Margaret Laird makes a careful case for greater appreciation of and adherence to the irenic principles set out in the 7 662 Book of Common Prayer and in particular its measured Preface

Since the Reformation, there is no book except the Bible that has been so much written about as the Book of Common Prayer and yet, as the learned Dr Blunt commented in 1885, ‘So much was never written about any one book, which left so much still unsaid.’ This statement can easily be verified by a careful study of the 1662 Preface, because this alone contains so much which still needs to be said to the Church of England at this crucial stage of her history.

Status and context

The 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure provides that Canons made under it ‘shall be such as in the opinion of the General Synod is neither contrary to, nor indicative of any departure from, the doctrine of the Church of England in any essential matter’ [Section 4.1]. In the interpretation section, it provides that reference to doctrine shall be construed in accordance with canon law as follows: ‘The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular, such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal’ [Section 5.1].

But how does one define the BCP? Section 5.2 of the Measure defines it as ‘The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England together with the Psalter or Psalms of David appointed as they are to be sung or said in Churches and the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining and Consecrating Bishops, Priests and Deacons.’ The title page of the BCP is in exactly these terms. The next page is headed ‘The Contents of this Book and ‘The Preface’ is the first in the list. Thus, it follows that the 1662 Preface is a constituent part of the BCP, and the General Synod, in deciding whether a provision before it changes the doctrine of the CofE, therefore needs to take account of relevant material in it.

The 1662 Preface was largely written by Bishop Sanderson of Lincoln, who was looked upon with great respect by all parties in those days of religious division. As one would expect, it had special regard to the historical context out of which it has arisen. The CofE had suffered severe persecution during the Great Rebellion and it is impossible not to admire the temperate and just tone of a preface written under such circumstances – it is a wise and extremely tactful attempt to restore lasting unity to the Church after such a turbulent period.

Guiding principles

So what does the Preface contain? Why should General Synod refer to it and how often does it do so? The opening sentence, one hopes, is familiar to practising Anglicans:

It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Public Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.

The less well-known second sentence is a warning based on experience:

For, as on the one side common experience sheweth, that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; and those many times more and greater than the evils that were intended to be remedied by such change, stressing therefore that changes should not be undertaken without due consideration of the consequences.

The Preface then outlines other principles to be observed when changes are being proposed:

… of the sundry alterations proposed unto us, we have rejected all such as were either of dangerous consequence (as secretly striking at some established doctrine or laudable practice of the Church of England or indeed of the whole Catholic Church of Christ) or else of no consequence at all…

Thus the 1662 BCP, itself a specific formulary of the CofE, definitely regarded the national Church as part of the Universal Church. Any changes therefore had to be considered in that context, for they could well affect the whole Catholic Church of Christ, not just the CofE – a fact often ignored by the General Synod. The Preface also states that the BCP

.. .as it stood before established by Law, doth not contain in it anything contrary to the Word of God, or to sound doctrine, or which a godly man may not with a good conscience use and submit thereto.

This is another principle that the CofE has sometimes overlooked. Recent decisions have not always been in accord with …the Holy Scriptures and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. Consequently, many Church members cannot and will not submit to such changes, and division is inevitable. Another assertion of the Preface is that

…the Body and Essentials… have stood firm and unshaken, notwithstanding all the vain attempts and impetuous assaults made against them by such as are given to change,

and it stresses that the aim is

…not to gratify this or that party in any of their unreasonable demands but to do that which to our best understanding might most tend to the preservation of peace and unity in the Church

– an honourable aim, totally in line with the desire of Christ himself. Yet the CofE, in giving in to the demands of secular feminism, has ever changed the nature of the historic ministry; thus undermining the peace and unity which our forefathers envisaged.

Despite attempts to find a way forward, division within the CofE seems inevitable, and because the ordination of women has also struck at the established and laudable practice of the whole Catholic Church of Christ’, the unity of the Universal Church has also suffered a setback.

Although the convocations of 1662 recognized that it was impossible ‘to please all’, they agreed to the Preface ‘in good hope’ that it would also be approved ‘by all sober, peaceable and truly conscientious Sons of the Church of England.’ This last sentence implies that the Preface was seen as a safe path marked out for future generations. Sadly, however, the guiding principles of 1662 have too often been ignored by today’s Church, not least by the House of Bishops, and Anglicans are now having to live with the consequences.