Project Canterbury

The Church of England and the "Great Prayer"

By Hugh Ross Williamson

London: The Catholic League, 1954.

IN the year 597 St. Augustine brought Christianity to England. At the first Holy Communion he celebrated on these shores he said certain prayers which had been given their final form a few years previously by Gregory the Great, the Pope who had sent him on his mission. Those prayers, some of which were actually primitive and all of which embodied primitive Christian doctrine, have remained unaltered from that day to this. This circumstance alone gives a central position in the Christian faith to what is sometimes referred to as the Great Prayer of the Church—though it is, in fact, in spite of its continuity, composed of twelve prayers, each of which is usually known by the Latin word with which it begins.

Whatever later doctrinal differences may have arisen between Christians in England, there are and can be none about the original deposit of the Faith which Augustine preached. Thus, these prayers are of unquestionable validity for all Christians since none disagrees with the Catholic Church about the original Christianity to which England was converted nearly a thousand years before the Reformation.

This simple historical fact is of cardinal importance to the understanding of the struggle which has been proceeding for a century in the Church of England. From the beginning of the Oxford Movement until to-day, the right to say these prayers—to say them with exactitude, without alteration or addition—has been the major point at issue (from which all other minor controversies such as that over ritual have sprung) between the Anglo-Catholics and the Anglican Episcopate.

To prevent the saying of them has been the motive behind the ecclesiastical policies of a succession of Archbishops of Canterbury, from Tait till the present occupant of the Primatial See. In 1874 Tait, as Primate, spoke against their use when he introduced the Bill which became the Public Worship Regulation Act. "He referred", says his biographer, Randall Davidson, "to the growing circulation of certain large and ornamental altar-cards printed for the priest in celebrating Holy Communion. On these cards ... the Prayer of Consecration, for audible use, was surrounded in print with devotions for the priest alone, quite alien to the tone and character of the Book of Common Prayer. I call upon those who glory in the name of members of the Church of England', he said, 'to come forward and declare themselves manfully against such a desecration of Holy Communion'."

Tait's attack on the Great Prayer—for it was this which was printed on the altar-cards—led to an immediate challenge. In reply he quoted two sections of the Great Prayer—the Memento Domine and the Communicantes—and, stigmatizing them as containing "the worst errors", opined that the congregation "if they knew what the minister was saying would rise and leave the church." It is hardly surprising that, as Randall Davidson records—"the letters of the next fortnight showed conclusively that all hope of the concurrence of high Churchmen in passing the Bill through Parliament must be definitely abandoned."

The Bill was passed, nevertheless, and so began the famous series of imprisonments of the Anglo-Catholic clergy for refusing to give up the silent use of the Great Prayer. Among others, Tooth (who died as recently as 1931) was kept in jail for 28 days, Pelham Dale and Enraght for 49 and Faithorne Green for nearly a year and a half. Such resistance made the Act unworkable and, though it still remains on the statute book, there would hardly be enough prison accommodation for the Anglo-Catholic priests who to-day openly defy it and continue to say the prayers which St. Augustine said.

The Episcopal attack continued with more sublety but with unrelenting bitterness. In 1904 Randall Davidson, now himself Archbishop of Canterbury, adopted Tait's policy but gave it another form, that of a Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline. From this, over 20 years later, there emerged the Revised Prayer Book of 1928 whose objective was to make the use of the Great Prayer impossible within the terms of canonical obedience. The book's rejection by Parliament was a blow from which Randall Davidson did not recover and the defeat led to a further change in Episcopal tactics. A mordant satire of the times which represented a chorus of Bishops pleading for

Our please-be-good-boys new Book,
Our don't-make-a-noise new Book,
Our why-can't-you-risk-a bit, trust the Episcopate,
Save-the-Establishment Book.

had not been altogether without effect and the bishops were quite aware that their next move would be scrutinized with sceptical care.

They did not make it until 1939, when the archbishops appointed a Commission on Canon Law, which, on the face of it, looked harmless enough. The report was not issued till 1947 and an interim edition, showing what progress has been made, appeared in the latter half of 1954 with the information that none of the proposed new canons is "yet at a stage when the question of seeking authorization for them arises." Yet, as the object of revision, though hidden under labyrinths of irrelevance, is precisely the same as that of Tait in 1874 and Randall Davidson in 1928, it is well that a warning from the Anglo-Catholic side should be given in time, and I have been asked by a large body of Anglo-Catholic priests and permitted by the Editor of The Fortnightly to attempt an outline of the situation so that, when the battle on authorization is joined—and it is likely to be as bitter as the 1928 struggle over the Prayer Book—the laity may at least know what it is about.

The theological issue is simple and I have already sufficiently emphasized it. What is in question is the right of any Anglican priest to use, within the terms of his canonical obedience, the prayers first used when England became Christian, both as embodying sound Christian doctrine and as being the traditional prayers of Christendom at the service of Holy Communion. The legal and historical issues are, however, less simple.


Every clergyman in the Church of England, on being admitted to holy orders, has to make a Declaration of Assent by which he undertakes, among other things, to use the form set forth in the Book of Common Prayer "and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority." This phrasing obviously does not and cannot be construed to mean that he promises —as is so often said loosely in controversy—to use the Prayer Book form and nothing else. Were that so, there would be no Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England, since their consciences would prevent them ever taking such an oath. The question is: What is the 'lawful authority' mentioned in the exceptive clause?

In his authoritative memorandum on this subject in The Canon Law of the Church of England, Mr. Justice Vaisey points out that "precise definition of 'lawful authority' is impossible. It is true in a sense to say that nobody can be sure what the words mean, either to himself or anybody else, and that their effect has been to convert an obligation which was impossible to perform into one which is impossible to understand." The one thing that is quite certain is that they do not mean 'legal authority' and that one legitimate construction of them is 'canonical authority.' It is in this sense that most Anglo-Catholics take the oath: "I will use the legally-imposed Prayer Book except in so far as the canonical authority of an enactment by Convocation orders me to do otherwise." And, they contend, the last valid enactment by Convocation orders them to use the Great Prayer.

Until the year 1549 no-one in England had ever thought of using any other form at Holy Communion but that—which was, of course, and had been for centuries, canonically enacted. In that year 1549 another form was imposed on the Church not lawfully by Convocation but legally by Act of Parliament. It led to an immediate revolt in various parts of the country in which the rebels announced: "We will not receive the new service." After two months the revolt was stamped out by foreign mercenaries imported by the Government.

This new form of prayers for Holy Communion was necessary to provide a raison d'être for the Government policy of transferring the wealth of the Church to the hands of the Crown. That process involved, in the first place, preventing the payment of ecclesiastical dues to Rome; in the second, confiscating the chantry lands and endowments; in the third, acquiring the immense treasure lavished on the shrines of the saints.

Archbishop Cranmer, in charge of propaganda, realized that to rewrite the Great Prayer with these things in mind was an effective way of clothing the naked policy of pillage in the serviceable garments of moral justification. This he proceeded to do, dividing the Prayer into two parts and making one of them optional, altering the order and the wording, substituting the name of the King for that of the Pope as head of the Church and excising every reference to prayers for the dead and to the existence of saints. For, as long as the Great Prayer remained intact and in its original form, it was always possible that a counter-Reformation might start within the Church itself.

When, in the course of its magnificent definition of the world-wide Church, priests and people prayed, in the Great Prayer, for "Thy servant, our Pope, our Bishop and all true believers" there was always a danger that, at least in their thoughts, the successor of St. Peter instead of the successor of Henry VIII might retain his place as Christ's Vicegerent. So Cranmer changed this phrase to "all Christian kings, princes and governors and specially thy servant Edward our King that under him we may be godly and quietly governed; and grant unto his whole Council and to all that are put into authority under him that they may truly and indifferently administer justice . . ." The secular was thus explicitly substituted for the spiritual and Cranmer took additional care to emphasize it further. The Great Prayer implores God "to protect, unite and govern the Church throughout the world." Cranmer reserved the actual word 'govern' exclusively for the King and his deputies and for the original phrase substituted "inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord"— which, even though theologians have been at pains to point out that it means the same thing, has in fact not quite the same effect.

Cranmer's second necessity was to get rid of any idea of praying for the dead, in order to justify the confiscation of the money and chantry lands which generations of devout Englishmen had left for that purpose. The Great Prayer, embodying Christian custom from apostolic times, runs: "Be mindful, O Lord, of thy servants, men and women" (at this point every worshipper individually mentions quietly by name his or her dead friends) "who have gone before us with the sign of faith and sleep the sleep of peace. To them, O Lord, and to all who rest in Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, a place of refreshing, light and peace." This Cranmer turned into: "We also bless Thy holy name for all thy servants departed this life in Thy faith and fear, beseeching Thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples that with them we may be partakers of Thy heavenly kingdom;” and, further to destroy its original connotation as a prayer for those in purgatory, he removed it from its original context and placed it at an earlier point in the service.

There remained the saints. The Great Prayer is full of the saints. It emphasizes that the Church is not confined to the "Church militant here on earth" but includes also the Church triumphant in Heaven. It insists, in its definition of the Church to which I have referred, that the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and St. Paul, all the Apostles—the great missionaries—and the martyrs and evangelists "and all thy Saints" are an integral part of the actual Church (though, since it has not varied since the end of the sixth century, no saint later than that date is mentioned by name). As one commentator on the Great Prayer has put it: "The Church is one in heaven and on earth. The stern of the vessel no doubt is still in darkness. But the prow advances, shining into the living light of eternal glory. Our stammerings are amplified by the praises of the saints." The treasure lavished on the shrines of the saints is merely the outward sign that ordinary men and women are soaked in this Christian belief that the saints are at all times an operative part of the Church. But, as in sixteenth-century England the Government had stolen all this treasure, it was necessary that the belief itself should be eradicated. So from the Great Prayer Cranmer erased every mention of a saint, even Christ's Mother.

There were, of course, other changes made by which primitive Christian teaching was jettisoned to justify sixteenth-century revolutionary policy; but a mention of these three is, I hope, enough to explain what the Anglo-Catholic means when he says that the Prayer Book Holy Communion Service is political rather than spiritual. What spiritual validity it possesses derives from those portions of the Great Prayer which Cranmer did not alter beyond recognition—as, for example, the narrative of the Last Supper which provides the formula for the consecration of the bread and wine. But obviously the Great Prayer remains the norm and the Prayer Book version a deviation— a monument to political necessity. Nor, since the Great Prayer is not only accessible but still used by most Christians, is there any good reason—to put it at its lowest—against its use.

In the Church of England, there are three different attitudes to the dilemma in which the clergy are thus placed. The Low Church Party, supported by nearly all the bishops, insists on regarding Cranmer's new prayers as themselves the norm and anathematizing the Great Prayer as "a Roman innovation." They see as clearly as did Tait that the Great Prayer is "quite alien to the tone and character of the Book of Common Prayer" though they still fail to grasp the true historical sequence. The High Church Party tries to argue that the two versions are actually the same and that Cranmer merely rearranged without substantially altering the Great Prayer. The Anglo-Catholics, repudiating a rite whose raison d'être was to justify a particular economic revolution, insist on still using the Great Prayer, in spite of every preventive effort on the part of the episcopate, which now, as then, fears that doctrine translated into action would lead to the severance of the Church from the State. [Certain Anglo-Catholic clergy, when ministering to uninstructed congregations, still say, for pastoral reasons, some of Cranmer's prayers, though they are careful to say them as individual prayers and not (except the words of the consecration) as part of the Canon of the Mass.] It has not escaped notice that, in the autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion where a revision of the Prayer Book has been carried out, the Great Prayer has always been the model adopted and in most cases, prayers for the dead, the commemoration of saints (with the Blessed Virgin Mary explicitly mentioned) have been restored to their proper places. And the reason that the provinces of Canterbury and York lag far behind in this respect is, precisely, because they are established; because the 'legal' has displaced the 'lawful.' It is to 'lawful' canonical authority that Anglo-Catholics still appeal. Are they justified in their plea?


There is no question of lawful—that is to say, canonical as opposed to legal—authority for any version of the Book of Common Prayer before the edition of 1662, for it is incontrovertible that the earlier books, from 1549 onwards, were forced on the Church solely by Act of Parliament. On the other hand it is constantly asserted by both Low and High Church apologists that the Restoration Prayer Book stands in a different category. The Dean of Chichester wrote recently to the Church Times epitomizing this view: "The Prayer Book of 1661 was entirely the work of the Church. It was adopted and subscribed by the clergy of both Houses and both provinces on December 20, 1661. When it came to the Houses of Parliament to be made the law of the land, it was accepted without change and annexed to the Act of Uniformity, 1662." The Dean, of course, does not state that the Book was canonically enacted (which is the point at issue) since, as a scholar, he must be as well aware as anyone that this was not the case; but his careful phrasing might leave on the mind of the ordinary reader the impression that the 1662 Book possesses 'lawful' as well as 'legal' authority. It is thus important to understand the actual conditions in which the Restoration Book was compiled and enforced.

As Charles II was indebted to both Anglicans and Presbyterians for support, his first intention was to authorize a new rite which should be agreeable to both. He therefore appointed, on March 25, 1661, a joint committee of Anglican and Presbyterian divines—known as the Savoy Conference—to undertake a revision of the Prayer Book "for giving satisfaction to tender consciences." They were to submit their conclusions to him in writing "to the end the same, or as much there as shall be approved by us, may be established." That is to say, a joint Anglo-Presbyterian Book, subject to the alteration by the King alone, was to be enacted by Parliament as the Book of Common Prayer.

To have satisfied the Presbyterians, with their anti-Catholic theory of the Church, would have, in the circumstances, meant emptying the Holy Communion service even of those remnants of traditional Christian faith, derived from the Great Prayer, which Cranmer had left. An agreed book would have been the end of any possible claim—which even the Low Church party made—that the Church of England was, rightfully, part of the Catholic Church. All Anglican apologists have, therefore, suggested that the Anglicans of 1661 had, from the very beginning of the Conference, no genuine intention of co-operating. But this is not so. Dr. R. S. Bosher, in his invaluable The Making of the Restoration Settlement (1951) has shown that from the beginning of the Conference on April 15 till the first week of July there was every intention of co-operation. With documentation he proves that "the Anglicans, contrary to the generally accepted version, did entertain some hope of satisfying the more moderate Puritans and did not embark on the Conference with a pre-determined attitude of non-possumus." This, of course, tallies with the statement of Clarendon (who was deeply concerned in it) that when the Conference failed and the Anglicans went on alone "the bishops spent the vacation in making such alterations to the Book of Common Prayer as they thought would make it more grateful to their dissenting brethren."

When Convocation itself was summoned, three weeks after the opening of the Savoy Conference, it was at every turn hampered by the proceedings of that 'concurrent commission'— which, as the Bishop of Gloucester lamented, "was indeed an antecedent commission to ours and has been a great Remora." Convocation could not indeed debate the liturgy at all because the usual form of summoning it forbade it to suggest changes "contrary or repugnant to the Liturgy as established." On May 31, however, the King ordered this proviso of orthodoxy to be omitted, but it was not until the Savoy Conference failed finally to agree that Convocation was asked to provide a revised Prayer Book. The lasting influence of the one on the other is evidenced by the fact that of the 17 concessions made by the Anglicans to the Presbyterians at the Savoy Conference, all but three were embodied in the recommendations of Convocation. Important also is the circumstance that the King's order to Convocation was couched in precisely the same terms as his order to the Savoy Conference—"that they would make such additions and alterations as to them should seem meet and convenient; and should exhibit and present the same to His Majesty in writing, for his further allowance and confirmation."

Nothing in these proceedings can, by any stretch of the imagination, be construed to mean that Convocation enacted the new Book by canonical authority. The King himself enacted it, through Parliament, as an addendum to the Act of Uniformity. All that Convocation was asked to do was to offer advice in writing and it was not even asked to do that, although it was in session, until it was clear that there was no chance of getting the new Book from the Savoy Conference.

It is, of course, true that on December 20, 1661, the Book was approved and subscribed by Convocation, which had resumed its session on November 21. But the debate was perfunctory in the extreme and the whole matter had been 'arranged' by the compromising bishops, who had been at work, as Clarendon pointed out, during the vacation. When on the eve of the session, the Clerk of Convocation remarked to the Bishop of London that "they might so reform the liturgy as that no sober man might take exception" the Bishop told him tartly "that what should be was concluded and resolved"—which was true. To avoid delay, the bishops of the northern province, who were already in London, were accorded proxies to act for their synod and the temper of the York Convocation is indicated by a number of propositions which were ordered to be transmitted to the bishops in London. The first begins: "Whether in case any alterations in the liturgy should be decided upon, a public declaration should not be made, stating that the grounds of such a change are different from those pretended by schismatics?" and certainly suggests that, had there been a genuine debate in Convocation instead of an episcopally manoeuvred fait accompli, the 1662 Book would not have had even canonical recommendation. The tactics of the bishops—to whose plans speed and prevention of such debate was essential—is thrown into greater relief by the circumstance that, though the Book was adopted on December 20, 1661, not until February 24, 1662, could an official transcription be completed to present to the King.

These are the facts behind the Dean of Chichester's summary: "The Prayer Book of 1661 was entirely the work of the Church. It was adopted and subscribed by the clergy of both Houses and of both provinces on December 20, 1661." And from neither the full facts nor the summary can it be argued that the 1662 Book was canonically enacted by Convocation—which process alone would give it 'lawful authority.'


Such, in very brief epitome, are the grounds for the Anglo-Catholic contention that no version at all of the Book of Common Prayer has anything but legal authority and that the only form of the Holy Communion service which, by lawful authority, he is bound to use is the traditional pre-Reformation form of which the essence is the Great Prayer. The only rite of Holy Communion which possesses undoubted spiritual and canonical authority in the Church of England is that which was in use at the time of the Reformation and which, though made a legal offence, has never been canonically abrogated. (It is at least arguable, as one writer has put it, that "it would have been ultra vires for a provincial synod to abrogate a rite which had the prescriptive use with a thousand years behind it throughout the West. But, as a matter of fact, the provincial synod never attempted to do anything of the sort.") Hence the Gelasian Canon—to give the Great Prayer its technical name—remains the form "ordered by lawful authority." [So called, because Gregory the Great merely put the finishing touches to the work of Gelasius (492).]

Nor, to be just to the Episcopate, is there any serious suggestion that it is not. The state-appointed bishops, in their desire to suppress it since the Oxford Movement reinstated it, have never dared to deny the canonical correctness of its use. Archbishop Frederick Temple in authorizing the use of the Latin Office in an Anglican Benedictine community commented, indeed, that "the greater includes the lesser." This sanction of the Latin Office must surely imply also the still greater, the Latin Mass with its Canon. But to-day the episcopate tends rather to stigmatize those who use it as 'disloyal'—without adding that the disloyalty is to Caesar, not Christ. Tait, of course, was at least honest and used the direct method of jettisoning canonical authority and calling in the secular arm to prosecute in the secular courts—for there is no doubt of the Great Prayer's illegality. Davidson's indirect method was to draw up a new Prayer Book which, he assumed, would be canonically enacted and of which the consequence would be that no alternative to it could be used within the limits of canonical obedience. The present method is substantially the same but has the added subtlety of diverting attention from the Holy Communion service, the crux of the matter, by revising the whole body of canons, which, when lawfully enacted by Convocation, will have the desired effect.

Canon 12, which has already been agreed by both Convocations, provides that "every Minister shall follow the Use . . . prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer ... in the administration of the sacraments, and none other, except so far as shall be ordered by lawful authority." The 'exceptive clause', though looking the same, has now a quite different force; for once the new canons are themselves validly enacted, it will be impossible to appeal to a 'lawful authority' which they have lawfully and authoritatively superseded. [The long and unwieldy Canon 13 which attempts to define 'lawful authority' has not yet been discussed; but it is, in any case, irrelevant to this particular statement.]

The Anglo-Catholics will thus be faced with an inescapable dilemma. Either they will have to disobey their bishops—a course which would nullify the Anglo-Catholic insistence on such canonical obedience as a mark of true Catholic order—or they will have to refrain from saying the Great Prayer. Consequently, they are forced to warn the episcopate, at this stage before any irrevocable action is taken, that unless some such safeguard as the insertion in Canon 12 of the words "except, in the administration of Holy Communion, the Gelasian Canon," they will be compelled to take formal steps to demand the disestablishment of the Church of England.

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