We all think Henry VIII changed the Church of England, threw out the popish stuff, put the service into English and just resolved all of that. But that is not what happened.
The English Book of Common Prayer was not released until Edward VI, the young son of Henry who ascended the throne on the death of his father in 1547. The book was in process for years, but the mass was in Latin all through the years of rule by Henry. Henry was not interested in turning his kingdom upside down. He had enough civil unrest with which to deal. He had opposed the pope, as had many English kings, on matters besides the issue of his divorce from his first wife. Too much English money left the country headed for Rome. Too much English land was in the hands of the pope. To the English kings for generations, it was as if a foreign monarch was receiving tribute, levying taxes, and drafting the young and the brightest minds for his own service. Henry VIII was in a position to stop this, and he did.
Archbishop Cranmer worked steadily as a scholar and as a bishop to find adequate models for an English liturgy that were both uniquely English and still within the tradition of the ancient church. He had access to many liturgies besides the old Latin ones – Orthodox books dating back to the fifth century, and the most recent ideas from the Contintental reformers. The 1549 book is a distillation of all that.
I love it because it is straightforward; there are few rubrics; fanciful manual acts are discouraged and prohibited. Vestments were to be much simpler than the recent past. Processions were minimized. It was pure prayer and liturgy, to be understood by the people.
The people heard the scripture, lots of it. The people heard the prayers and made answer in their own language. It was plain talk for plain people – a very English idea. The book could be used anywhere, whether a huge cathedral or a tiny chapel. Priests no longer had to juggle several books at once. The Sunday lessons were included along with the appropriate psalms. Henry had ordered Bibles in the churches, and a chapter to be read in English to the people every week. This gave them even more scripture.
Cranmer intended that the people should hear and understand the prayer and lessons. He intended that the people would know what was said on their behalf. I believe he was less concerned than his European friends about contradicting the old ways and throwing out anything that had ever been done in a Roman church. (To continue that to its logical end, we would not have the sacraments at all.)
It is for these reasons I love the book, as well as for its language and simplicity. I am using it as my daily prayer book. I can just about feel the holy presence of not only our Lord, but of the saints of our church who worked and fought and died for this effort, Cranmer among them. I am connectd to the time of those great reformers, who so sincerely served God that they accepted prison and the stake for that service.