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 Issues | Book of Common Prayer |Short HIstory

A Short HIstory of the Prayer Book

1. The Pre-Reformation Period

by Rev T.W. Gilbert

During the occupation of Britain by the Roman troops, Christianity began to spread throughout the country, and Prayer books were in use amongst the British Christians.  These books were modelled on the book in use in Gaul, and they were used by the Celtic missionaries who evangelised the north and east of Britain, as well as in St. Martin's, Canterbury, in the days of Ethelbert of Kent.

When Augustine came to Canterbury in 597 A.D., he wished to enforce the Roman Use or Prayer Book, but on the advice of Pope Gregory he allowed some variation from the Roman Use by permitting the use of the Daily Offices as found in the Church of Gaul. Hence the Prayer Book authorised by Augustine was neither completely Roman nor could it be called English. It was simply the attempt of a wise Pope to adapt the ordinary Roman Prayer Book to the conditions of a people who had already become accustomed to other forms of service.

As time went on, however, differing variations of services were permitted by the Bishops in each diocese, and these diocesan variations grew into separate Uses. By the 12th century, therefore, the differing dioceses such as Salisbury, Hereford, York, Lincoln, Ripon and others had each their own distinctive customs in their order of services  and there was no uniformity of worship. A change is noticeable in the thirteenth century, when the service book of the diocese of Salisbury began to be used by other dioceses. This Use of Sarum, as it is called, was drawn up towards the end of the 11th century and was a compilation of English with Norman methods of services. It slowly won its way to recognition in other parts of England and can be regarded as the typical book of pre-Reformation England.

The Sarum Use meant that every parish priest had to use at least four large service books. He had to use:

i. The Breviary, which corresponded to the Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany and Psalter of our present Prayer Book.

ii. The Missal, which comprised the Holy Communion Office with the Epistles and Gospels.

iii. The Manual, which contained the offices of Holy Baptism, Holy. Matrimony and the like.

iv. The Pontifical, which held the Confirmation Office and Ordinal.

In addition there were other books such as the Diurnal or book of the Day Hours, and the Ordinale or Pie, which gave directions as to the order of the different services which were in everyday use.

These medieval service books, therefore, were so many in number, and the directions for their use so intricate, that they were practically used by the clergy only. Moreover, the fact that the services were in Latin made the service books the books not of the laity but of the clergy. Laymen used what was called the “little office,” found in the Home or Hours, which contained devotions to the Virgin Mary, or the English Primer, which was used in the 14th and 15th centuries.


>> 2. Influences

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