As we begin our exploration of the Book of Common Prayer’s Eucharistic service, we start with title itself. (p. 67) “The Order for The Administration of The Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion” This title is, in itself, a Protestant statement. The earliest title, in 1549, was “The Supper of the Lord and Holy Communion commonly called the Mass.” This was the first and only version to use the word “Mass” in its title. Reformers had many different criticisms of the traditions that had grown up around the Mass and so desired to move away from any language that might confuse things. In fact, the most protestant among reformers insisted that the service was nothing more than an act of remembrance of ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ and preferred that title. Other reformers preferred the title ‘Holy Communion’ as a way of expressing that ‘something’ more than remembrance happened during the service! Thus, we still have two titles for the one liturgy.
In our contemporary services, it is almost impossible to imagine worship without music, especially hymnody, but in the late medieval church, from which the early Church of England born, music was generally only of two types, psalmody and traditional liturgical music. In both cases, the music was provided by the choir, because congregational singing was inconceivable (can you imagine the peasants singing?)! The first rubrics we find in the Book of Common Prayer make reference to ‘introits,’ literally ‘entrance music,’ and there is a table found on page lii, which prescribes which Psalm was meant to be sung (by the choir) as the clergy entered the church. Page lii – 17 Trinity, Psalm 119, pt 18.
The Book of Common Prayer was not created from scratch. The 1549 version bears a very strong resemblance in content and structure to the most popular Latin Rite already in use in most of England, called the Sarum Rite. As I’ve indicated earlier, the Sarum Rite was not significantly different from other liturgies in Europe. Though evidence shows there were multiple varieties of Rites in the very early church, by the end of the Middle Ages, most liturgies were strongly influenced by the patterns encouraged by Rome.
It is difficult for us to conceive of how very different worship was before the Reformation. A few points that will help us appreciate the next two elements in the beginning of our Holy Communion are these:
Looking then at the the very first versions of the book of Common Prayer, it is clear that a straight translation of the Sarum Rite into English was not the only way in which the liturgy needed to be revised to fit into the Reformation agenda. It simply would not do to have some prayers (even if they were in English) to be spoken inaudibly or secretly, in fact, with the wide publication of the Book of Common Prayer, congregants were, for the first time in centuries, expected to be active participants in the worship, from beginning to end. This fact leading to the invention of congregational pews where families could sit together for the whole liturgy.
This leads us to some very interesting facts about the opening prayers in our service of Holy Communion:
Depending upon which commandments are read, the introduction says it all: “Hear the law of God (p.68)…” OR “Our Lord Jesus Christ said, Hear, O Israel (p.69)…” “HEAR!” The first words spoken to the congregation to start worship are the keystone sections of the Holy Bible, Old or New Testament. This is Sola Scriptura in action!
And this is just the beginning…
Note: The image above is of two pages from two significant documents in the history of the Book of Common Prayer. The image on the left is the cover page of a 1513 manuscript of the Sarum Missal from the Diocese of Bangor, Wales. The picture on the right is the cover page from a copy of the 1959 draft of the Canadian Book of Common Prayer before the 1962 version was approved.