The Book of Common Prayer

A Very Short Introduction

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Brian Cummings
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“Cranmer may not be a celebrated writer, but he knew how to read, how to compile, and how to edit” (118). This quote accurately summarized the history and mystery behind The Book of Common Prayer. In The Book of Common Prayer: A Very Short Introduction, author Brian Cummings traces the nearly 500-year history of The Book of Common Prayer—its origins, development, and place in society. Cummings’s study is an exploration into the bibliographic history of The Book of Common Prayer, understanding the developments of the book itself, and the changing beliefs of people who used it. The argument of this text is to present the history of The Book of Common Prayer in a short, accessible, and easy-to-understand read. To this end, Cummings divides his work into six chapters, focusing on the cultural context of the text, its formation, contents, and its adoption throughout various peoples and times in history. 

Cummings does an excellent job placing The Book of Common Prayer within its historical context. Starting not with the book itself, but the centuries before the 16th century, Cummings describes the English world before and throughout the Reformation. The use of a service book is not new to Christianity. Early in the chapter, Cummings familiarizes the reader with other 16th century service books. Cummings acquaints his audience not only with the early modern service books contextually, but with their contents as well. Cummings’s descriptions of potentially complex doctrines, such as transubstantiation, purgatory, and prayers for the dead, are made comprehensible. Thus, he lays the essential groundwork in a manageable chapter, setting the stage for the development of The Book of Common Prayer.

One of the central arguments of Cummings’s work is the emphasis on uniformity of religion and practice within the Tudor period (1485-1603) and, by extension, in The Book of Common Prayer. The multiple attempts to clarify what is Anglican doctrine is just one example of this struggle for uniformity. Once this doctrine is eventually defined, it must then face the scruples of its expression in worship. The Book of Common Prayer represents the attempt of the English monarchy at establishing and controlling the religion of its subjects. Yet, royal and scholarly consensus does not mean popular approval, as Cummings shows that the first iteration of The Book of Common Prayer met with backlash, even to the point of rebellion. Cummings’s explanations on the intricacies of the debates throughout the Tudor and Stuart periods, which plagued the Church of England and The Book of Common Prayer, are both succinct and rich in detail. He explains the debates on eucharistic and baptismal theology in a way that does not confuse the reader with technical terms, but also does not allow the descriptions to become oversimplified. After spending four chapters explaining the origins and developments of The Book of Common Prayer, Cummings switches his narrative to the dissemination of The Book of Common Prayer and, with it, the Anglican faith.

Language is one of the key factors and challenges to The Book of Common Prayer outside of England. The requirement of the English language service is as much about control over the populace as is the physical dominance of the British Empire. The English phrases of the Book of Common Prayer, such as “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known” and “earth to earth, ashes to ashes” (119), become part of its culture. Cummings’s focus on The Book of Common Prayer regards its usefulness as a liturgical tool, as well as a continual byproduct of debates on Englishness, loyalty to the English crown, and what it means to be a Christian of the Anglican persuasion.

Cummings’s work is rife with contemporary historical examples, citing modern plays, songs, and poems that, in some way or another, were influenced by The Book of Common Prayer, such as Robinson Crusoe or David Bowie. There are pictures scattered throughout the text which provide visual context of various editions of The Book of Common Prayerand its people. There are also text boxes that explain terms or passages from The Book of Common Prayer that elucidate Cummings’s point, and give examples of the text and the beauty of the language therein.

The Book of Common Prayer: A Very Short Introduction is an excellent summary of the origins of The Book of Common Prayer and its impact on history, from the Tudors to the present. Cummings’s accessible prose makes for an enjoyable read that is not overburdened with technical or theological jargon. His work does not advance new arguments on Anglicanism or the Church of England, however, its relatively short length coupled with its overview of the mainstay of the Church of England’s liturgical text makes it an excellent tool for historians or scholars of religions interested in the topic. This book is versatile enough to use in a college classroom, as well as a refresher for the minister who uses The Book of Common Prayer in their daily life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tanner J. Moore is a doctoral student in Early Modern European History at Purdue University.

Date of Review: 
May 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian Cummings FBA is Anniversary Professor at the University of York in the Department of English and Related Literature. He was previously Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of English at the University of Sussex, and has also held Visiting Fellowships in California, in Munich, and Toronto.


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