As he waits for the publication of the Ordinariate Liturgy, Stephen Keeble reflects on the first English Prayer Book

In his last Anglican summer, casting his eyes over an assembly of Fulham clergy Bishop John Broadhurst quipped: ‘I know what Anglican patrimony is – linen jackets!’ Another Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, Prof. Sheridan Gilley, wrote in 1996: ‘No one who has not known the High Church tradition from the inside can appreciate its seductive fascination. It took all that is best and most beautiful in the Church of England – the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer with its wonderful Cranmerian cadences, the ancient cathedrals and parish churches, a tradition of literature and a tradition of learning, and the kindness, gentleness and tolerance of English life, and enriched them with judicious borrowings from the doctrine, devotion and scholarship of the wider Catholic world. It seemed the perfect meeting place between Catholicity and Englishness, without the harshness and philistinism of English Roman Catholicism, which has spent a generation destroying everything that was most beautiful about itself’.


Last year it finally became necessary for St George’s, Headstone, Harrow to replace its rather worn Holy Communion booklets. A church which values the historic Anglican liturgical tradition, we wished to consider our options which, disappointingly, could not include the Ordinariate Liturgy envisaged in Anglicanorum Coetibus, but as yet unavailable. Half-remembered and long resting on a bookshelf behind my desk was an unexplored volume entitled The First English Prayer Book, Adapted for Modern Use published by John Hunt in 1999, the 450th year of the Book of Common Prayer. Fr Robert van de Weyer, the editor, was Warden of the Little Gidding Community from 1977 to 1998. In the early seventeenth century Nicholas Ferrar led a Christian community at Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, which continued to use the Prayer Book of 1549. ‘In this’, states the cover, ‘Nicholas Ferrar was typical of many devout English Christians of the period, who wanted to preserve the ancient forms of worship – whilst enjoying the sublime poetry of Cranmer’s translation’.

The First English Prayer Book is an attractively produced hardback volume whose modest user-friendly size reflects the absence of the psalter, and the omission of optional material and lengthy exhortations. Fr van de Weyer’s editorial concerns extending beyond matters typographical may be seen in the quiet disappearance from the Litany of the ‘tyranny of the bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities’, and a new rubric in the Eucharistic Prayer enjoining the priest to show the Sacrament to the people, replacing the original which ordered the opposite.

The absence of the psalter would make the book impractical for Morning and Evening Prayer but most of the services are usable as presented, with the marriage and funeral services, in particular, flowing better than those printed in the 1662 Prayer Book.

Some deficiencies

The baptism service does not make provision for the blessing of the water which, as with earlier practice, would have taken place on occasions when the water was changed; the 1549 book as originally published provided a form for this in an appendix and its omission in The First English Prayer Book is a significant oversight. This deficiency notwithstanding, few clergy might want to provoke a flow of irate letters to the bishop and press by performing the prescribed forthright exorcism of the devil from a darling child or gentle granny come for Christening. The First English Prayer Book, reprinted in 2008, is unlikely to satisfy all the liturgical needs of a parish church, however ultra-Laudian. At St George’s we chose the book primarily for use at Holy Communion.

Awaiting approval

We are still awaiting the approval and publication of the services for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Anglicanorum Coetibus describes these as ‘liturgical books proper to the Anglican tradition, which have been approved by the Holy See, so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion within the Catholic Church, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared’.

We now learn from a talk delivered by Fr Aidan Nichols in March, posted on the Ordinariate Portal, that the proposed rite for Holy Communion will be an amalgam largely drawn from pre-Reformation, modern Roman and modern Church of England sources. According to Fr Nichols: ‘The result may be the sort of Eucharistic Order Cranmer might well have established had he been doctrinally orthodox (and lived in the twentieth century)’.

A providential treasure

Irrespective of any mock-Tudor rendering this will disappoint many Anglicans who wish the Ordinariate well but who may be unable to recognize their patrimony in such a construct.

Until the day before yesterday the words of the first English Prayer Book and its disjointed successors were recited in every cathedral and parish church in England, and they remain a way of worship for millions of Anglicans around the world. Cranmer’s cautious first English rite of Holy Communion was indeed a product of the Reformation and no mere translation. But his retention of the shape of the old service and his use of traditional terminology meant that conservative clergy understood and used it as a vernacular Mass.

A providential treasure giving expression in matchless prose to mysteries beyond the grasp of its compiler, it is ‘where prayer has been valid… and … more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying’. ‘Here’, as with Eliot’s Little Gidding, ‘the intersection of the timeless moment is England and nowhere; never and always’.

On 9th October at 6pm we at St George’s, Headstone, Pinner View, Harrow HA1 4RJ will be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of our beautiful church building according to the 1549 Order of Holy Communion. Celebrant: Rt Revd Peter Wheatley, Bishop of Edmonton. Preacher Rt Revd Michael Nazir-Ali. Honoured guest: Rt Revd Zacharias Mar 7heophilus, Suffragan Metropolitan of the Syrian Mar 7homa Church. Readers of New Directions of whatever ecclesial patrimony are cordially invited to attend and robbing clergy are asked to inform us in advance by email: ND