National Prayers
Special Worship since the Reformation

Volume 1: Special Prayers, Fasts and Thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688
Edited by Natalie Mears, Alasdair Raffe, Stephen Taylor, and Philip Williamson (with Lucy Bates)
Boydell Press. Pp. 939. $170

Volume 2: General Fasts, Thanksgivings and Special Prayers in the British Isles, 1689-1870
Edited by Philip Williamson, Alasdair Raffe, Stephen Taylor, and Natalie Mears
Boydell Press. Pp. 1,102. $170


Review by Calvin Lane

Produced by a team of highly reputable scholars from the Church of England Record Society, this enormous collection of transcribed sources from across five centuries has two volumes in print (2013 and 2017) and a third on the way. The materials round out our picture of the intersection between worship and national life from the era of the Reformation to 2012 in England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.

“Special worship,” the editors admit, is an awkward phrase used to describe liturgies ordered by the civil and religious authorities for a range of occasions. This meant suspending or at least altering the expected patterns of worship for special purposes: weather (including earthquakes); good or bad harvests; epidemics; moral, political, and economic anxieties; rebellions and plots; war and specific battles; royal births, coronations, and jubilees (favorites in the 19th and 20th centuries); and the illness or death of a sovereign.

These occasions were to draw the nation together as a single body, and the materials say much about the presumed relationship between the individual, the community, and God. Everyone was to show up at church; shops and taverns were shut down; and fast days were usually followed with thanksgivings.

Although this study begins in 1533, special prayers for specific national concerns predated the 16th-century Reformation; a litany of medieval examples is easily found. The practice, then, was not new in the reign of Henry VIII. Another continuity across the Reformation-era divide is the notion of England as an elect nation, the heir of biblical Israel. The calling for such prayers and the liturgical materials draw on stories from the Old Testament to make the point.

So what was different in the Reformation? The Book of Common Prayer was revolutionary not simply because it was in the vernacular, but because it eliminated the diversity of uses across England. With uniformity as a goal, the prayer book drew the nation into, as the title suggests, common prayer. While liturgy in Scotland was less uniform, it still followed a recognizable pattern. These special services, then, were interruptions to the expected flow.

But even as interruptions, they still presumed the whole community gathering for common prayer — all of Israel together as one person (Jdg. 20:11). This push for uniformity in both ordinary and special worship naturally exposed instances of disunity. When the mandate for special prayer against the Spanish Armada was read out in 1588 in Essex, one man exclaimed that he would pray for the pope instead. Likewise, at roughly the same time, Puritans attempted to hold non-authorized fasts, thus signaling their discontent with the rest of the nation.

At the close of the 17th century, annual celebrations of the martyrdom of Charles I became opportunities for Anglican clerics to preach diatribes against Presbyterians and other dissenters. On the international scene, there was prayer for the struggles of fellow Protestants in other lands, a few instances of prayer along a united Christian front against the Turks, and lots of prayers against “the blood-sucking Roman Antichrist.”

The materials here, representing all three nations, could be as simple as a call for prayer, a collect to insert in the normal round of Morning Prayer, Litany, and Antecommunion, or it could be a full service with unique lessons. Using a wide array of archival resources, the editors have included, where available, the official warrant for the special worship and the liturgical material.

The editors have also provided a short introduction for each entry. This is especially helpful in clarifying how special worship was mandated, demonstrating differing attitudes to the relationship between church and civil authorities. In Scotland, for example, church leaders resisted lay interference with the organization of worship. In England and Wales, on the other hand, the order normally came from the monarch, often in council.

Sometimes the Archbishop of Canterbury was consulted, but that was hardly a requirement. This difference may well reflect the Scots reformers’ connection to Geneva and the English reformers’ ties to Zurich. But the picture is even more complex. Elizabeth successfully stifled Parliament’s role in requests for special worship. That, however, was not always the pattern in succeeding generations. The tension between competing calls for prayer from Parliament and the crown during the civil wars is an obvious example.

Although the introductions to each volume can be a bit repetitive, the editors have given generations of researchers both the transcribed materials and a helpful guide to them. Scholars of both liturgy and history owe them a debt of thanks.

The Rev. Calvin Lane is affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and associate rector of St. George’s Church in Dayton, Ohio.

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