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The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography

A review of Alan Jacobs's new history of Anglicanism's second-most-treasured book.

Only those who care so little about religion or religious history that they count it all as nonsense will find anything to dislike about this book. Alan Jacobs has outdone himself in both in the quality of his historical research and the more difficult trick of rendering complicated history in plain language and a merciful page count.

Jacobs’s own practice of Anglicanism has apparently only increased his attention to contradiction, foiled plans, multiple visions, and historical change throughout the life of the Anglican Church’s second-most-treasured book. His history is not meant to celebrate the superiority of the BCP as some example of perfected worship. In fact, his most striking and central claim is that there was no significant period of time in which the BCP actually unified the Anglican Church. The book has a fraught political history, and none of its many versions ever pleased everybody from its earliest days to the present time. In this sense, it never achieved the purpose for which it was created, but the controversies that broke it apart were a blessing in disguise since they resulted in the diffusion of its influence to other countries and contexts. Anglican prayer books are now as many and varied as the world’s cultures that practice Anglicanism. GAFCON 2013, a summit of leading African bishops will convene in Nairobi next week, a testament to the indigenous roots that the Anglican Church has grown thanks in no small part to the flexibility of the prayer book.

Jacobs attends to the controversies surrounding the BCP like a narrative journalist concerned with setting the whole scene (as much of it as the evidence allows) including curiosities of circumstance and the probable mood of the participants. This full picture is what makes a book mostly taken up with seventeenth-century political and religious controversies such an engaging read even for modern ears. Take for instance his passage about the controversy over whether one should sit or kneel at communion for which Thomas Cranmer penned The Black Rubric–a document named for nothing more ominous than the color of ink it was written in. The Rubric was a disclaimer inserted into the original binding at the last minute making perfectly clear that kneeling at communion did not suggest that the elements themselves were being adored. Jacobs notes both the theological acrobatics performed by the text but also its annoyed tone. Cranmer was not happy about John Knox’s intransigence and this comes through in the text; “palpably crabby,” Jacobs writes.

Jacobs faithfully relates the theological and political significance of such writings, but he also picks up on the human sentiments at play. It is this narrative flair and attention to human peculiarity that makes the book a pleasant read, but it also contributes subtly to the history. The present mode of historical research causes historians to suspect their own impressions of the text and to remain judiciously mute on the intentions and moods of their subjects. Social historians’ concern for footnoting every tittle and jot as well as the present obsession with theory over narrative often leads them to float above the human realm of predicaments and emotions in which we live our present lives. Jacobs’s departure from this style is refreshing.

One sometimes sees the shape of present religious struggles in his account of the Book of Common Prayer, but more often–and perhaps more fruitfully–Jacobs gives readers a lucid look at people throughout history whose hearts were far closer to the concerns of religious belief and observance than the modern world often affords us. The choices they made, the worship they attempted to craft, and the battles they fought with each other are told with a keen attention to the structures and motivations of religious belief. In this, Jacobs has surpassed many modern historians who attempt to account for religious movements by all manner of reductive tactics, refusing stubbornly to grant religious belief and observance its own oeuvre, its own life. But religion is its own interpretive category alongside the modern trinity of race, class, and gender.

Jacobs’s deceptively slim volume–one part of a larger series, it should be noted–is an uncommonly insightful work of religious history with much to teach our modern minds.

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