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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
"Reading the history of the The Book of Common Prayer is to come face to face again with the great work of the Protestant Reformers, but it also shows the work (great or otherwise, depending on the current reader's traditional leanings) of later Reformers who revised the book. Alan Jacobs does a great job in showing the times and personages that have influenced subsequent revisions of the book or who have battled the book's influence."--Carole McDonnell, Compulsive Reader
"Within a mere 200 pages, one could not wish for a more engaging introduction to the history of the Prayer Book. It is beautifully written and produced, and would make a perfect gift. . . . This is a triumph of compression and lucidity."--David Martin, Church Times
"The Book of Common Prayer has undergone numerous revisions and adaptations since it was first published in 1549. Jacobs traces the life of this influential book from English Reformation to the modern era. . . . Jacobs skillfully describes the challenges associated with the Reformation, Puritanism, the Restoration, and the Victorian era, when rubrics and the role of government were important issues. . . . Readers will appreciate the author's analysis and insights."--Choice
"This book is a worthwhile introduction for anyone interested in how Anglican services have taken their present form. It demonstrates that unity in diversity across the provinces of the Anglican Communion stems, in no small way, from the book of 1662 built on Cranmer's earlier work. While references to Ireland are sparse, the joy of this biography is that it explains our Anglican heritage of worship in very accessible language."--Robert Marshall, Church Review
"Professor Jacobs has followed carefully all that happened regarding the book and its changes. He is sensitive to the opinions of those on both sides of each controversy and his book is both informative and interesting. Be sure to read the final Notes section, lots of good info there, too."--Lois Sibley, Reviewing Religious Books
"[Jacob] has certainly given contemporary Anglicans and early modern historians a quick overview of a compelling 'biography' of one of the most significant books of classical and contemporary English literature."--Timothy Maschke, Sixteenth Century Journal
"Alan Jacobs has produced a highly commendable read for those interested in the origins and evolving history of the Book of Common Prayer."--Jonathan Rose, Reader
"A powerful overview of the Anglo-Catholic approach to Anglican liturgy and the history of its prayer books."--Ashley Null, The Gospel Coalition
"A superb resource."--Sylvia A. Sweeney, Anglican and Episcopal History
Top customer reviews
Alan Jacobs is an excellent writer and his history of the book is both of solid history and readable.
To me, what is most interesting about story of the BCP, is how it was intended as a tool of unity but from the very beginning that was thwarted. Cranmer, who compiled the BCP thought that a single prayer book with a single service was important both theologically and politically to the unity of the Church in England. This was not a simple expedient or politically motivated conscription of Christianity but a different world view on how church and state should relate.
But from the beginning the minutia of the BCP and its practice were used to factionalize the church. As one very small example, John Knox insisted that communion should be taken while sitting (instead of kneeling) because he wanted to distance the church from the Catholic view of transubstantiation. Others wanted kneeling to show honor and devotion during the Eucharist.
But as theological and cultural movements between high and low church Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and other groups, the prayer book became like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Unchanging not so much because it was perfect, but unchanging because no one can agree on how to change it. And now it is venerated in part because it was unchanged.
Outside the UK, most other Anglican churches have adapted their own Books of Common Prayer (and most have updated theirs several times), but in in the UK it is still the 1662 version that is the authorized one. So now there are a number of options for the Anglican world to choose their Books of Common Prayer.
This is a fascinating and important history. The Book of Common Prayer has molded English speaking Christianity in ways that most probably do not realize. The common marriage ceremony "Dearly Beloved" and funeral "Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust" are part of the cultural language of the English speaking world, but also from the Book of Common Prayer.
I read the kindle version, but I have heard a number of comments about the beauty of the actual printed book.
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.