Liturgical prayer is ritual verbal praise, confession, thanksgiving, and/or petition that we offer to God, often in the company of other pray-ers.
Liturgy in prayer is as old as the Shema (meaning “hear”), a Hebrew summons to confess the nature of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one” (Deut 6:4–5). Moses commanded the Israelites to repeat the Shema regularly (6:6–9) in order to fix the call firmly in their hearts. Liturgical prayer can also be found in many of the Psalms that were used in Temple worship. Psalm 67 is a recognizable example with its refrain, “Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee!” Similarly, every verse in the antiphonal Psalm 136 concludes with the response “for his mercy endures forever.” The most famous New Testament liturgy, the Our Father, acts as both a specific prayer and a template for how to pray (Matt 6:9–13).
Liturgies from both the Old and New Testaments continued to be used in the early church even as new prayers developed and were codified (Acts 2:42). By AD 1220, the Roman Catholic church was collecting service books from across England to standardize their prayers and practices. The resulting liturgies multiplied until Thomas Cranmer began his reformation revisions.1 Cranmer was born in 1489 to a wealthy farmer. His keen mind and conservative,2 penetrating disposition suited him to the life of an academic. He rose so quickly in the university system and the church that King Henry VIII took notice of him and sent him to the Continent as an envoy. In 1533, Henry recalled Cranmer from his diplomatic duties and reformation studies to consecrate him Archbishop of Canterbury.
At this time Henry had already begun proceedings to force the annulment of his first marriage, since it had not produced a male heir, but the English church had yet to break completely with Rome. Nevertheless, cracks between the English government and Roman authority had widened sufficiently to bother the cautious Cranmer. Consecration as archbishop included swearing an oath of obedience to the pope, and he thought this would conflict with his obedience to the crown, so he made it known that he was taking the oath only as a formality. He would neither oppose the crown, nor limit his pursuit of reformation in the Church of England.3
A formal Act of Supremacy, proclaiming that Henry outranked the pope, was finally issued at the end of 1534. Cranmer took advantage of the political move to begin reforming the services and prayers of the English church. Ten years later, Henry ordered him to write prayers in the English language for the king’s armies to recite as they went into battle. These were the first published portions of a new English liturgy.4 Cranmer is best known for his lifelong work of filtering, translating, simplifying, and unifying the church service into one work that became known as the Book of Common Prayer. From older service books, he rooted out content that was neither Scripture-based nor supported by the early church fathers. He wrote reformed prayers and practices in the vernacular, simplified instructions for worship services so that common people could follow along, and combined a variety of traditions into one.5
Ironically, the conservative populace was outraged by this switch to English language services, perhaps because they felt that English was too common, not beautiful enough for worship.6 Or perhaps the use of their own language implied greater participation in their faith than could be expected back when religion was performed in Latin.7 Furthermore, instead of making a private confession to the priest before the service, people now spoke aloud a unified confession directly to God, asking “Lord have mercy” after the Ten Commandments were read.8
In the preface to the 1549 edition of the English service book, Cranmer explained, “Whereas St Paul would have such language spoken to the people in the church, as they might understand and have profit by hearing the same [1 Cor 14:5–12]; the service in this Church of England (these many years) hath been read in Latin to the people, which they understood not; so that they have heard with their ears only; and their hearts, spirit, and mind, have not been edified thereby.”9
In 1552, under the authority of Henry’s son, a final version called the Second Prayer Book of Edward VI was issued. The book specified both the methods and the words to be used in services of worship, feast days, consecrations, marriages, baptisms, burials, and ordinary days throughout the church calendar. Cranmer wrote many of the prayers himself and translated others from ancient sources. His combination of words and styles from both the Germanic and the Latin roots of English resulted in memorable phrases—“meet, right, and our bounden duty”—that continue to appeal to a wide range of participants. His ability to convey spiritual experience and deep theology with drama and ease for unified recitation has caused these written prayers to flourish for centuries.10
Anglican and Episcopal traditions continue to employ an edition of the Book of Common Prayer similar to Edward’s. Other high church traditions, such as Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, also enjoy tried and true collections of prayer. Liturgical prayer in low church traditions can be heard in the repetition of Scripture songs and in the “amen,” “yes Jesus,” and “uh-hmm” of call and response preaching.
At its best, liturgical prayer answers our need to pray “thy kingdom come” as something besides a disappointed concession. It broadens our perspective,11 teaching us to pray beyond our small scope. When we cannot find words to pray because of chaos in our world or in our minds, liturgical prayer supplies them. When we mistrust our own abilities to say what we mean or to hear the Lord speaking back, liturgical prayer provides the tried and true language of our great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). If we are like Cranmer, cautious and careful, perhaps afraid our prayers are trivial and unworthy for lack of knowledge, liturgical prayers offer the comfort of standing the test of time, while expressing profound truths of our own experience.
Cranmer was cautious to the end. Scholars debate whether he was a political chameleon, surviving several very different governments by accommodating the powers that be, or a skilled diplomat, bringing extreme factions of the Reformation and Roman Catholicism together through meticulous scholarship and patient loyalty. His work ended when Mary, Henry’s only surviving child with his first wife, came to the throne bent on blotting out all reforms and returning English worship to Rome. Thomas Cranmer was forced to recant his revisions or be burned alive. Caught between his oath of obedience to his sovereign and his beliefs,12 he renounced his beliefs. But after an agonizing night, he changed his mind. Instead of reading his refutation, he publicly begged God’s forgiveness. He was burned at the stake on March 21, 1556, at the age of 66. His prayers of petition survive, and thrive, to this day.13
1G. Eric Lane, “Cranmer’s Prayer Book and Its Influence,” in The Reformation of Worship: 1989 Westminster Conference Papers (Surrey, England, 1990), 17.
2Marcus L. Loane, “Thomas Cranmer,” in Masters of the English Reformation (1954; repr. Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 257.
4Lane, “Cranmer’s Prayer Book,” 18.
7Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 288.
8Lane, “Cranmer’s Prayer Book,” 18, 21.
9Thomas Cranmer, preface to The First Book of Edward VI (1549), quoted in William Reed Huntington, A Short History of the Book of Common Prayer (1893), n.p. [cited 24 June 2009]. Online: www.justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/short_history_BCP.htm.
10Lane, “Cranmer’s Prayer Book,” 23–25.
11Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 107–108.
12Loane, “Thomas Cranmer,” 288–89.