by Alan Jacobs
When his Anglican priest stopped using the Book of Common Prayer in the 1960s, poet W. H. Auden suspected the priest had “gone stark raving mad.” Unfolding the story of how a sixteenth-century manual for devotions became a standard for religious sanity, Jacobs transports readers back to the England of Henry VIII, when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer formulated the Book to unite a religiously fractured country. Readers probe the theological reasons why the first edition, published in 1549, dismayed both traditionalists and evangelicals with its liturgical and doctrinal compromises between Catholic and Reformation orthodoxies. But those readers also watch as the majesty of Cranmer’s prose wins over generations of worshippers, spiritually nourished by its regal cadences and fiercely resistant to those who would revise it. Indeed, the repeated attempts to revise the Book—some successful—occasion tense drama, succinctly recounted here. Likewise chronicled are the international conflicts occasioned as the Book metamorphoses as the global empire Britain builds—then shrinks. This fascinating history, a strong entry in the Lives of Great Religious Books series, exposes the surprisingly taut life of a church-pew volume.