Top Ten Commentaries on The Book of Common Prayer

The earliest commentaries on the Book of Common Prayer were prepared at Archbishop Cranmer’s request by Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli. In 1551 both divines wrote a Censura (that of Vermigli, unfortunately, is no longer extant) assessing the liturgies of the Prayer Book for the consistency with which they apply the Church’s teaching to the ordering of public worship and the clarity with which they are likely convey those doctrines to users, clergy and lay, who were steeped in the customs and beliefs of the pre-Reformation Roman Church, and by-and-large remained attached to them. On the basis of that assessment Bucer recommended specific revisions, some of which Cranmer likely already had in mind, which are reflected in the subsequent revision of 1552. From the beginning, then, reflection on the Prayer Book has been a means for reflecting on the identity and doctrine of the Church of England. This is in part because the Prayer Book was itself a response to an identity crisis that had enveloped all of Europe, the Reformation, but it is also a consequence of Cranmer’s technical innovation of combining between two covers all the instructions and forms needed to conduct the public services of the church. Whatever the reasons though, within the Anglican family of churches, the Prayer Book has continued to occupy a central place and commentary on it remains a primary vehicle for discussing the questions “who are we?” and “what do we believe?”

The next phase of Prayer Book commentaries was initiated by the 1572 An admonition to the Parliament — A brief pamphlet most likely written by London clergymen John Field and Thomas Wilcox. This user-response to the Prayer Book articulates arguments that had first emerged among the Marian Exile communities, particularly in Frankfurt, where debate over the Prayer Book reached a fever pitch in 1554-5. The Admonition identified aspects of the prescribed liturgy (and of how it was put into practice) that some perceived as deviating from the primitive church, relied too heavily on pre-Reformed Roman patterns and sources, confused the ignorant (a key category in these debates) and unjustly restricted Christian liberty by enforcing things indifferent to salvation (adiaphora). A pamphlet war ensued, remembered as the Admonition Controversy. In 1572 Cambridge divine John Whitgift published a response, to which his Cambridge colleague Thomas Cartwright responded in 1573, to which Whitgift responded the following year. The crowning achievement of this exchange came with Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. On its face the Laws is a response to the critics of the Elizabethan Settlement, including its centerpiece, the Book of Common Prayer, but it is much more than that and, with time, came to exert an influence far surpassing the other contributions to that late-sixteenth century debate. Book Five of the Laws, published 1597, amounts to a Prayer Book commentary, and it is often listed as the first of the genre. But, whatever else it is, it remains a response to critics, so Hooker’s discussion of the Prayer Book is framed and organized by his interlocutors’ concerns.[1]

Having very briefly sketched out the sixteenth century origins of the tradition of Prayer Book commentary, in what follows I describe ten significant contributions to that tradition from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries.

John Boys, (1610-1615) Works.

A series of expositions of the Daily Office, the Communion, and the Propers for Sundays and Festivals, first printed together in the 1622 Works of John Boys, it presents the Prayer Book as a means of engagement with the scriptures, identifying the biblical sources for the liturgy. Boys is the first writer to recognize the annual cycle of Propers as, in Robert Crouse’s phrase, “the heart of the Prayer book system.” Though he draws on Hooker’s Laws in defending the Prayer Book against “novelists,” unlike Hooker he rarely relies on the concept of adiaphora to defend the prescribed liturgy; instead, he argues it is more biblical that its opponents: “every tittle is grounded upon scripture, every scripture well applied, every good application agreeable to the most ancient and best reformed liturgies.” Like Thomas Rogers’s (1585) commentary on the Articles of Religion, Boys underlines the international consensus of reformed churches; but he also engages (both polemically and positively) with contemporary Roman Catholic writers. Unfortunately, his work was largely neglected by the new stream of commentary that emerged in the Interregnum with Anthony Sparrow’s 1655 Rationale.

Hammon L’Estrange, (1659) The alliance of divine offices.

Paul V. Marshall identifies L’Estrange as “the first author to give thorough study to the prayer book as an historical phenomenon,” approaching it as scholars had begun to approach ancient liturgies.[2] L’Estrange provides the text of the 1604 Prayer Book in full and the text of every variation from the 1604 in the 1549, 1552, 1559, and Scottish 1637 editions (beside, under, or bracketed within that from which it varies) — a precursor to F. E. Brightman’s The English Rite and Marshall’s Prayer Book Parallels. After each service, expository and historical annotations are provided. Because copies of the first and second Edwardine Prayer Books were not readily available (many were destroyed during Mary I’s reign), L’Estrange’s text was invaluable to those interested in the development of the English liturgy (including those who prepared the 1662 revision). While a Prayer Book conformist and a Royalist, L’Estrange was no Laudian — indeed, his monumental Alliance of Divine Offices was at one level a response to Peter Heylyn (Laud’s polemical biographer) who had pilloried L’Estrange in print as “stiffly principled in the Puritan tenets, a semi-presbiterian [sic] at least in the form of church government, a nonconformist in the matter of ceremony, and a rigid sabbatarian in point of doctrine.”[3] L’Estrange not only notes the domestic use of the daily offices, as Boys had, but argues the reformers intended Morning Prayer to be read at home by those unable to attend the daily public services.

Thomas Comber, (1672-76) Companion to the temple and closet, or a help to public and private devotion.

Published in seven volumes, Comber’s is the first devotional commentary on the Prayer Book and remains the most extensive engagement to date. He, like L’Estrange, gives consideration to the private, domestic use of the Prayer Book.[4] Comber delves into the words of the Prayer Book and the significance of those words for the participant (whether at home or in church). In contrast to Anthony Sparrow, Thomas Elborow, and Charles Weatley, Comber shows very little interest in ceremonial; as Bethmont explains, Comber reflects “a mixed heritage of Laudianism and of the Prayer Book Protestantism which had been an important feature of the pre-civil war Church.”[5]

Charles Wheatly, (1752, 7th Ed.) The Church of England man’s companion, or, a rational illustration upon the Book of Common Prayer.

First published in 1710, Wheatley draws from the annotations of Andrewes and Cosin, and the previous commentaries of Sparrow, L’Estrange, Comber, Bennett, and Nicholls. Addleshaw notes “he remained for over a century the standard authority on the Prayer Book, and was looked on as a kind of Anglican Durandus of Mende. With the appearance of Wheatly’s book the school of classical liturgists came to an end.”[6] The seventh edition, published posthumously, was the last for which Wheatley himself was responsible. He represents a distinctively Laudian or rather, what was by this time being called, “high-church” perspective.

Richard Paul Blakeney, (1878, 3rd Ed.) The Book of Common Prayer in its history and interpretation, with special reference to existing controversies.

A prolific polemicist of the evangelical wing of the Church of England and fierce opponent of ritualism, his commentary became a standard among evangelical churchmen, and reflects the devotion that nineteenth century Anglican evangelicals had towards the Prayer Book. It remains extremely useful for drawing together sixteenth and seventeenth century sources relevant to the interpretation of the liturgy and rubrics.

John Henry Blunt (1903, 2 Ed.) The annotated Book of Common Prayer: being an historical, ritual, and theological commentary on the devotional system of the Church of England

An indefatigable writer of theology and history, Blunt’s commentary largely supplanted Wheatley’s as the standard. It reflects an Anglo-Catholic ritualist perspective. Jesse Billet notes that though the scholarship is largely pre-critical, Blunt’s work remains “often extremely helpful.”

Frank Edward Brightman, (1921) The English rite: being a synopsis of the sources and revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, Second Revised Edition (2 Vols.).

A monumental work in the tradition of L’Estrange’s Alliance, Brightman provides the text of the 1549, 1552, and 1662 Prayer Books in parallel columns, with a fourth column on the far left containing excerpts from sources for particular texts. Unlike L’Estrange, Brightman does not provide expository annotations. Jesse Billet notes that it has not been superseded, though details in the historical introduction want “correction in light of more recent literature.”[7] Brigthman is generally regarded as the preeminent liturgy scholar of his generation; S. L. Ollard notes, “Despite his preoccupation with liturgy his churchmanship was not extreme in external ritualistic matters, being more of an old-fashioned high-church variety than that of the fully developed Anglo-Catholic Darwell Stone (1859–1941), his successor as librarian at Pusey House.”[8]

Standing Liturgical Commission, (1950-1967) Prayer Book studies: Volumes I-XVII.

This first of two series of reports to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church (USA) was recently edited by Derek Olson for publication in a single volume. As Olson explains, the first series largely represents the work of Bayard Jones, Morton Stone, and Massey Shepherd, Jr; it reflects the influence of the Ecumenical Movement and relies heavily on the late-fourth century Antiochian liturgical collection Apostolic Constitutions.[9] The series focuses on what the then SLC saw as the “unfinished work” of the 1928 revision. While the historiography and liturgiology is, of course, largely out-dated, the series provides a picture of the state-of-the-scholarship on liturgy generally and the Prayer Book in particular in the mid-twentieth century, during the period leading up to and during the early days of the seismic shifts in the liturgical landscape of which the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) was the primary impetus.

Marion Josiah Hatchett, (1981) Commentary on the American Prayer Book.

Hatchett, whom J. Neil Alexander says, “many have come to think of … as ‘Mr. Prayer Book,’”[10] provides a comprehensive commentary on the 1979 American revision, that, through identification of sources and tracing the development of texts, draws the whole Prayer Book tradition into view. Hatchett represents the broadly Liberal Catholic viewpoint that became mainstream in the late-twentieth-century Episcopal Church (USA), but his focus is historical, not theological or devotional. Bonnell Spencer commended Hatchett’s introductory surveys as a “masterpieces of condensed information.” The work has been criticized for the almost total lack of footnotes or references to the scholarship on which he relies and its tendency to present as settled questions much debated, but this was probably a pragmatic consideration to contain the work to a single volume. Because he worked so quickly following the publication of the new Prayer Book, Hatchett is often able to identify precisely who was responsible for new material written for the revision and offer insights on the SLC’s intentions.[11] Because the ACNA’s 2019 Prayer Book is a revision of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Prayer Book, Hatchett’s commentary also sheds light on that more recent work as well.

Leonel Mitchell and Ruth A. Meyers, (2015) Praying shapes believing: a theological commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, revised.

Written by one of the leaders of the revision process that culminated in the 1979, this text (first published in 1985) immediately became a standard seminary text and to this day is, as Matthew S. C. Olver notes, “commonly understood as the key to understanding the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.”[12] It has been substantially revised by Mitchell’s sometime student, Ruth A. Meyers, now a preeminent liturgiologist in the Episcopal Church (USA) in her own right. The first edition provides a robust engagement with the consensuses of the Liturgical Movement that resulted in dramatic liturgical changes across virtually all Western Christian traditions in the late twentieth century. Meyers has updated the text in light of more recent developments in the literature and broadened the scope beyond the Prayer Book to include the Book of Occasional Services (2003), Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2006), the Enriching Our Worship (1997-2009) series, as well as indications of the direction, in Meyers’s judgement, liturgical trends may traverse in the near future.

Considering the sheer number of works in the more-than four-hundred year-old genre which has played such a significant part in the development and sustaining of Anglicanism there are many important contributions that had to be left out. I have tried to hint at other significant contributors with the selection of references sprinkled throughout this brief literature review. Though I have limited myself to ten selections, special mention is warranted for Thomas Bennett’s (1709) Paraphrase with Annotations, William Nicholls (1710), Comment, Richard Mant’s (1820) annotated Prayer Book, Henry Ives Bailey’s (1857) Liturgy Compared with the Bible, John Dowden’s (1899) Workmanship of the Prayer Book, Charles Neil and J. M. Willoughby’s (1912) The Tutorial Prayer Book, Dyson Hague’s (1932) commentary on the first Canadian Prayer Book, John Booty’s (1976) annotated text of the 1559 Prayer Book, and Brian Cummings (2013) annotated text of the 1549, 1559, and 1662 editions. Only the last of these, of course, has benefitted from the remarkable strides that have been taken in the historiography of the early modern period in the last thirty-or-so years, and, as his annotations are tantalizingly brief, they suggest that the tradition is far from exhausted.

  1. John S. Marshall, Hooker’s Theology of Common Prayer: The Fifth Book of the Polity Paraphrased and Expanded into a Commentary on the Prayer Book (Sewanee: University Press at the University of the South, 1956): p. iii.
  2. Paul V. Marshall, Prayer Book Parallels: The public services of the church arranged for comparative study, Volume I (New York: Church Publishing, 1989), p. 15
  3. W. A. Shaw, revised by Sean Kelsey, “L’Estrange, Hamon (1605-1660),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/16507.
  4. Rémy Bethmont, “Promoting Anglican Liturgical Spirituality: Thomas Comber’s Companions to the Book of Common Prayer”, Revue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXII-1, 2017, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.1226.
  5. Ibid.
  6. G. W. O. Addleshaw, The High Church Tradition: A Study in the Liturgical Thought of the Seventeenth Century (London: Faber & Faber, 1941): retrieved from http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/addleshaw/high/02.htm. Addleshaw entirely omtis Boys from his list of the earliest commentaries on the Prayer Book.
  7. Jesse D. Billett, “Bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer,” Medieval and Anglican Liturgy (blog), accessed July 19, 2021, https://liturgyscholar.ca/bibliographies/bibliography-of-the-book-of-common-prayer/
  8. S. L. Ollard, revised by Donald Gray, “Brightman, Frank Edward (1856–1932),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004): doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/32073.
  9. Derek Olson, Prayer Book Studies: Volumes I-XVII (New York: Church Publishing, 2019) 
  10. J. Neil Alexander, With Ever Joyful Hearts: Essays on Liturgy and Music Honoring Marion J. Hatchett (New York: Church Publishing, 1999), p. 1.
  11. By contrast Massey Shepherd’s commentary on the 1928 revision came out twenty-two years after that Prayer Book was authorized. Bonnell Spencer, review of Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, Saint Luke’s Journal of Theology 24, n. 4 (1981) p. 291–295.
  12. Matthew S. C. Olver, “Leonel Mitchell, reshaped,” Covenant (blog), The Living Church, September 21, 2017, https://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/09/21/leonel-mitchell-reshaped/

 



Drew Keane

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University and a PhD candidate in the School of English at the University of St. Andrews, writing a thesis (tentatively) titled The Use of the Prayer Book: The Book of Common Prayer (1549-1604) as Technical Writing for an Oral-Aural Culture. With Samuel L. Bray, he edited the 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition (IVP Academic, March 2021). From 2012 to 2018 he served on the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. More of his work is available at drewkeane.com.


'Top Ten Commentaries on The Book of Common Prayer' has 1 comment

  1. August 16, 2021 @ 10:35 am Jesse Billett

    Thanks for this splendid article, Drew! Here are two other commentaries that shouldn’t be overlooked:

    Evan Daniel, The Prayer-Book: Its History, Language, and Contents, 2oth rev. ed. (London: Wells Gardner, Darton, 1901), online here: https://archive.org/details/cu31924029446386. (All later editions are unaltered reprints of this one.)

    W. K. Lowther Clarke (ed.), Liturgy and Worship: A Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1932), online here: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.236672.

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