The death of King Henry VIII in 1547 provided Thomas Cranmer and those who yearned for a genuine reformation of the Church of England with the opportunity they had long awaited. Henry was succeeded on the throne by his son Edward, just nine years of age. Real power lay in the hands of the Royal Protector, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset, and a man with deep Reformed convictions. Within months things began to change. Protestant clergy were free to teach the doctrines of the Reformation, churchwardens empowered to remove images and icons, and printers permitted to publish Protestant tracts. The Epistles and Gospels were required to be read in English and the communion to be administered in both kinds. The clergy were permitted to marry, allowing Cranmer’s own wife to appear publicly at her husband’s table after a dozen years of marriage.
At the same time Cranmer and twelve other bishops proceeded with the task of preparing a Prayer Book entirely in the English language. The first step towards this was the production, in 1548, of what we might now call the “penitential rite” (the Invitation, Confession, Comfortable Words, Absolution and Prayer of Humble Access) which was to be said immediately prior to the reception of the bread and wine at Holy Communion. In addition to this the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were both to be recited in the English tongue.
The introduction of the first full Book of Common Prayer came the following year and was required to be in use in all parishes in the realm by Pentecost 1549. We shall give more time to the study of the principles represented in this book two weeks hence. Briefly, though, it was remarkable in three ways. First, it offered a single set of services in a single volume for every diocese and parish, thereby eliminating both the profusion of local rites that had grown up and the use of a whole variety of service books—missals, breviaries, primers, ordinals and others. Secondly, it combined the seven daily “offices” into two services—Matins and Evensong, each of which gave primacy to the reading of the Old and New Testaments. Thirdly, the Communion service was transformed from a priestly mass into “the Supper of the Lord” in which the congregation had a full part as participants and not just spectators.
Those familiar with Rite I in the Episcopal Prayer Book of 1979 would have no trouble recognizing the words of this service. The order in which they appear might seem strange to us, however, as they still follow the pattern of the mediæval mass. The service begins with the Lord’s Prayer and Collect for Purity, followed by the nine-fold “Kyrie” or Lesser Litany (“Lord, have mercy upon us…) and then the “Gloria in Excelsis” in its traditional, early position. This is followed by the Mutual Salutation, the Collect of the Day and the Collect for the King, then the Epistle, the Gospel and the Creed. Next comes the sermon or homily, and one of two lengthy Exhortations, setting out the meaning of Holy Communion. Immediately afterwards comes the Offertory, the “Sursum Corda” (“Lift up your hearts…”) and the “Sanctus” (“Holy, holy, holy…”). Next is the Intercession or Prayer for the Church, flowing immediately into the Great Thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayer. This in turn is followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the Peace and then the Penitential Rite, after which the people would receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The service concluded with a post-communion prayer of thanksgiving and the Blessing.
From the beginning the new service book met with mixed reviews. Those who were strongly Reformation-minded complained that it had not moved far enough away from mediæval ritual and doctrine. Martin Bucer, the liberal-minded reformer, who had unsuccessfully attempted to bring together Luther and Zwingli on the Continent and who had come over as Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote, at Cranmer’s request, a lengthy theological critique of the book. On the other side of the debate, there were riots in Cornwall, where people refused to use the book because it simply traded one language that they did not understand to another which they not only did not speak but resented having it foisted on them. The final blow to the book was administered by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, a bitter adversary of Cranmer, who claimed that he could use the book without compromising any of his Catholic presuppositions.