he Prayer Book was the English nation not only at worship but also at work and play. Its basis was the Bible and its purpose to show the nation how to put the Bible's teachings into practice in everyday life. So entrenched in the nation's pysche was this second book, so deeply ingrained in its way of life, that no one could remember life without it.. Enter any place of public worship -- be it Diocesan seat or Parish Church -- the two books would be there: The Bible on the lectern and prayer book in the Pew.
Eminent Victorians, including many of the most powerful and influential, accepted without question that they were bound by biblical teachings. Indeed many considered themselves as having a special rapport with the Old Testament Prophets. A tour of the old Victorian towns in the Industrial Midlands and North will reveal chapels of Bethel and Shiloh, Tabernacles, attended and endowed by Noah Smiths Elijah Hardacres, and Malachi Higginbothams -- men of new wealth, but biblical outlook and a living testament to faith in their God and his prophets.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Prayer Book had existed almost unaltered for 200 years. It was re-printed at the accession of every monarch; it could be accepted, as indeed it was, by High Church, Low Church, Anglo-Catholic or Wesleyan, even the Evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were willing to concede "The Bible first, the Prayer Book second,and all other books and doings in subordination to both " (Horton Davies. Worship and Theology in England Vol III). John Angell James, a minister for almost all of the first 50 years of the nineteenth century in the same small chapel in Birmingham, a city built by non - conformist religion, could not imagine life without the Prayer Book.
For a reader, even now, to read The Preface or "OF CEREMONIES; why some be abolished and some retained" is to read the language that rings through the centuries magnificent and certain. It casts a spell no less sublime than a great painting or piece of music. Throughout its pages, the Prayer Book orders the conduct of daily services for births, marriages, and deaths, visits to the sick, prayers for individuals, famously known or "known only to God," prayers of thanksgiving and prayers of repentance, prayers for guidance and for help, prayers of triumph and prayers of tragedy. Any spiritual matter, public or private, was guided by the Prayer Book. Special days and events including lay matters were marked out for particular prayers or services, to be conducted bclergymen of the relevant rank from Curate and Vicar up through to Dean and Bishop.
Selected readings called "lessons" were read every day of the year as laid down in The Calender,with the TABLE OF LESSONS . Like the evenign service, the morning service had two lessons, one each from Old and New Testaments, The Calender also listed Saints or Holy Days with a corresponding Lessons Proper for Holy Days. Sundays had a separate list.
An obvious imprint of people's life is visible in "A Catechism:An Instruction to be learned by every person, before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop." The Catechism takes the form of Questions and Answers, including the following:
Question; What do you chiefly learn by these Commandments?
Answer: I learn two things, my duty towards God and my duty towards my Neighbour.
The Answer contains within it the very essence of English social attitudes.
The Thirty-nine Articles
The final chapter in the Prayer Book, prior to "Hymns Ancient and Modern" is in effect the binding contract between Church and State. In 1837 it would be preceeded by Her Majesty's Declaration laying out the importance and overarching authority of the proceeding Articles of Religion. There were Thirty-nine in all and have been known ever since as The Thirty-nine Articles.
These Articles of Religion, which were binding on all Public Office holders within the Kingdom, were renewed with each new Monarch. The last unaltered Prayer Book appeared in 1910, and the signature of the Secretary of State responsible to the Crown for its publication is that of Winston S. Churchill.
At Article 35 stands, as if sanctioned by divine authority "Of Homilies". "A godly and wholesome Doctrine" ..... "To be read in Churches by the Minister diligently and distinctly that they may be understanded of the people" There are 21 homilies in all, but only numbers 12 to 16 could be construed as of a true religious nature. Nos 7 to 10 concern Anglican theology. The other ten Homilies are axiomatic of behaviour, personal, private, and public according to the Church of England.
Article 37 ensures that no mistake is made as to where the authority to enforce the the rulings laid down in the Prayer Book: this article passes the authority to the Civil Magistrates the lowest rank of whom, local Justices of Peace, held and still do hold immense localised powers. They, of course, attended Church at least once every Sunday.
Last modified 3 October 2002