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Shifting gears a bit, part of the story that you tell is that the Book of Common Prayer has often had difficulty serving as a genuinely common book of prayer for a church with significant internal differences. For instance, you tell how in the Victorian era, riots broke out and ministers went to jail over things as apparently insignificant as putting candlesticks on the altar. What led to such passionate struggles?

That's a tough one to put briefly, but basically it was a very deeply rooted contention between those who saw Anglicanism as Reformed Protestantism through-and-through—for whom, often enough, Catholicism was something frighteningly Other—and those who longed for reconnection with ancient Catholic practices, if not with the authorities at Rome. The former group tended to see every cloud of incense and every candlestick on what they would call the "table" (not the "altar") as a sign that the Reformation had not been victorious after all, and that English Christianity might well sink into a fog of superstition.

You end your book on a note of soft lament, in essence saying that the Book of Common Prayer may no longer exist as a living book, save for a few. What do you mean by that? What have we lost?

Thomas Cranmer wanted one book and one liturgical "use" for one country. He wanted English folk to be able to go into any church in England on any given day and experience the same worship service in the same words. For a long time this desire of Cranmer's was indeed realized—and more, it was possible to go into what came to be known as "Anglican" churches all over the world and hear the same beautiful cadences, which was something I doubt Cranmer ever expected. He was making a prayer book for his country, and expected that Christian worship in other countries would develop in varying ways according to those places' liturgical requirements.

And indeed this is what happened. Every Anglican province in the world eventually decided that it needed its own prayer book—and as time went by and the English language altered and took various forms in various places, Anglicans felt that they needed to update those books. I don't think that any of this would have surprised or even disappointed Cranmer—but it is a little sad nonetheless, because there is for many of us satisfaction in saying the same words that our predecessors in the Christian faith said. Any nostalgia I feel for that old prayer book is closely related to the way many Catholics feel about the old Latin Mass, or many Christians throughout the English-speaking world feel about the King James Bible.

Cranmer himself would, I'm sure, understand this nostalgia. But he would probably urge us to get over it.

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The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)
Princeton University Press
256 pp., $18.93
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Christianity Today
The Book of Common Prayer Is Still a Big Deal