by Alan Jacobs
Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J. 247 pages
In 2011, when Princeton University Press launched its new series “Lives of Great Religious Books,” it could boast several renowned contributors including Garry Wills and Martin E. Marty. Past and forthcoming books in this eclectic collection include: Augustine’s “Confessions,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity,” and many more.
The brain child of Fred Appel, senior editor at PUP, the series is meant to give the biography of books — for they too have lives — from the time of their writing, to their initial reception and through their subsequent impact over time.
A recent and much-welcomed addition to this series is Allan Jacob’s “The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.” Largely written by Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, the Prayer Book first appeared in 1549 amid the tumult of the English Reformation. Like the King James Bible and Shakespeare’s plays, its elegant diction and mellifluous cadences have become suffused and engrained in the English language. Phrases such as “dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God,” “to love and to cherish,” and “ashes to ashes and dust to dust” have gone well beyond the stained-glass confines of the Church of England to touch the hearts and souls of English speakers around the world.
Jacobs, who taught at Wheaton College from 1984 to 2013 and is now the distinguished professor of the humanities in the honors program at Baylor University, has written a fast-paced, accessible narrative. Cranmer, he explains, attempted to write a book that would forge “a common English cultural identity” as well as teach the new Protestant theology to the English people. Though much of the Prayer Book was based on or influenced by prior Latin rites, the book quietly dropped a number of Catholic practices such as praying to the saints and the belief in purgatory. Cranmer’s creation of Matins and Evensong, on the other hand, provided a new way for ordinary English people to pray faithfully.
The Prayer Book was controversial immediately upon publication. Catholics mocked it as “but like a Christmas game” while Puritans objected to the continued use of the surplice, the wafer in Holy Communion, the wedding ring, the term “priest” rather than “minister” for the officiant, and other things that to them seemed to smack of “papistry.” Jacobs follows the book’s life through the ups and downs of over four and a half centuries, noting that its high point of acceptance was the Victorian era — three centuries after it was first penned. When in the 1960s the English people were finally given alternatives to Cranmer’s venerable opus, many were aghast. Poet W. H. Auden wrote his vicar, “Dear Father Allen: have you gone stark raving mad?”
Though Jacobs shows the clear need for modernized alternatives to this sixteenth-century masterpiece, he laments that once innovation was allowed it could not be contained. And now with the Internet, alternative liturgies are potentially infinite. Hence, Cranmer’s dream of a book that would be truly “common” to the English people is probably lost forever.
MICHAEL PARKER is director of graduate studies and professor of church history at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, Egypt.