For those who venture into their local Church of England from time to time you may notice that during the service some of the words said are familiar and used from week to week. Well that all goes back to the Act of Unity which was passed on this day in 1549. The Act was an ongoing part of King Edward VI’s actions to introduce the Protestant doctrine to the practice of the churches in England and Wales. We gave an overview of this as part of last year’s mini-series on the Reformation, check it out here:
The introduction of the Book of Common Prayer, which was authorised under the Act of Uniformity was one of the most significant changes during Edwards reign. The Book of Common Prayer replaced several regional Latin rites in use with English liturgy, and has become a common way in which people throughout England and Wales (and throughout the world today) could and can worship in the same way. A change from Latin to English had actually been proposed in Edward’s father, Henry VIII’s reign, however, Henry was religiously conservative and opposed the proposed changes.
With Henry’s death in 1547 the Protestant reformers saw their chance to advance their cause. The Act of Uniformity was not the first piece of legislation introduced, but it was probably the most significant, the main affects being the replacement of several regional Latin rites then in use with English-language liturgy As an aside it’s believed the saying 'hocus pocus,' came from a mis-pronunciation of the Latin used during Mass from the phrase "Hoc est corpus meum”, which in English means “This is my body.) It also offered a compromise to conservatives, providing Protestants with a service free from what they considered superstition, while maintaining the traditional structure of the mass.
Nevertheless, the first Book of Common Prayer was a "radical" departure from traditional worship. It was the work of Thomas Cranmer, who had begun work on it under Henry VII, but had not been able to do anything until the King’s passing. The Book removed any doctrines of human merit contributing to an individual's salvation and was replaced with the doctrine of justification by faith, which is given by God. In Justification, men and woman are seen as being right before God when they put their trust in Jesus’ obedience and sacrificial death in their place on the cross. This doctrine is found and linked to other doctrines throughout the prayer book.
Other key doctrines changed, including those relating to communion, the eating and (or not) drinking of the bread and wine. The Protestant reformers, like John Wycliffe a few centuries before, did not hold to the doctrine of transubstantiation (where the bread and wine are changed physically into Jesus’ body and blood). When it came to the actual taking of mass the Protestant reform changed the way in which the bread (or wafer) was given from being place in the recipients mouth to being placed in their hands and the taking of the wine, which over time had been dropped from the practices of the early church.
With all these changes there was unsurprisingly some opposition by those who continued to hold on to their beliefs and practices, however Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity on January 21st 1549 and the Book of Common Prayer was required to be in use by Whit Sunday, June 9th of the same year. Following the passing of the Act, Protestants felt that the Book of Common Prayer was too traditional and easy for Roman Catholics to re-interpret. This perception was not misplaced and conservative clergy did find loopholes, making adaptions so that the services were close to the original Mass.
In some parts of the country, the introduction of the Book was particularly unpopular and led to the Prayer Book Rebellion, which largely took place in the West Country, but also saw unrest in the West Midlands to Yorkshire. The Rebellion was not only in reaction to the prayer book; the rebels demanded a full restoration of pre-Reformation Catholicism. They were also motivated by economic concerns, such as enclosure. In East Anglia, however, the rebellions lacked a Roman Catholic character. Kett's Rebellion in Norwich blended Protestant piety with demands for economic reforms and social justice.
Very soon after the Book of Common Prayer came in to use a revision was made, which was authorised when a new Act of Uniformity was passed in April 1552. However, following King Edward’s Vi’s death in 1553, there was a return to the Roman Catholic liturgy during Mary I’s reign. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1559, the 1552 Book of Common Prayer came back into to use, with some minor changes. When James I came to throne there were some more minor changes. The English Civil War saw the Book abolished for a second time and then it returned to use in 1662 with further modest changes. The 1662 version continues to be used up to today for the main use in church services. In the late twentieth century there were some alternative forms introduced, which technically are supplements.
According to the Church of England’s website today the ‘Anglican family consists of tens of millions of Christians’. These believers are spread across over 165 countries where the Book of Common Prayer is still largely used, some 469 years are in first came in to use.
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on English Reformation. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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