The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography – Alan Jacobs


I read a review of this book that really intrigued me, and I’ve never really known a lot about the Book of Common Prayer (did you know our traditional wedding vows come from it?), so I asked the local library to purchase a copy and I read it.  The book tells the story of the Book of Common Prayer from its first publishing in 1549 to its use in present day.

The Book of Common Prayer was written by Thomas Cranmer so the Church of England would have its own set of liturgies separate from the Roman Catholics.  The book was written in English instead of Latin and was the first official publication that defined the worship of the Anglican Church.  It was written during the reign of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII.  Henry was the one who broke with the Roman Catholic church when the pope wouldn’t annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Ann Boleyn.  Throughout Henry’s reign, however, the church continued to use the Catholic liturgies.  It was during his son’s reign that the church defined its own methods of worship apart from Rome.

Throughout its first 200 years of existence, it was either legally the only book – apart from the Bible – that could be used in worship, OR it was legally the only book that could NOT be used in worship.  And the difference was based on the Catholic or Protestant leanings of whoever was on the throne.

The first half of this biography was fascinating because it was all history.  The second half, however, was all about how the book was revised at several points and how different disputes throughout its history shaped its form and writings.  This made the second half of the book pretty dry.

Would I recommend it?  Probably not.  The second half was a chore to finish, and the first half isn’t good enough to make the whole book worth reading.  The premise of the book is good, and it really is amazing that a book written before the King James Bible is still in use in Anglican Churches today, but the dry parts ultimately make it one to pass by.

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