The First Prayer Book of King Edward VI

I have received a reproduction copy of the 1549 Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It looks rather like a cheap textbook – generic old books cover photograph, trade size paperback, about as utilitarian as a book can be.  It is “The Booke of the Common Prayer and Administracion of the Sacramentes, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Churche after the Use of the Churche of England,” anno Do. 1549. Mense Martii.

It contains a preface, “a table and Kalendar for Psalmes and lessons, with necessary rules perteyning to the same,” and all the other general parts of a prayer book as in use in the Anglican Communion. What makes it different, and what makes my heart beat a little faster, is that for the first time in centuries, this was the prayer book in the common tongue of the people of England. The people knew what the priest was saying. They were hearing in a manner they could understand the assurances of their salvation.

There is an order in which to read the Bible in English. Priests were to keep the offices every day, with readings from the Bible. People could go to the church to hear it. Every day.

King Henry VIII, Edward’s father, had authorized an English translation to be published and made available in the churches. People could buy a copy from the printer. Henry stated publically that he regretted this at times, as the people did not have due reverence for the Word! But the liturgy in English did not appear until after Henry’s death, when the boy king , under the advice of his councillors, called for one to be issued.

The priests and clerks were to keep to an order in reading the lectionary – the Bible lessons. there was to be no skipping about and leaving out what did not suit them. The lessons for the Sunday, along with the appointed psalm, and a prayer called the Collect, were in the prayer book. Every church and priest were to use the same set of readings and prayers each Sunday – thus it was a Common Book. And the people are to receive communion – the priest to exhort them to receive – in contrast to earlier practice, when the people rarely received, but merely watched the clergy as they received.

It was all earthshaking, and we who are even negligent in attending the church to hear God’s Word – so readily available to us, that we can buy a Bible for less than a loaf of bread, in some editions – cannot imagine how much of a change it brought.

I plan to write more on this soon; we forget what we owe to that generation.


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