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Book supplies our template for life
Hatching, matching, and dispatching. The Book of Common Prayer, which celebrates its 350th anniversary this year, continues to play an important role in the rites of passage in the lives of many of us today (baptism, marriage and death) — and some of its beautiful phrases are familiar to all, for instance: “I take thee to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” Then there is the awful finality of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
Oxford played a major part in producing the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. For a start, the book draws hugely on the work of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556, pictured), Archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Henry VIII, who had produced the first Anglican prayer book more than 100 years before — and who, of course, was burned at the stake in Oxford’s city ditch, now Broad Street.
The revised prayer book was produced two years after the Restoration of Charles II. It was part of a bid to reintroduce stability and order into the nation following the turmoil of the Commonwealth years under Oliver Cromwell, during which religious chaos had ruled — with plenty of violence between sects.
In Oxford, for example, during the 1650s, a Quaker woman stripped herself naked and walked about shouting that “in like manner would those in authority be stripped of their power”. She was reacting against violence towards Quakers by undergraduates.
The laudable intention of the revised Book of Common Prayer was to lay the foundations of a robust but happy society, based on sound Christian principles.
Its publication followed the Savoy Conference of 1661, held at a hospital which then stood on the site of today’s Savoy Hotel in London. The conference had been convened by Gilbert Sheldon (1598–1677), then Bishop of London and Master of the Savoy.
Sheldon, a former vicar of Oddington and of Newington (both in Oxfordshire), was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663-1677. He was also Chancellor of Oxford University from 1667 to 1669. He paid most of the money for building the Sheldonian Theatre — which is named after him — and he was a friend of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon (1609–1674), who paid for most of the Clarendon Building.
The Book of Common Prayer was published the same year as the Act of Uniformity was passed. It, in turn, was based largely on the Clarendon Code (named after, but not entirely written by, Clarendon) which made the new Book of Common Prayer compulsory in Anglican churches — though many clergymen rejected it and were themselves consequently ejected from their livings.
All in all, the Book of Common Prayer owes much to Oxford men. Cranmer had incorporated something of the old pre-Reformation hours of prayer into his Morning and Evening services, but the Thanksgiving, with the lovely words “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life . . .”, was added in 1662.
The words were written by Bishop Reynolds, Dean of Christ Church and vice-chancellor of Oxford 1648-50 (the latter year being the one in which he was ejected from his Deanery).