the Book of Common Prayer

  1. We are truly blessed and inspired and grateful for Chris’ contributions to the website.
    Thank you.

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