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Brian Cummings ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Brian Cummings (ed.), The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-920717-6. 821 + lxxiv pp. Hbk £16.99

Reviewed by Lori Anne Ferrell

[1]  The Church’s many foundations are built on anniversaries, and the structure still holds. Here we are, a myriad books timed to proclaim last year’s 400th anniversary of the “King James Version” of the Bible barely catalogued, and already the 350th anniversary of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer is upon us. The celebration includes, of course, a shiny new edition of that text.

[2]  But scholars of even-earlier-modern English religion should take note that this new edition reprints not only that revered icon but also purports to include its 1549 and 1559 forbears, and that Oxford University Press invited Brian Cummings, author of The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace (2002), to edit what appears to be an important omnibus volume designed with their needs in mind. The title announces the book’s contents plainly enough: we expect to find inside reprints (in modern typeface, thankfully) of the three important prayer books emerging from the English protestant reformation and settlement. Given that the last scholarly reprint of the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1976, an expansion and update is well overdue.

[3]  The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 will have little difficulty, then, attracting students of the Tudor-Stuart Church, who will profit from buying this edition. The book is well-produced and well-structured for easy retrieval of information. The editorial notes, glossary, and bibliography are sound, smart, and often engaging, packing a lot of information and helpful clarification into small spaces. Cummings’s introduction is well-wrought: elegantly penned and so succinct and self-sufficient as to serve, in a pinch, as a quick primer on the early modern English Church and its culture. Along the way, this book also models Cummings’s approach to the art and craft of text editing, which aims, as it should, at accessibility. Academic readers will be grateful not only for editorial principles based on ease of use but also for his ready explanations of why and how this textual facility has been evaluated and formulated. Cummings applies a light but steady hand to unstable early modern punctuation and orthography, retaining original spelling but correcting and clarifying when necessary. The formatting, which reprints the texts in chronological order, is, the editor explains, not as cluttered as a parallel text offering might be. The transparency is refreshing – with one exception, a big one, to which I will return.

[4]  But first to finish the plaudits. My graduate students love this book. And well they ought: this has to be the most affordable and useful thing they will ever purchase new from any university press. (At an annual conference book display, standing by the OUP kiosk, I overheard a colleague repeating, simply, “twenty-nine-ninety-five! twenty-nine-ninety-five!,” so dazed and grateful was he for such unwonted grace from the scholarly print trade.) This amazing price (in US dollars), however, discloses the primary purpose of the book, which appears to be to appeal to the fanbase: those lovers of the beauties of English religious prose who last year paid dutiful tribute to the “King James Version”, but whose true passion is reserved for the mellifluous beauties of the liturgy.

[5]  For let’s face it: since the 17th century, the Church of England’s chief cornerstone has been its Book of Common Prayer, not the Christian Bible. That fact is interestingly confirmed by the actual contents, as formatted, of this edition. It is, despite the title, no omnibus: it contains one complete text – the 1669 edition – prefaced by two very condensed versions of its historic predecessors. The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 in fact reprints only the sections of the ’49 and the ’59 that did not survive religious Reformation and Revolution to successfully negotiate Restoration. Those chapters that survived – most notably the controversial “Of Ceremonies” – do appear in each separate prayer book’s table of contents, but their titles are enclosed in brackets that direct the reader to the full text as enclosed, arranged, and mediated by (with one exception) the 1662 prayer book. (Nearly half of the 1559 prayer book is represented only in these bracketed chapter headings; the reader wishing to study the ’59 Preface, with its prescient caution that anything devised by the wit of man is subject to corruption, is directed back to the wise counsel of 1549.) And we must also wait for the liturgy’s establishment-picked scriptural buttressing – psalms, lessons, gospels, or epistles – until the return of Charles II.

[6]  Why should this matter, if, with some cross referencing, hardly onerous in itself, we eventually have a full text made up of the sum of its many parts? The author of Grammar and Grace could undoubtedly tell us exactly why, as the answer is a commonplace of research scholarship, especially in the field of literary and theological studies. Simply put: words out of context lose historical meaning. And in attaining a rare ahistoricity they can become a bit too sacred. To print only the 1662 prayer book in its entirety and final order is to privilege it, and to privilege it is to misrepresent, ever-so slightly but still significantly, the prayer books of Edward and Elizabeth, texts that were sufficient to their day but, in the end, subject like all human things to decay and revision.

[7]  So this edition missed the chance to correct a bad but typical ecclesiastical habit, one that has had more influence on the scholarly treatment of English Protestantism and the history of the Church of England than we sometimes acknowledge: it forgets their contested, uncomfortable origins and retrospectively argues for an “Anglicanism” that simply did not exist before 1662. By the simple yet powerful expedient of format alone (the editorial introduction makes no such mistake), this edition ignores the origins of the English reformation – which, even as it retained its liturgy, was more Calvinist, more “puritan”, more continentally-oriented, and far more sola-scriptural in its sixteenth century beginnings and first full century than it would become by the late seventeenth century: an era that marked not only the end of tumultuous and deadly intra-protestant conflict but also (and inevitably; it is always thus) the beginning of a particularly characteristic and pernicious form of triumphalist Anglican historiography. In the battle against false witness, a phenomenon particularly prevalent in denominational studies, we need all the bibliographic weapons we can muster. So procure and appreciate this edition for its many excellent parts, but do not consign John Booty’s 1976 edition of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer to the resale shop just yet. If you teach this stuff, you are still going to need it.

Claremont Graduate University, August 2012