Essay / On This Day

Today the First English Prayerbook Was Mandated (1549)

1549 prayer book On January 21, 1549, the House of Commons agreed with the previous decision of the House of Lords in passing an act that declared the brand new Book of Common Prayer to be the only legal form for worship in England. This was the first of several Acts of Uniformity.

Check out the whole 1549 prayer book online here. It’s very different from the later editions, but unless you’re fluent in the language of liturgy, you’ll have to take the historians’ word for it, because it pretty much looks like the Book of Common Prayer. And that’s because it is; notwithstanding all the important changes that were still to come in the development of the BCP, it is recognizable here.

The good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good: According to prayerbook historian Dyson Hague, there would have been four striking things about the book for a 1549 churchman: First, it was just one book: “For centuries there had been a number of books. The bishop had his books; the priest had his books; the choir had their books; and, with the exception of a stray Primer or the like, the laity had none.” Now here was a one-volume guidebook that taught how to pray and how to order a devout life.

Second, it was all in English. “With the exception of the titles of the Canticles and the Psalms, there was not a word of Latin in it from beginning to end.”

Third, the ancient ceremony of the Mass, the Sunday morning central event of Christian life, was listed as one service among many. The Roman Catholic theology of the Mass would be more painstakingly deconstructed in later editions, but already in 1549 it has been set in a wider context.

Fourth, the readings for the various services have been strictly limited to the Bible and a small set of readings from the Apocrypha. Gone are all the readings from legendary saints’ lives and various other elements that the compilers of this book viewed as clutter.

The Bad. The 1549 BCP was an expedient compromise between two main parties, which thought of themselves as “men of the new learning” and “men of the old learning,” but which would within a few decades be identifiable as Protestant and Catholic. It left so many things open to interpretation that it could be put to uses contrary to the wishes of the compilers. Priests who wanted their Latin Masses just chanted the service in a droning English that nobody could understand anyway. This first attempt at an Anglican “middle way” definitely fell between two stools. By June, riots and rebellions were breaking out. And that brings us to

The Ugly. An act of Parliament mandating a uniform national worship is either meaningless, or it is backed by the political will to enforce it. The act of uniformity itself stipulated clear punishments for a first, second, and third offense. These punishments ranged from fines to prison time. But when the rebellions broke out, the King had to take action: In Devonshire, the leaders of a violent rebellion were publicly executed.

In 1549, the main rebels were Catholic objectors to the religion of the prayerbook, and the penalties of the first Act of Uniformity were aimed at them. As the decades rolled along, penalties of later acts of uniformity would be directed against the opposite opponents, the Puritans. The plan of the Anglican “middle way” was for everybody to step into line with prayerbook services. Those who erred to the left or to the right had to be dealt with.

Three years later, a major revision of the Book of Common Prayer was introduced, requiring a new act of uniformity declaring penalties for the use of the old edition. It wasn’t as arbitrary as it sounds: Cranmer and his team had good reasons for the changes in the new edition, and they really were hammering out a national church that could teach and shepherd responsibly, conserving the best of the old and reforming what had been abused.

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