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The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books) Hardcover – September 29, 2013
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When his Anglican priest stopped using the Book of Common Prayer in the 1960s, poet W. H. Auden suspected the priest had “gone stark raving mad.” Unfolding the story of how a sixteenth-century manual for devotions became a standard for religious sanity, Jacobs transports readers back to the England of Henry VIII, when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer formulated the Book to unite a religiously fractured country. Readers probe the theological reasons why the first edition, published in 1549, dismayed both traditionalists and evangelicals with its liturgical and doctrinal compromises between Catholic and Reformation orthodoxies. But those readers also watch as the majesty of Cranmer’s prose wins over generations of worshippers, spiritually nourished by its regal cadences and fiercely resistant to those who would revise it. Indeed, the repeated attempts to revise the Book—some successful—occasion tense drama, succinctly recounted here. Likewise chronicled are the international conflicts occasioned as the Book metamorphoses as the global empire Britain builds—then shrinks. This fascinating history, a strong entry in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, exposes the surprisingly taut life of a church-pew volume. --Bryce Christensen
"Mr. Jacobs has an obvious affinity for the prayer book, and doesn't seem to care much for recent attempts to 'modernize' worship. But his account is bereft of sentimental regret, and he is aware of the difficulties intrinsic to restricting religious expression to a set of prescribed texts. If only every archbishop had been so wise."--Barton Swaim, Wall Street Journal
"[Readers] watch as the majesty of Cranmer's prose wins over generations of worshippers, spiritually nourished by its regal cadences and fiercely resistant to those who would revise it. Indeed, the repeated attempts to revise the Book--some successful--occasion tense drama, succinctly recounted here. Likewise chronicled are the international conflicts occasioned as the Book metamorphoses as the global empire Britain builds--then shrinks. This fascinating history, a strong entry in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, exposes the surprisingly taut life of a church-pew volume."--Bryce Christensen, Booklist
"Alan Jacobs offers a handy introduction to the cultural and social effects that the presence and promotion of this book provided for centuries of English-speaking worshipers."--John L. Murphy, New York Journal of Books
"[A] gem. With his usual elegance and wit, Jacobs describes Cranmer's political and religious aims, follows debates over the BCP between traditionalists who thought it too Protestant and Puritans who thought it too Catholic, and along the way explains the literary and liturgical qualities of the prayer book."--Peter J. Leithart, First Things
"A fascinating, fast-paced account of the 464 years of 'life' that the Book of Common Prayer has both enjoyed and suffered. . . . General readers will enjoy the peregrinations of the Book of Common Prayer itself and will profit from Jacobs's cultural and religious insights and commentary. Anglophiles and students of ritual, literature, and religion will also gain appreciation of the paradoxical nature of human language and actions."--Carolyn Craft, Library Journal
"Alan Jacobs' well-written book shows how embedded in history and everyday life the prayer book is."--Owen Richardson, Sydney Morning Herald
"Manage[s] to condense a vast amount of material into [a] handy-sized compendium."--Gareth J. Medway, Magonia Blog
"It turns out that the story of the Anglican prayer book is a great yarn: a tale of theological dispute and refined prose style against a backdrop of the mafia-like power struggles of England's royal families. Jacobs is a tactful historian, who doesn't assume that his readers know much about English history or religious doctrine. But I imagine that even a reader who knew a great deal would enjoy the snap of Jacobs's telling, as when he describes an early disavowal of transubstantiation as 'palpably crabby.' If you've ever wondered why the Church of England has failed to substantially revise its prayer book since 1662, or what the jokes in Victorian novels about church candlesticks are really about, this is the history for you."--Caleb Crain, Millions
"In the English-speaking world, [The Book of Common Prayer] has had this unique kind of universal appeal for some time now. But it got there by a circuitous route, and Alan Jacobs gives us a very deft accounting of that wending trail. . . . He writes about a book that has established many of the cadences of the modern English language for us, and he does so as someone who understands and loves those cadences. This is a good book, about a worthy subject, and is well written."--Douglas Wilson, Books & Culture
"Jacobs' treatment of the afterlife of one of the most important works in the English language--perhaps the only afterlife there is--is elegant and authoritative."--Willy Maley, Times Higher Education
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The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is integral to the lifeblood of Anglicanism. Its history and use is fascinating. Jacobs tells the story with great skill. Jacobs is a skilled writer, has a nose for the telling anecdote, and does a nice job of giving the overall history of the English Reformation as he tells the story of the BCP.
Even if you are not an Anglican (like me) or don't go to an Anglican church (not like me), you will still find this book worthwhile reading indeed!
The first half of the book (four chapters) was delightful. Learned, witty, informative, all the things that I have come to expect from the author. It was one of the best narrative descriptions of the circumstances and details of the creation of the Book of Common Prayer that I have ever read (and I have read several). I would give this part of the book four stars at least.
But the rest of the book seemed like it was written by a different author. Less informative, more controversialist (in that the conflict seemed to drive the narrative rather than the Prayer Book itself). This is to be expected to a certain extent, but the author's bias in his analysis seemed apparent (e.g., people who liked the Prayer Book were labeled throughout this portion as "traditionalists" while no such moniker was affixed to those who sought to modernize or deconstruct the Prayer Book). It also seemed like that there was a bit of snark and mockery in the text of this part of the book that diminished the integrity of the analysis, in my opinion. Two stars, at best. The author lost the bubble.
I listened to this book on a compact disc, and I cannot really recommend it. The narrator used a particularly affected and "posh" British accent to read portions of the Prayer Book or other "traditionalist" documents, and sometimes slipped in and out of this voice in mid-sentence. Interestingly, he did not use the voice (or did not use it quite as much) when reading other English commentators or critics of the Prayer Book. He particularly seemed to enjoy voicing the texts in the latter portion of the book that mocked traditional adherence to the Prayer Book. His reading voice, when not behaving as noted above, was quite pleasant and readily understandable; I am not sure why he chose to go so "over the top" with portions of his reading. Unfortunately, even when in his "normal" voice, he routinely mispronounced the word "episcopacy," placing the accent on the third rather than the second syllable. Sad. Two stars.
Tepidly recommended with the reservations noted above. If you happen to be a pesky "traditionalist," don't expect the latter part of the book to present a reasoned argument in favor of common prayer, and you won't be disappointed.