In the Fourth Nocturn

The case for a new recension of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer

This morning at Mattins we said Psalm 51, two of us reading alternate verses. My fellow worshipper tripped over the word throughly in verse 2, first reading ‘thoroughly’, then noticing that was not what was printed and going back to say ‘throughly’.

Throughly is a real word, marked ‘Now rare (chiefly regional)’ in the OED. But if one goes back to the source of the prayer book psalms — the Coverdale Great Bible of 1539 — one finds the less unexpected word at this point: ‘Wash me thorowly fro my wickednesse, & clense me frõ my synne.’ The Book of Common Prayer changed the familiar word to an unfamiliar one, causing (at the least) first-rehearsal difficulties for choirs for generations to come.

Was this change deliberate? It’s possible, but seems unlikely. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was the first BCP to be officially bound up together with the Coverdale psalter. The psalms in the manuscript of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as attached to the Act of Uniformity are generally a very faithful copy of the Great Bible’s psalms, even marking the bracketed small-type words and verses which Coverdale used to show where words and verses were known to him not to be in the original Hebrew text. (This feature, to my knowledge, has never been reproduced in a mass-market copy of the prayer book.)

Throughly seems to be a reasonably clear case of a transmission error: the copyist responsible for producing the Book Annexed simply omitted a letter or misread the word in their source document, and their error has been replicated in all subsequent BCPs.1

Meanwhile, in the very next verse, the printers have made a change with no authority in the 1662 manuscript nor in the Great Bible. The Great Bible reads ‘For I knowledg my fautes, & my synne is euer before me’; the 1662 manuscript ‘For I knowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me’. The modern prayer book printings, however, read ‘For I acknowledge my faults’. Knowledge is also a real verb, marked obsolete in the OED, but used in several places in earlier prayer books for what was later changed to acknowledge.

If the change from ‘knowledge’ to ‘acknowledge’ were to be defended on the grounds of being only a slight modernization of an otherwise obsolete and unfamiliar word, yet there are many other places in the modern printings of prayer books where much smaller opportunities for modernization have not been taken: the ‘Publick Baptism of Infants’ is still so titled with a k which has not been general in spelling since the 18th century, and we still pray that ‘our mouth shall shew forth thy praise’ at the beginning of Mattins and Evensong, so that newcomers to the prayer book’s language often pronounce it as shoe.2

In addition, pilcrows have disappeared before rubrics (at least in Cambridge’s copies of the prayer book), despite their vital importance in correctly interpreting some directions; and even before they disappeared, some were printed in the wrong places. The feast-day of King Charles the Martyr has been deleted from the calendar of saints since 1859 despite the Act of Parliament which deleted the state service for the day containing no authority for any change in the calendar. These are only the problems I know of, and I discovered one of them by accident only this morning.

Already in the 19th century the accumulation of unauthorized changes and errors in the prayer book was eliciting criticism, but yet almost nothing was done. A ‘Statutory Prayer Book’ correcting some of these errors was published in 1901, but seems to have had little effect on the official printers’ practice (and, of course, further official changes have been made since then, from the introduction of the 1922 Table of Lessons to the provisions for lay readers to lead services, added in the 1960s). My 1928 edition of Percy Dearmer’s Parson’s Handbook contains an entire index entry for ‘Printers’ alterations in Prayer Book’, all of which are maintained in my recent (purchased this year) Cambridge pocket-sized BCP.

To this end I propose that it is high time for the Book of Common Prayer to be re-edited. The goals of the re-editing project would be

  • To start, for most of the book, from the manuscript of the 1662 Book Annexed, making only such textual changes as have been explicitly made by Act of Parliament, Order in Council (where applicable), or Church Measure since then, without inferring based on civil law where textual changes ought to have been made but were not.
  • If changes in civil law do seem to have necessitated a change in the rubrics which was never formalized, these should be compiled and proposed to General Synod as a Measure,3 formally and legally making the changes.
  • For the psalms, to re-edit the text based on the original Great Bible, leaving the original words intact but making the same modernizations to spelling, and perhaps punctuation, as in the rest of the book.4
  • To modernize all spellings to the current British English standard, with reference to the headwords of the Oxford Dictionary of English or, for any obsolete words, the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • To update the epistles, gospels, etc. to follow the text of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible,5 as the most accurate edition of the 1611 Authorized Version currently available.
  • To maintain, as far as reasonably possible, the punctuation of the Book Annexed, perhaps adding quotation marks where necessary (especially in the psalms), as in the NCPB.

In addition, several other improvements based on the manuscript and subsequent sources could be made: for instance, the manuscript of the Book Annexed uses extra large spaces between certain words in prayers which are to be said by the whole congregation, to indicate points where the communal reading was to pause. To my knowledge, these have never been reproduced in any form in subsequent printed editions, and only capital letters have been printed at the start of each such clause. The natural way to represent these break points in the 21st century would be to use a line break, as is done in Common Worship. Binding the Schedule of Permitted Variations to Morning and Evening Prayer into the front matter, perhaps in combination with a similar list of permitted variations to the communion service based on the rubrics of Common Worship Order Two, would be a small but important step towards clarifying to those new to the prayer book how its services are, these days, conducted in practice, rather than on paper.

If the contention of prayer book revivalists is that the 1662 book is not nearly as outmoded as it seems, then the current state of editions of the prayer book does not appear to bear them out. Both in content — racked with four centuries’ worth of accumulated printing errors — and in presentation — barely changed since the first editions, and still bearing 18th century spellings — it looks outdated. It’s time for our beloved standard liturgy to get a breath of fresh air.

  1. It could, of course, have been the printer of the copy of the Great Bible from which the copyist was working who made the change. Further research would be needed to establish with certainty when the error was introduced.

  2. Alas, nothing orthographically can really be done about the mispronounciation of saith as say-eth.

  3. The same Measure would also be a good opportunity to once and for all be rid of the embarrassing third collect on Good Friday, which, at the very least, ought to be totally replaced with the 1928 version.

  4. It would probably be necessary and useful to produce an appendix listing any changes in the wording of the psalms resulting from this editing, since the old text has been (and still is) widely re-produced in psalters for Anglican chant, etc.

  5. Consistency would then demand that the NCPB’s use of spoke for spake, etc., be maintained throughout the prayer book, including the psalter — a prospect I am less than happy with but nonetheless am willing to concede.