The Reformation Character of the 1662 BCP

The growing popularity of the International Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer has brought many positive fruits with perhaps the greatest being a reuniting of Anglican worship to the Magisterial Reformation. The 1662 BCP does this chiefly through the content of its liturgy. Substantially, its worship is Cranmer’s, and the careful reader will note what is and what isn’t present in both the text and the rubrics. But another important component of the 1662 BCP is the introductory material, helpfully placed at the front of this new edition. The Preface, written by the Restoration bishops, along with the following two essays, “Concerning the Service of the Church” and “Concerning Ceremonies,” written by Cranmer himself, make a unified argument for the whole prayerbook. They demonstrate that the Book of Common Prayer is a Reformation document committed to Reformation principles of worship.

The Preface

To see this, one need only read through the documents and take note of how they explain their own ecclesiastical identity, both in terms of history and of values. We will start with the Preface. To begin, there is the naming of “the Church of England” (ed. Bray & Keane, ix). That might seem trivial, but it is actually quite central to the point. This book is for England and the English church. It is not an abstract theory of ecclesiology as such. Neither does it make a claim that the Church of England is a subset of some larger and higher ecclesiastical corporation. No, the point is that this particular church is telling you who it is, where it came from, and what it values.

Yes, it then points to the famous “middle way,” so beloved by Anglicanism. But here the middle is not between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, nor even Wittenberg and Geneva. Rather it is between “too much stiffness in refusing” and “too much easiness in admitting” variations in historic worship. In other words, this book is both a continuation of and a change from earlier English liturgies. Next, the preface gives a prudentially conservative explanation of its methodology. “Common experience” teaches that unnecessary changes cause more problems than they solve. So, in things “indifferent,” change should only be made with great care. Notice how the Preface considers both “the particular forms of divine worship” and “the rites and ceremonies appointed” to be such indifferent things “in their own nature.” The Scriptures are from God, as well as the acts of prayer and the sacraments, but the manner that one prays or administers the sacraments, even corporately, is not a divine law. Also importantly, the mere description “indifferent” does not mean that one can do with it however they wish. Instead, the Preface says that changes should be made only after “weighty and important considerations.” Further, these changes should only be made by “those that are in place of authority.” This was originally understood to be an argument that the civil magistrate, as the expression of the nation itself, was the final such authority (all quotes in this paragraph are from p. ix).

And importantly, the Preface claims that it was the Reformation which was the turning point in English liturgical history. “Since the Reformation,” certain “alterations” were made to the prayer book, but these were all minor changes (ix). “The main body and essentials of it… have still continued the same unto this day, and do yet stand firm and unshaken…” (ix-x). So, the 1662 BCP is essentially the same worship as that which the Church of England practiced and defended at the time of the Reformation.

The Preface does go on to criticize “such men as are given to change and have always discovered a greater regard to their own private fancies and interests than to the duty they owe to the public” (x). These are surely the Puritans, or perhaps many of the Puritans, though the Preface also mentions “the growth of Anabaptism” in England (xii). There is perhaps a bit of defensiveness in some of this rhetoric, though the political history makes it understandable. Still, we should not allow the polemics to distract us. The argument is that the Church of England believes the proposals of these critics to be either unnecessary, unwise, or indeed contrary to its goal of conserving the English Reformation worship.

Concerning the Service of the Church

Next we move to an older document, Cranmer’s own preface of sorts, “Concerning the Service of the Church.” Cranmer explains that there are no human constructions, things devised “by the wit of man,” which can avoid the corruption of time (xiii). Thus, he sees the need for a new prayer book. He then goes on to explain the original goals and values of the worship services which were crafted by “the ancient Fathers” (xiv). The first goal listed is the reading of Scripture, “that all the whole Bible (or the greater part thereof) should be read over once every year” (xiv). This reading of the Word would then serve several purposes. Firstly, it would stir the clergy up to godliness. Secondly, it would enable the clergy to “exhort others by wholesome doctrine and to confute them that were adversaries” (xiv). Thirdly, this would work its way to down to the laity, as Cranmer argues that “daily hearing of Holy Scripture read in the church” would help them to grow “in the knowledge of God” and “inflame [them] with the love of his true religion” (xiv). For Cranmer, the main goal of the service of the church is Bible reading and the teaching of true doctrine.

Cranmer then goes on to list the corruptions which set in historically, things which detracted from this original good goal. The first corruption was the shortening, marginalizing, and eventually replacing of the Word of God with “uncertain stories and legends” as well as overly elaborate liturgical theatrics (xiv). He notes that the Scriptures ceased being read consecutively but were rather broken up to fit some sort of cyclical calendar scheme. “But they were only begun and never read through” (xiv). Thus the meaning of the Scriptures was overshadowed and eventually lost.

Cranmer lists a few other problems. The failure to keep the liturgy in a language understood by the people was a total obstacle to hearing not only with the ears but also the heart, spirit, and mind (xv). Further, the “hardness of the rules,” “the manifold changings of the service,” and the multiplication of “anthems, responds, invitatories, and such like things” interrupted “the continual course of the reading of the Scriptures (xv). Collectively, this made the Word of God inaccessible to the people, and so the liturgy became self-defeating.

Cranmer states that this new book, his Book of Common Prayer, will return worship to its earlier condition, though in a new way. “There must be some rules,” he says, but the new ones will be easy (xv). He will leave out the “untrue.. uncertain… vain and superstitious” things and is instead emphasize “the very pure word of God.” The “language and order is most easy and plain for the understanding,” and it has “few and easy” rules to follow. Simplicity is a virtue. Cranmer also wants uniformity within England, and he notes that the manifold use of the Sarum Rite, the Hereford Rite, the Bangor, York, and Lincoln Rites, are now to be discontinued in favor of the Book of Common Prayer. However, he does allow the local parish to “resort to the bishop” if there is any need to use “discretion” to ease doubtful consciences. Liberty in extraordinary cases is allowed, so long as the necessary modifications “be not contrary to anything contained in this book” (xvi).

Of Ceremonies, Why Some Be Abolished & Some Retained

Finally we come to Cranmer’s own apologetic for liturgical reform, “Of Ceremonies.” Here he gives his own philosophy of worship. Much of it was repeated in the other documents, namely the affirmation that much of the liturgy was instituted by man (xvii, xviii) and that there is a need to chart a middle way between too much traditional conservation and too much innovation (xviii). But Cranmer does add a bit more detail to this claims and explain his theology more clearly.

“Order” is the primary category. Cranmer states that “the keeping or omitting of a ceremony, in itself considered, is but a small thing” (xviii). This is because, as he notes on the next page, “Christ’s gospel is not a ceremonial law” (xix). And so, the BCP is not a Christian version of Leviticus, and there is no insinuation that Christian liturgy is a continuation of that of the Old Covenant. Rather, “Christ’s gospel… is a religion to serve God, not in bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of the Spirit.” The rules and ceremonies are for the purpose, then, of “decent order and godly discipline,” as well as edification (xix).

Cranmer also notes that some will be dissatisfied because the BCP changes too much and others will be so because it does not change enough. He wants to craft a liturgy that can be used by all, but, ultimately, Cranmer says, he is not responding to popular demand so much as trying to assume proper leadership over the whole national church. “It was thought expedient not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God and profit them both” (xviii). The 1662 BCP is political, but more than that, it is biblical.

Antiquity is a value for Cranmer. While not shirking back from the reality that church history contained many harmful distortions, he also believes that many old ceremonies can be retained. To those who might be doubtful about the ancient traditional forms, he writes “surely where the old may be well used, there they cannot reasonably reprove the old only for their age without bewraying of their own folly” (xx). “Newfangleness,” Cranmer says, “is always to be eschewed” (xx). The ancient forms of worship which have been retained by the BCP are not those which were historically abused, nor those which would “burden men’s conscience,” but are rather good and helpful so long as they are not “esteemed equal with God’s law” (xx). If these are understood to be adiaphora, and as means to the end of godly worship in good order, then they are good and proper.

Cranmer then concludes by explaining the national character of the BCP. He explicitly states that the Church of England does not “condemn” other nations whose forms of worship differ. “For we think it convenient that every country should use such ceremonies as they shall think best to the setting forth of God’s honour and glory, and to the reducing of the people to a most perfect and godly living, without error or superstition…” (xxi). He also says that other nations might choose to make different changes, depending on the particular kinds of abuses in those countries and their particular needs.


If we take seriously the arguments of the Preface, Concerning the Service of the Church, and Of Ceremonies, we see a Protestant prayer book which emphasizes the centrality of the Word of God, the accessibility of that Word for teaching, a moderate attitude towards change, a preference for simplicity, a desire for national unity, and a defense of spiritual liberty. Political wisdom is valued, but corporate edification is the higher goal. There is no hint of legalism. There is also no romantic defense of an idealized “catholicism.” Instead there is an appreciation of antiquity along with a sober acknowledgement of the deformation that came with church history. Instead of a rebuilding from the ground up, however, the good things that could be retained without offense were kept, though sometimes with a new meaning and always with the purpose of magnifying Christ’s gospel.

It is a meet thing, and most fitting, that these old liturgical essays are now accessible to a common audience. They were, in their day, an authoritative part of the BCP as a whole. We can hope that many Anglicans in our own will see their value and usefulness for the edification and reformation of the churches. We can, perhaps even more ambitiously, hope that this new printing of the 1662 BCP might lead to a reinstatement of the historic principles which once underlaid the laudable practices.


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