In anticipation of English prose after the Commonwealth, I had initially found the temptation to include Robert Hookeâs extraordinary Micrographia (1665) next in this sequence almost overwhelming. This, after all, was a Restoration publishing sensation described by Samuel Pepys as âthe most ingenious book that I ever read in my lifeâ. But, with this series approaching its conclusion, space is at a premium and Hooke must join my list of regrets. Besides, The Book of Common Prayer is, arguably, the most influential and widely read book in the English literary tradition, from Cranmer to the Beatles.
The Book of Common Prayer emerged from medieval religious practice as a vernacular aid to devotion. The first prayer books with the Litany in English (probably the work of Thomas Cranmer) appeared in 1544, with decisive new editions in 1549 and 1552, both largely owed to Cranmer. In the words of one commentator, this book âhas one of the most complicated textual histories of any printed book anywhere in the world… There were more than 350 different imprints before the date often referred to as the âfirstâ edition of 1662.â
This, the definitive version of Common Prayer, which established uniformity of worship and also renewed the old liturgical tradition, occurred with the restoration of Charles II and was widely seen as an integral part of the Stuart settlement, an assertion of the vernacular traditions of the common man. From this moment on, the magnificent cadences of this simple volume became indistinguishable from the expression of the English language, wherever in the world it took root.
Over more than four centuries, countless millions of English-speaking people â believers and unbelievers â have been baptised, married or laid to rest to the sound of its sonorous periods: ââ¦ we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himselfâ.
The vernacular prayer book also sponsored a new confessional spirit: âWe have left undone those things which we ought to have done: And we have done those things we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.â
By some estimates, such passages have enjoyed a wider, and larger, audience even than the works of Shakespeare. Perhaps The Book of Common Prayerâs only rival is the King James Version of the Bible (1611). Like the Bible, this prayer book was scattered far and wide by empire, trade and Anglicanism through a process that we would now describe as âsoft powerâ. Its most famous lines have reverberated round log cabin, quarterdeck and field of battle:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul.
The music of such passages might seem almost untranslatable, yet The Book of Common Prayer has indeed been translated into many languages, including Gaelic, Urdu, Hausa, Latin â and three varieties of Inuit. In its English version, it has never been out of print in 500 years, and its age-old rhythms have punctuated the experience the Anglo-American community:
Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded wife, to live together after Godâs ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all other, keep thee only unto her, so long as ye both shall live?
What might we take from these pages today? Most notably, for a modern audience, The Book of Common Prayer is, in some ways, quite secular or, at least, humanistic in spirit. Its language expresses an everyday reconciliation to loss and sorrow, pain and despair, as well as love, joy, childbirth and marriage. The Anglican God is here, but almost co-equal with a belief in the quasi-sacred texture of the well-led life. The book promotes a narrative for everyday experience and implicitly asserts the place of ritual in the conduct of a meaningful life.
Although this is a text that continues to enjoy an afterlife within the Anglican communion, it bears the marks of its beginnings. The 1662 version was a self-conscious act of nostalgia for a golden age under Elizabeth I and James I. And its backward-looking instinct was reinforced by the antique appearance of âblack-letterâ or gothic script, reminiscent of a bygone age. It was also a force for modernisation, marrying strands of Catholic and Protestant faith into the work in progress that was Anglicanism, and executing a national ecclesiastical compromise. Its language, now rare, even special, to a modern audience, was the ordinary vernacular of its day, the speech of the people. Wherever you look in the best moments of the English tradition, you tend to find the language of the common man and woman predominant and irrepressible. On this account, the Normans did English culture and society a huge favour.
A signature sentence
O merciful God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live; have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
Three to compare
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne (1624)
The New English Bible (1970)
The Alternative Service Book (1980)
â¢ The Book of Common Prayer is available in Oxford Worldâs Classics (Â£10.99). To order a copy for Â£9.34, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over Â£10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of Â£1.99.