Prayer Book Spirituality: Course Correction

I keep promising that substantive writing will return. I’ll stop promising and just give you this which is far more preliminary than substantive.

I’m becoming convinced that I’ve been approaching the Prayer Book from a slightly off angle; there’s a factor that had escaped me that I’m working on fitting back into place.

I was reading Christopher’s recent piece at the Cafe when this paragraph struck me strongly and clarified something I’ve been gnawing around in one branch of my recent research:

It has often been remarked that Thomas Cranmer intended to remake the Isles peoples into a vast monastery. I think this romantic notion gets Cranmer’s intent backwards. Rather our Prayer Book reforms the basic pieces of monastic piety and life precisely because in the first instance these matters should concern all Christians, not just monastics: Daily prayer and a life lived toward God and for neighbor in all the cares of daily and national life, including disputes over gentry seizures of commons and political intrigues at court. In other words, he intends to remake the Isles peoples into more well-formed and single-hearted, that is, praising Christians at work, in their home, and in their everyday community. It is within this generous framework that the particular dedications of our monastics should be placed, not vice versa.

Christopher hits the nail on the head, and a big part of it has to do with the origins of our prayer book.

Yes, the Offices that we have inherited as the larger part of Anglican spirituality are monastic in origin and are greatly shaped by Benedictine practice. I’d be the last to deny that. However, we over-simplify and misunderstand if we think that the relationship between breviary and prayer book is overly direct. We tend to  conceptualized it as: (Sarum Breviary->Payer Book Office). Sure, if we want to be more precise then we tend to sketch it this way: (Sarum Breviary->Quignonez/Hermann Revisions->Prayer Book Office). While this does get us closer, there’s one more mediating step that we’re leaving out. I think it really works more like this: (Sarum Breviary->Prymer->Quignonez/Hermann Revisions->Prayer Book Office).

The prymer’s the key. The Prayer Book isn’t a cut-down breviary with a missal added, it’s a jumped-up prymer.

Why does this matter? It’s all about audience and in whose hands what books were found. Breviaries and missals were books for religious professionals—professed religious and the clergy. The prymers were the books of the laity, that formed, shaped and directed lay spirituality along classic monastic patterns. Cranmer didn’t try and turn the Isles into one big monastery, rather, he sought to take the monastic-flavored piety already at work among the laity and broaden its Scriptural content.

Coming at it from this angle, we realize that the prayer book even at its start had strong roots in lay practice—and that changes quite a bit for me, at least.

At this point these are claims. I have hard evidence, but it’s not assembled yet to the point where it’s fully deployable. It’s on the to-do list…

7 thoughts on “Prayer Book Spirituality: Course Correction

  1. Michelle Ziegler

    Finally…. I’ve been saying the books of hours/primers were important in designing the BCP. The BCP is intended for everyone and there are a lot more laity than clergy. Henry VIII’s personal book of hours in English (post break with Rome) is probably worth looking at as a model. He had this BoH published widely for public use. By this era books of hours were being published on the printing press. I think there were demands that the public either get the new official book of hours or mutliate their existing book to remove the Roman language. Its amazing to me how wide spread books of hours were among the laity at the time of the reformation, even the poorest people had cheap versions.

  2. Christopher


    Certainly I’m not the first to have noticed this, and my noticing comes with praying as a layman, book in hand, who is somewhat of an academic on the patterns of our praying. Thornton, I think, does us well in this regard, as does Hale and it is at odds with modern movements of reform that think of liturgies as ordos or as parts with which to be played.

    It is vitally important in a time when clerics right and left are promoting ecclesiologies at odds with common praying through an over-focus on the episcopate in international assembly with a curial ordering or removal of the Creed on Sundays. Both are at odds with our praying together as ekklesia.

    I would add only that not simply a lay piety, we are formed in a common prayer piety which is not so different from Benedictine piety because on the level of praying and its unfolding in daily life, ordained or not, all are together in prayer with each having a place according to gifts. Benedict, being suspicious of clerical self-promotion, levels–makes common within the monastery. The difference is that by Benedict’s time, things that in earlier times would have been considered common–Morning and Evening prayer, had become more and more the reserve of monastic or for the uebers. That our own take a monastic shape without being ueber and are for all is genius, building on what was in the water so to speak of 16th Century England, Wales, Cornwall, etc. There is a place for the ordained members of the Body and a resistance to clericalizing in such an approach, and that should inform our ecclesiological conversations as well as any reform of our praying. In this regard, I have to say that the dismissal of a role for the laity in governance in recent international conversations on matters ecclesiological while catholic of one sort is not catholic of a Benedictine or Common sort.

    A jumped up Prymer is a different beast than a Prymer, finally. It is a Common Prayer Book, for lack of a better term.

  3. Vicki McGrath


    While I have no academic material to support your insight, it makes sense in my gut – both as a lifelong Episcopalian with lived experience in both the 1928 and 1979 BCP. And it is also consistent with what I believe the English reformers intentions were: that Christan faith and discipline and holiness should be available to all in a Christian commonwealth – not just the religious professionals. It’s one of the aspects I always point out to folks who are new to the ’79 BCP; all of the elements needed for worship are right there, available to all, even our services of ordination. A Bible and a BCP and you’re good to go! To me, it underscores the importance of the entire People of God.

    Happy Easter!


  4. M.I.P.

    Dear Derek,

    can you please email me at pracamariusz[at] – I’d like to ask you something about music (both secular and pious) in medieval Britain… ;)
    Thanks a bunch!

  5. Mockingbird

    Not sure what you’re trying to say. Are you saying that one or more of the primers was a direct source for the 1549 BCP, and that you can demonstrate it with parallel passages?

    Are you saying that the English language primers (books designed for private prayer) prepared the people psychologically for a public rite in the vernacular? And that you have citations to contemporary statements (legal depositions, for example) that support this proposition?

    Nor am I certain that I can accept without qualification the statement that “the Offices that we have inherited as the larger part of Anglican spirituality are monastic in origin and are greatly shaped by Benedictine practice.” Christianity had hours of prayer long before it had monks. It had monks long before Benedict wrote his rule. And the direct source for the BCP, as you note, was the Sarum rite, not the monastic rite.

  6. Derek Olsen


    There have been studies of the verbal relationships between the prymers and the 1549 book. I have not examined them with any depth yet but I know there are some. The more important connection is conceptual, though. Most people (who care about these things) know that the Litany was the first part of the BCP that Cranmer did in English. What is more often forgotten is that the Litany was a standard part of the prymer. Was Cranmer creating a new prayer book or creating a more theologically acceptable prymer? Too, what is his relation to the prymers of Henry the VIIIth?

    The prymers did prepare people psychologically for the new prayer book but not as any part of a programmatic plan. It’s interesting to note that the Reform-minded Protestants seized on this fairly early on. As I see it, one of the first major attempts to impact the faith of the English laity was the production of the “Marshall” prymer, a Calvin-influenced set of hours that were intended as a replacement for the Hours of the BVM. Then, we see prymers being over seen by high church figures until Henry’s edicts that his and only his prymers are to be used and that all others are to be destroyed. Don’t know about you, but the timeline to me looks like a spontaneous movement that the government realized that it could use that then led into the two prayer books of Edward the VIth.

    Again, I’m not trying to claim that the prymer is the only or even the mos important source in the development of the BCP. What I am suggesting is that it hasn’t been given its proper due.

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