Advent Meditation 1: Book of Common Prayer Prefaces

This is the first of two Advent Meditations on the Book of Common Prayer Prefaces. The second meditation will be delivered on Wednesday, 13 December.

“Blessed are those servants,
whom their lord when he cometh shall find watching”

Advent is the season of our watching and waiting upon the motions of God’s Word coming towards us. That emphasis upon the Word of God is a distinctive feature of the Christian Faith and a defining feature of the Common Prayer tradition. Tucked away in the back pages of our Canadian Book of Common Prayer (1962), on pages 715-721 are three important historical documents about which it may be of benefit to ponder and consider. They are, first, The Original Preface (1549) altered in 1552 and 1662: Concerning the Service of the Church; second, Of Ceremonies: Why Some Be Abolished and Some Retained (1549), and; and third, The Preface of 1662. They provide, in short, a kind of apology in the sense of an explanation about the whole enterprise of Common Prayer.

Unlike the Athanasian Creed and the Thirty-nine Articles which some of you may have thumbed over during a particularly boring or trying sermon, these documents are probably completely unknown, if for no other reason than the extremely small print in which they are written. But they speak to the form of God’s Word coming to us and to our watching and waiting upon that Word through the pattern of doctrine in devotion that comprises the Book(s) of Common Prayer. They assist us in understanding something of the nature of an Anglican witness to the Christian Faith.

The Original Preface (1549) Concerning The Service of the Church, slightly altered in 1552 and again in 1662, and Of Ceremonies: Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained (1549) were written by Thomas Cranmer and help to locate some of the motivating factors that contributed to the creation of the Book(s) of Common Prayer. The third document along with the slight alterations made in 1662 to the Original Preface: Concerning the Service of the Church were written by Robert Sanderson, Bishop of Lincoln. The reason for two prefaces has to do with the English Civil War and its disruptions in the seventeenth century including the abolition of bishops and the Book of Common Prayer for fifteen years between 1645 and 1660. The restoration of the Stuart monarchy after the Cromwellian Inter-regnum brought with it the return of bishops and the Prayer Book but in new circumstances requiring some modest but significant revisions. The changes were in many ways quite few; the most notable being the adoption of the King James version of the Bible for the Epistles and Gospels appointed in the Eucharistic lectionary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, itself the great mother book of the Common Prayer tradition for the next three and half centuries. Once again, it suggests an emphasis on the Word of God and the way it is read. There was also the provision for The Ministration of Holy Baptism to such as are of Riper Years, to use the rather quaint sounding expression, And Able to Answer for Themselves, since infant baptism had been largely proscribed during the Inter-regnum period. A reasonable and understandable provision.

Tonight I wish to attend to the Original Preface of 1549 by Cranmer and altered slightly by him in 1552. Concerning the Service of the Church, as it is subtitled, it reveals something of the major concerns of the period about the patterns of Christian life and study through the public reading of the Scriptures in the Churches. This was by no means a merely academic exercise nor simply an English concern. And this was by no means either a reformation and Protestant concern as distinct from a Roman Catholic concern. The early sixteenth century witnesses to a rich cluster of questions about the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and the forms of their expression in the newly emerging national churches of Europe as well as in the Roman Catholic Church.

It is really only at this time that one can speak properly about a Roman Catholic Church as distinct from simply the Catholic Church. But for what would become classical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism there was a common concern for the catholic faith and debate about things indifferent. Some of those features appear in the second document written by Cranmer, Of Ceremonies: Why Some be Abolished and Some Retained. The early decades of the sixteenth century also show an important tension and question about the idea of the translation of the Scriptures into the vernacular languages of the European national states. At issue in that question is the matter of authority as well as an intellectual concern about translation that reflects the growing interest in texts and cultures. It reflects something of the intellectual ferment of the period. All these matters are of considerable importance for Cranmer’s Original Preface.

As one commentator (Blunt) notes, “there can be no doubt that it was written with the Reformed Roman Breviary of Quignonez lying open before the writer.” In other words, questions about the reform of the western Church’s liturgy were universal and various projects were underway in different places at the same time. Cardinal Quignonez and Cranmer are in essential agreement that there was a problem about how the Scriptures had come to be read in the life of the Church. Cranmer adopts many of Quignonez’s observations with very little alteration. There is a common interest to find a way in which, and in looking back deliberately to the ancient Fathers “all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once every year.”

Thus Cranmer begins with an almost word for word translation into English of Quignonez’ Preface to his Reformed Roman Breviary. The words are memorable. “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which, in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.” And particularly for Cranmer and for Quignonez, this is true of “the Common Prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service.”

Two things are of note. For both the concern is about reading the whole or at least the greatest part of the Scriptures thereof in the course of a year. As the Preface continues, there is the recognition that the pattern of reading has been broken up “by planting in uncertain Stories, and Legends, with multitude of Responds, Verses, vain Repetitions, Commemorations, and Synodals” as well as by the difficulties of calculating calendrical concerns such that “to turn the Book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out.” It is another memorable turn of phrase. It meant that the idea of reading more or less continuously through the biblical books had become consistently interrupted and was too complicated to figure out what should be read and when.

Though Quignonez and Cranmer are interested in the doctrinal and devotional importance of the reading of the Scripture by the clergy, Quignonez’s reform is specifically and only directed to the clergy. The Breviary is, really, a book for clerics. Cranmer’s reform envisions the remarkable project of providing a pattern by which clergy might be able to edify the laity, at least holding out the hope of a biblically learned people, and hinting at what might be called the idea of “a godly commonwealth”, to use John Booty’s felicitous phrase. It captures something of the vision of the reformers of the period.

To that end, The Original Preface recommends the translation of the Scriptures into English. It is appointed that “all things shall be read and sung in the Church in the English tongue, to the end, that the congregation may be thereby edified.” The Original Preface ends with the desiderata that the Offices being said in the Parish-Church and a bell being rung for that purpose, “the people may come to hear God’s Word, and to pray with” the clergy. A noble aim. At the same time, Cranmer allows for the clergy to say the Offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer privately “in any language that they themselves do understand.” The distinction between private and public prayer is equally instructive about the forms of early modernity.

Cranmer recognizes that there has “been great diversity in saying and singing in Churches within this Realm” meaning England, “some following Salisbury Use, some Hereford Use, and some the Use of Bangor, some of York, some of Lincoln”. The great change in 1549 is that “now from henceforth all the whole Realm shall have but one Use.” That at least was the ideal and the principle and contributes to a new sensibility about the idea of Common Prayer. In place of complicated and complex rules, it is wanted that there be rules that are “few in number” and that are “plain and easy to understand.” The entire programme is about making the reading and hearing of Scripture more accessible and to make the programme of reading something for the whole Church and not just the clergy.

In many ways, the reform indicated in The Original Preface is modest, restrained, and conservative and focusses on the major issue of the reading of Scripture. What is assumed is the importance of the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer in order to realize the desiderata of the reading of the whole Bible yearly while recognising certain limitations such as indicated in the parenthetical phrase “or the greatest part thereof” as well as the difficulties of having laity participating in the round of daily prayers. Nonetheless, it speaks of an ideal that moves in the direction of a greater degree of reading and understanding of the Scriptures. As we shall see, Cranmer’s programme assumes that the Scriptures can and must be read through a creedal understanding which is to suggest that he has a high doctrine of Scripture and its capacity, in principle, to be understood.

What is also noteworthy of The Original Preface is that it borrows so freely and completely from the catholic reform already underway in Cardinal Quignonez’s breviary. This counters to some extent the conflict narratives that so often bedevil our ecclesiological thinking, in this instance pitting Catholics against Protestants. In the matter of the reading of Holy Scripture there was a remarkable degree of agreement between them about the reading the whole of the Scriptures.

The Original Preface reminds us of a defining feature of the Common Prayer tradition and one which speaks to its essential Catholicism. We are to be like “those servants, whom their lord when he cometh shall find watching.” We watch and wait upon the motions of God’s Word coming to us, something to which the Common Prayer tradition was acutely conscious of promoting and encouraging.

“Blessed are those servants,
whom their lord when he cometh shall find watching”

Fr. David Curry
Advent Meditation
Eve of Comm. of Saint Nicholas
December 5th, 2017

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