When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer produced his 1549 Prayer Book, the stated aim was to enable people to worship in familiar language. The same can be said of subsequent revisions, and the 1662 Prayer Book remains the Church of England’s gold standard of doctrine and worship.

The traditional services of the 1662 Book are still widely used. Many parishes regularly offer an 8 a.m. Communion from 1662 among their services. Reports indicate that the traditional Evensong, Choral Evensong in particular, is growing in popularity. This trend is not confined to cathedrals.

Part of the charm of these services is the language, but increasing numbers of people do not understand some of its more archaic words and phrases. It’s often possible for worshipers to correctly guess the meaning from the context, as the Magnificat, in which God “hath holpen his servant Israel.”

In 1662 language, meet was not to encounter someone but to deem something “appropriate or fitting.” To contemporary eyes and ears, a word like magnify means to make something appear larger; in 1662 it meant to glorify or praise. Froward, meaning perverse or contrary, could well be lost on the uninitiated. To moderns, comfortable means at ease or relaxed, but the prayer book’s “comfortable words” of Jesus are meant to strengthen or make strong.

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Every year the Prayer Book Society (founded in 1972) distributes free copies of the 17th-century book to first-year theological students. This year for the first time it is including a a glossary bookmark (also accessible online).

“The language is quite [Shakespearean],” said Tim Stanley, the society’s media officer, who conceived the idea. “It’s very beautiful but it’s very ancient, and there are some words in it which modern readers might find difficult to understand.”

John Martin

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