Support the Café

Search our Site

The pervasive influence of the Book of Common Prayer

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?


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill Dilworth

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


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.)


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

Apps 55753818692 1675970731 F785b701a6d1b8c33f0408

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


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

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café