The pervasive influence of the Book of Common Prayer

James Fallows of The Atlantic on Rhythm, Reception and the Book of Common Prayer


I am not a believing, spiritual person, but from first consciousness until age 17 I spent so much time at Episcopal church services with the "old style" Cranmer liturgy that even now I can recite very long passages by rote. The same is of course true for people exposed to the standard holy texts in most religions: prayers in Hebrew, the old Latin mass, Sutras and Vedas, the Islamic call to prayer, and so on. The distinctive aspect of the Cranmer liturgy is that it is in English -- and a particular form of stately English whose wording may seem antique but whose rhythms retain a classic beauty. I wouldn't, and can't, write the same way. Yet passages like those after the jump have stuck in my mind as the pure idea of how sentences should be paced, should repeat for emphasis yet also vary, should end.

And now I learn from Ben Schwarz that this is a completely clichéd observation! He reviews a new study of Cranmer's work and says:

Brian Cummings, the editor of this volume, rightly asserts that the language of The Book of Common Prayer "has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than that of any other book written in English, even the Bible." ... [I]t shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language.

Do you agree that the old BCP "branded the tongue of English-speaking peoples"? Has any book written in English been more influential in this regard?

Comments (12)

I think the KJV/AV has probably been more influential than the BCP.

On a related note, though, there is a great book entitled _For Services Rendered_ that is basically an anthology of literary passages involving the Book of Common Prayer.

The King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the BCP have shaped the English language like no other writings before or since. I'd probably judge their influence in the order that I listed the three.

June Butler

June, I was going to suggest Shakespeare myself, but I was afraid that he didn't fit the "book" category since he never really wrote one - using _The Collected Works of William Shakespeare_ just seemed like cheating. ;-)

But you're right - he certainly coined more words and phrases than the BCP. So if we're counting him, I second your comment.

I'm no scholar, but I notice more phrases that to me owe their rhythm to the Book of Common Prayer than to either the Authorized Version of the Bible or Shakespeare. That could be simply that I knew both the AV and Shakespeare from the time I was a child; I met the Book of Common Prayer when I was 18.

Of course, Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible shaped the English language more, but I wonder if it might be that the Book of Common Prayer has affected English literature more.

dale mcneill

@dale, you make a good point in making a distinction between the language and the literature.

@John, what an array of bodice-rippers! Thanks for pointing the way to the book I meant.

The parish I'm a member of uses the Anglican Service Book, sort of a Rite I transcription of the '79 BCP, except with the Coverdale psalter. I often find myself struck by a phrase and thinking that it would make a great title for a British mystery novel (in the steps of PD James' _Devices and Desires_).

I certainly do not wish to diminish the work of Archbishop Cranmer, but it is good to remember that he was more of a compiler of that already written than an author himself -- not to say he did not write elements of the BCP for certainly he did, especially Collects, but his primary role in the BCP was that compiler.

Much of the BCP owes its origin to the work of early reformers in England dating back to Wycliffe, John Purvey and others of "Lollard" fame dating well back into the 14th century, a century and a half prior to Cranmer.

This observation obtains equally for the Authorized Version as well, since much of that is based on earlier English translations of Scripture. The number of famous phrases which we all know and love, and which date to the Wycliffe Bible of c. 1385, is astounding.

Of whatever origin, thank God for the early BCPs, the Authorized Version, and yes, certainly for Shakespeare.

Jim Hammond
retired cleric
Warrenton, VA

Attended a wedding at Tahoe this weekend. It was a beautiful ceremony albeit "non religious" and as the rings were exchanged the phrase "an outward and visible sign" was used.
Celeste Ventura
Carmel Valley, CA

Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't the phrase "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" originate from the burial office office of the BCP? That's the phrase the immediately came to my mind.

Cullin R. Schooley

No doubt, the BCP has a pervasive influence, but I'd rank it third, behind the KJV and Shakespeare. I'd also throw Milton in there somewhere.

Back in the jurassic period, when I was a lit. undergrad, it was said that no one could call themselves an English scholar who had not read the KJV, Shakespeare, and Milton. The BCP was not mentioned, particularly if you revolved in non-Anglican circles. The BCP was a tertirary influence, and I imagine most of us were unaware how much it lurked in the background of our syntax, grammer, phraseology, et al.

Kevin McGrane

In early North America, the two most common books in the average household were the KJV
and the works of Shakespeare.

I suspect that the BCP came later due to the influence of Episcopalians in the power structure of the US.

I wonder what other Anglophone countries have found.

Adelaide Kent (added by ~ed.)

Adelaide, do you know if that holds true for Virginia, which had an Anglican presence early on?

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