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 Issues | Book of Common Prayer |Short HIstory

A Short HIstory of the Prayer Book

5. The Prayer Book of 1559

by Rev T.W. Gilbert

In the reign of Mary, which followed that of Edward VI, there was, after some tentative beginnings, a ruthless attempt to crush out the Reformation, and the proscribing of the new Prayer Book of 1552 was a mere incident in a policy marked by the burning of Protestant martyrs at Smithfield and elsewhere. It was with a sigh of relief that England learned of the death of Mary and of the accession of Elizabeth in 1558; but the five years of Mary's reign had struck such a feeling of horror into the hearts of Englishmen that it was clear there would never again be a reversion to Roman Catholicism.  Elizabeth, however, was in a difficult position. The condition of England both politically and socially was desperate, and for the first ten years or so of her reign Elizabeth was striving to keep England from falling under the control of France or Spain. She had, therefore, to walk warily in religious matters, for she had three different sets of people to consider. She had the Roman Catholics, who looked to Spain, France and the Pope to help them in case of need. There were also the English refugees who had returned from Geneva, and wanted the greater simplicity of worship which they had imbibed from the teaching of Calvin; and there was the great mass of people who had resolutely set themselves against Rome and were in sympathy with the Reformation movement.

Elizabeth, therefore, revived the 1552 Prayer Book, and made a few alterations of which the following are to be noted.

  1. In the Litany the prayer for deliverance from the Pope was omitted, in the hope both of conciliating France, Spain, and the Pope himself, and also to win the sympathy of Roman Catholics.
  2. In the Holy Communion Office the words of Administration of the 1549 book were combined with those of the 1552 book. This did not necessarily involve any doctrinal significance except that any misinterpretation of the 1549 words would be corrected by the 1552 words.
  3. The Black Rubric or the Declaration about kneeling was omitted. It had been included in the 1552 book without any statutory authority, and when Elizabeth's Parliament revived the 1552 book, the Black Rubric was necessarily omitted. The Bishops of Elizabeth's reign regularly appealed to it, however, and “most diligently declared, published, and impressed it on the people.”

A great deal of discussion has arisen over what is called the Ornaments Rubric of the 1559 Prayer Book. Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity had ordered the revival of the 1552 book with the above two alterations in the Litany and Holy Communion and the alteration of certain Lessons; but the Act states that apart from these changes there are to be “none other or otherwise”.  When the Prayer Book was printed, however, it was found to contain an Ornaments Rubric which directed the clergy to “use such ornaments in the Church as were in use by authority of Parliament in the second year of King Edward VI.” It is often debated whether this Rubric was inserted by Elizabeth herself or by her council; and in the ritual controversies of the 19th century the matter assumed some importance. Two things are clear, however. First that neither Elizabeth herself nor the Bishops interpreted the Rubric as bringing back the vestments of the 1549 Prayer Book, for there is no evidence of the use of any vestment except the surplice and occasionally the cope, which had no doctrinal significance, during the years which followed 1559. In the second place the Act of Uniformity which revived the Prayer Book of 1552 stated that “other order” was to be taken by the Queen with regard to vestments, and this order was taken in the Injunctions of 1559, when a visitation of the whole country was made by the Royal Commissioners or Visitors ordering the clergy “both within the Church and without . . . to use such seemly habits, garments, and such square caps as were most commonly and orderly received in the latter year of the reign of Edward VI.”  In addition to this Injunction “further order” still was taken in 1566 when Archbishop Parker in the name of the Queen issued the “Advertisements” ordering the general use of the surplice for all services, whilst in addition the cope was to be used in cathedrals and collegiate churches during the service of Holy Communion.

(It was in the first part of Elizabeth's reign also that the 39 Articles were finally drawn up. When they first appeared in Edward VI's reign they were 42 in number. Certain alterations were made in 1562, but the 39 Articles in their present form were issued in 1571.)

This thoroughly Reformation Prayer Book, therefore, was the service book authorised in 1559. Rigid adherence to it was not enforced at first for the political reasons mentioned above, but as the condition of the country became more stable the Queen and ministers grew more insistent upon its observance. By the end of the 16th century two generations had grown up which had imbibed its teaching, and by the beginning of the 17th century the Reformed Church of England could be said to have become firmly established on the teaching of the Prayer Book. The work of such men as Jewel and Hooker shows the glory and pride which the great Anglican divines had for their Church and her Prayer Book, and how firmly they held to the Reformation character of that book against all detractors.

>> The Revision of 1604

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