Book of Common Prayer: Definition and History

Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is the short title of a number of related prayer books used in the Anglican Communion, as well as by other Christian churches historically related to Anglicanism. Book of Common Prayer, the official service book of the Church of England since the Reformation, prescribed the structure of the Christian year, services for morning and evening prayer and for communion, matrimony, baptism, etc., and the texts of the Bible to be read and psalms to be sung throughout the year.

It has had a huge impact on writers in English. The text evolved in stages. The first and second books of Edward VI (1549 and 1552) were largely compiled by Thomas Cranmer, partly from earlier Latin service books. The wording of Cranmer’s collects
(short prayers spoken by the minister) and general prayers have entered the language, for example ‘the devices and desires of our own hearts’, ‘whose service is perfect freedom’, ‘lighten our darkness’.

The Prayer Book was revised under Elizabeth I (1559), reissued with minor changes under James I (1604), and a revised version was forced on the Scots in 1637 and then withdrawn. It was detested by the Puritans, and in 1645 during the Civil War, it was abolished. Under Charles II it was restored with further revisions (1662), and this has remained the official Prayer Book.

A revised book agreed by the church was rejected by Parliament in 1928. Alternative forms in modernized language were then agreed: the Alternative Service Book (1980) has been replaced by the collection called Common Worship (2000) but without the official status of the 1662 Prayer Book. Supporters find modernized versions easy to understand; detractors regret the downgrading of the Prayer Book’s literary qualities.