An interview with Brian Cummings

An interview with Brian Cummings

Brian Cummings is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. He was previously Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and has held Visiting Fellowships at the Huntington Library, California, and the Center for Advanced Studies at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich.

His book, and cause of our interview, is The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662.

Readers Loft: Please tell us something of the historic background to the first edition to the Book of Common Prayer?

Brian Cummings: The Book of Common Prayer was first published in March 1549. This was fifteen years after the Act of Supremacy inaugurated the English Reformation, and ten years after the Great Bible was introduced in English churches. So it is clear that the introduction of a liturgy in the vernacular was neither an obvious nor an easy matter. It is significant that it was not done under Henry VIII, who was content to keep the old Latin services while breaking free of the power of the papacy.

Like for many people, the Latin mass was a ritual of great emotion for him and he would have considered anything else a sacrilege. Medieval ritual life in England before the Reformation was very rich – a vast panoply of ceremony and processional which varied through the seasons but was always centred on the mass.

Thomas Cranmer, however, his Archbishop of Canterbury, had been experimenting with the idea of a Reformed, and even English, liturgy for a long time. He first heard a Protestant service in Nuremberg in Germany in 1532 – on the same visit that he first encountered Margaret, the niece of Osiander the theologian, and married her in secret. Cranmer made two drafts of a Reformed liturgy by the death of Henry.

After Edward VI came to the throne, the pace of the Reformation picked up. It was a period of iconoclasm and violent religious controversy. A version of communion was printed in 1548 and parliament debated the mass in detail. Cranmer assembled the BCP from a wide range of existing material.

Morning and Evening Prayer were compiled by translating parts of the Roman Breviary, while leaving out key parts such as the Ave Maria. Baptism and Burial were adapted from the Sarum Manual, while leaving out many bodily rituals. Most difficult of all was the mass, but Cranmer for the moment retained a version of the Roman Canon, while creating a complex compromise over the doctrine of real presence.

In some ways the BCP of 1549 was a careful balance, which horrified Catholic traditionalists while also failing to satisfy full demands for Protestant reform. Cranmer himself perhaps thought of it as a staging post, the best he could do in the current political climate. But it was also a triumph just to bring out an English liturgy at all.

Two printers were involved in what was a massive publishing exercise by the standards of the time: to comply with an Act of Uniformity which required a copy in every parish church, thousands of copies were needed (when print runs were normally in the low hundreds).

The book was first used at Whitsun, 9 June, in a communion at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, with Cranmer giving a sermon. In the west country, the same day, riots broke out: the demands of the rebels in Exeter including ‘bringing back the mass in Latin’. So despite Cranmer’s claim that he was making a religion fit for the people to understand in their own language, not all the people wanted it.

Readers Loft: And, now, if you could unpick some of the background/differences to the three editions you’ve focussed on, and tell us why you’ve picked out the 1549, 1559, and 1662 editions…

Brian Cummings: After 1549, there was an immediate campaign to produce a more radical version. The great German theologian Martin Bucer, in exile in Cambridge, produced a commentary to assist in this process.

The new book of 1552 made profound changes to the Communion and to Burial, and lesser ones to many other services such as Baptism. Morning and Evening Prayer, and Marriage and Confirmation, were much less changed.

But within months Edward was dead and his sister Mary I brought back the Catholic faith and abolished the BCP. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, religion turned again – although it wasn’t clear straightaway that the 1552 BCP would be reintroduced, and some hoped for the revived Latin rites to continue, while others wanted the 1549 book back.

In the end, a new edition of the BCP was brought out quite quickly in 1559, very closely related to 1552. Religious controversy did not end: Catholics often refused to use the new book; while the group who became known as Puritans often aspired to the Geneva forms of worship without bishops and with simpler ritual forms.

In 1603, after James I came to the throne, Puritans hoped that a new king who had been brought up a presbyterian would favour them. But the 1604 revision, apart from Baptism, was more or less a repeat of 1559.

The Puritans got their way in 1645 and the BCP was banned again, and there were no editions between then and 1660 when the king was restored. While we now think of 1662 as inevitable, it was not at all clear at the time.

Charles II himself liked the BCP, however, and a Royal Commission was set up to revise a book now over a hundred years old. While old Laudians wanted to change the Elizabethan book back into a more ritually traditionalist mould, presbyterians wanted a more enthusiastic and less formal kind of service format.

Neither got what they wanted: the Savoy Conference made a political decision to alter as little as possible (always a safe move when passions are at stake), and the 1662 version, while incorporating a lot of important change, was much closer to 1552 than we might think.

I could have chosen any three of these five texts. I decided on 1549, 1559 and 1662 instantly – as the three which give the longest continuous life. 1549 and 1662 were obvious and uncontroversial choices. 1552 was the hard one to leave out.

In the end I felt that although it has been often reprinted, and while it is important for textual and doctrinal reasons, it was in use for at most six months. 1559 was heard by Shakespeare and the other writers of the Elizabethan period. It is also very little different from 1552.

Readers Loft: Of the differences you discovered between the editions, did any particular ones shock and/or delight?

Brian Cummings: In general, I learned that liturgy is as much about bodily ritual as it is about the words said. Many of the most emotional arguments at the time were about what Cranmer called ‘Ceremonies’ – rituals as corporeal signs and symbolic actions. So the kinds of change I became fascinated by were of that kind.

For instance, in Baptism, before the Reformation the priest would anoint the ear and mouth of the infant with spittle, in an action known as the ephphatha – from New Testament Greek – meaning ‘let it be opened’. This was dropped in the 1549 edition of the BCP, but anointing with oil was kept.

Then that was removed in 1552, yet signing with the cross remained. That action caused debate and sometimes violence right up to the Civil Wars – when the child might be snatched from the priest’s hands, or the priest’s hand held behind his back, to prevent the ritual being done.

Another moment of delight was finding that the word ‘bell’ is used only once in any text of the BCP – for the Ash Wednesday service in 1549 – and yet bells were being cast throughout the sixteenth century, and their inscriptions show they were still being used for rituals associated with burial – the ‘passing bell and the ‘death knell’. Indeed, seventeenth-century England was a hey-day of English bell-ringing. So despite religious qualms about rituals, many of them thrived in ways that can be hidden from us.

My favourite footnote is on p.755. St Enurchus was only introduced to the Calendar of saints in 1604. He never existed, since it was a misprint, probably for Evurtius. But the true reason for his entry into the BCP – discovered after a little digging – was both more obscure and quite wonderful.

The 7 September was Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. So someone seems to have put Enurchus in as a kind of secret code so that those who wanted to could continue to celebrate the cult of the Virgin Queen after her death. Nobody seems to have noticed in 1662, and Enurchus stayed in; in the 19th century someone checked, and could not find Enurchus, and put in Evurtius instead.

By chance, as I sent off the final manuscript of however many pages to the commissioning editor at OUP, Judith Luna, I saw that the date was 7 September. I laughed out loud and added the saint’s day to my acknowledgments.

Readers Loft: Tell us a little about how the 1662 edition was already “archaic”, and why you call the Book a “site of deep social memory”?

Brian Cummings: 1662 is a self-consciously old-fashioned book. It is printed in Black Letter, the old ‘Gothic’ script. This was still in use in the 1660s, especially for official and legal texts, but it was archaic by this point.

And the ornamental letters also help to lend an ‘old’ appearance. The reason was to give people the impression that the book belonged to an old tradition that was now venerable. Some of the orthography, too, while still found in other places in printing of that decade, errs on the side of the old-fashioned.

The revisers changed some language to make it more comprehensible, but in general they seem to have wanted to respect the old. An example is that there was a move to change ‘With my body I thee worship’ to ‘I thee honour’.

The change was approved, and then at the last minute cancelled. It was not until 1928 that the revised text made that change. Myself I like the old version.

One of the things that seems to me most moving and significant about the BCP is this sense of a text over time. That is what made me want to use that phrase. We remember who we are by using these words – and we remember our connection with those who have gone before. ‘In the midst of life we are in death’.

Readers Loft: What were the particularly editorial challenges of bringing all three editions together and picking through their differences?

Brian Cummings: The book was an enormous challenge in every possible way. The decision to include three separate texts was taken very early. It immediately led to two things. One was that it had to be, at least moderately, an ‘old-spelling’ edition, since modernizing everything would have led to a smoothing over of difference.

But a totally old-spelling edition is not altogether user-friendly, and the World’s Classics Series is intended for general readers. So I came up with a solution of light modernization, and I feel that works. The other consequence was that the texts needed to be completely re-edited from first principles.

Although they have been reprinted and edited in the past, no edition has ever been made according to the standards of modern textual practice such as might be used for Shakespeare and Milton. Sometimes it seemed to me to be taking forever. This part of the work alone took a few years.

It also felt rather daunting – such an important and venerable text. One thing that helped me here was a choice of font. I decided for my own draft material to use Baskerville – because Baskerville was a great printer of the BCP in the eighteenth century, and worked in Birmingham, where I grew up.

Once I put my texts into Baskerville it gave me confidence that these were ‘my’ texts – and that the whole thing might work after all. I would have loved the finished product to be in Baskerville, but this is a publisher’s decision. I worked closely with the book’s designer, Paul Luna, to get the lay-out right. Paul is a genius of typography, and I couldn’t have been luckier in having him work on the book, or in the intense interest he took in it. I am intensely proud of the look of the text.

Readers Loft: Why was the Book of Common Prayer so important when it was first published and why has it remained so important since?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is one of the most-used and best-loved books in history. As well as one of the earliest Protestant liturgies in Europe, it was the standard book for religious service in cathedrals and churches for centuries in the English-speaking worlds.

It comprises traditions in the Western and Eastern churches that go back to the beginnings of organized religion, and continues to influence anyone interested in religious devotional practice and prayer to this day. Beyond this religious significance, it was a book produced to be used by everybody. It covers life from beginning to end, a book, as I have put it, ‘to live, love and die to’. Human life is ritual to its core, and this is one of the most wonderful examples of lived experience to be found in any book in the world.

Readers Loft: What is significant about the word ‘common’ in the Book’s title? And of the word ‘prayer’ – particularly when this is really a book of rituals?

Brian Cummings: This is an interesting question to answer. The word ‘ritual’ was not used as a noun before 1604. ‘Common prayer’ was a familiar term in medieval usage for collective worship in church; e.g. in the fifteenth-century Dives and Pauper: ‘Comon prayer is the prayer of the ministres of hooly churche and of comon persones in holy churche.’

But I think more can be said. ‘Prayer’ was a term that avoided association with ‘mass-book’ or ‘breviary’ or other terms that implied Catholic practice. It was general to any Christian act before God. And ‘common’ beautifully embraces the way that the book reaches out to everyday and universal use. That might be sometimes a pious wish, and the book has been used exclusively and controversially from the beginning, but I think Cranmer did aspire to a general human commonwealth.

Readers Loft: In what way is the Book a “quintessential Reformation book”?

Brian Cummings: At the heart of the book is a paradox of profound historical significance. Historians have argued long and hard about whether this is a book ‘of the people’ or a book ‘imposed from above’. I think it is both.

It was introduced by an Act of Uniformity in Parliament that was authoritarian and even rather threatening in measure. The Tudors loved ‘uniformity’: they wanted one realm, one sovereign in religion as well as politics – and one Bible, one prayer book, and one grammar.

But Cranmer also meant it when he said in his Preface that: ‘S. Paule would have suche language spoken to the people in the churche, as they mighte understande and have profite by hearyng the same: the service in this Churche of England (these many yeares) hath been read in Latin to the people, whiche they understoode not, so that they have heard with theyr eares onely: and their hartes, spirite and minde, have not been edified thereby.’

The book is democratic in spirit even though authorized by king and parliament.

Readers Loft: Why do we need this edition? What do you hope your edition achieves?

Brian Cummings: I think an edition like this has been needed for a long time. The BCP is one the most reprinted books in history. But there have been relatively few editions which reach beyond church use. Historical editions of 1549, 1552 and 1559 have been made, but even the Everyman edition of 1662 includes a text which is really that of 1952 – it has the Accession service for Elizabeth II, and her name is used in all the state prayers.

And no publisher that I know of has produced comprehensive explanatory notes for the meanings of words and the histories of rituals or doctrines. I tried to produce the edition that I needed when I was a student and could not find. The one that inspired me was F.E. Brightman’s edition of a parallel text of 1549, 1552 and 1662. I love that edition. But even it has no Notes.

The BCP is still is use – but its use grows less and less. Most churches in the Church of England use modern liturgies. So it is possible that the book is receding a little into history. It is time for its importance to be recognized in that context.

Readers Loft: What does the Book tell us about England and Englishness?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is a book profoundly bound up with national identity. For many people its words somehow sum up a view of national consciousness and memory. But it should be remembered – that many people have been excluded by this myth.

Catholics rioted when the book was first produced; the Oath of Allegiance enshrined in the book was used to stop people taking university degrees and is still used to stop someone becoming or marrying the monarch without belonging to this religious community.

Protestants of a more radical kind have equally felt offended by it, and after 1662 many ministers were excluded from their ministry as a result: this was the time of the Great Ejection, when about 2000 puritan clergy who refused to adopt the liturgies of the BCP were expelled from the Church of England.

The 1662 book in some ways marked the birth of England’s ‘non-conformist’ (Baptist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist) churches, which have had such a rich contribution to national, social and political (as well as religious) life.

Readers Loft: How do you think the Book has affected the English language? Can you separate that effect out from the effect of the King James Version of the Bible?

Brian Cummings: The BCP is perhaps the most used book in English history. It is even more significant than the King James Bible in that respect. Many ordinary people heard the Bible through the BCP rather than read it at home. Through weekly services, and through the rites of passage of baptism, marriage and burial, it has entered the bloodstream of the language.

It is easy to sentimentalize this. But anyone who loves language can see immediately that this is a beautiful, moving, and profound book.

Readers Loft: What does prayer mean to you Brian? What, for you, is the interface between faith and thought, prayer and philosophy?

Brian Cummings: I was brought up an atheist. My family is Northumbrian, a mixture of miners and whalers. On my father’s side in the past we were Methodist and resolutely non-conformist. But I only went to church to be a page boy when my aunt get married. When I was in my teens, for historical and aesthetic reasons, I started to like religious art, and enjoyed looking round churches in England, France, Italy and elsewhere. I have had a face-to-face experience with liturgy on and off ever since.

Intellectually I have long been drawn to the study of the religious past, partly because in literary history it had received such short shrift. In my other work I have been writing a lot about Shakespeare – who became a kind of ‘secular’ writer in the 20th century. I am trying to dispute that, to bring the study of Shakespeare into the context of the social life that surrounded him – with religion in the middle of it. My special interest is the relation between ritual in religion, in everyday gesture, and in theatre.

I love Dante and Milton; Augustine and Luther; Josquin and Byrd; Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca. Something is going on there. I would think of it as philosophical and emotional rather than religious in the narrow sense. Faith is a difficult concept: in Luther, quite the opposite of the common view of him, it is described as being very like doubt in formation. I am as much a student of doubt as faith. But I think that is ‘religious’ too.

Readers Loft: Your book is dedicated to Stephen Medcalf – can you tell us something about what Stephen and his work meant to you?

Brian Cummings: Stephen Medcalf was a writer and academic from the 1960s until his death in 2007. I worked with him at the University of Sussex for nearly twenty years. He was a classicist by training, and a pupil of Iris Murdoch (she thought him one of the two best students she ever had). But he was really the nearest thing to a polymath I have ever known. Even though very unmathematical he had intense interest in science; he was a scholar of the Bible but also of P.G. Wodehouse.

Stephen is one of the most remarkable men I ever met. He was intensely soulful as well as wonderfully earthy and human. He had more poetry inside of him than any person I have known (I mean by heart, at a moment’s recall). He was learned to his finger tips and yet also extraordinarily simple in his habits and pleasures.

Stephen’s conversation was a constant education. We talked about this edition over dinner in a number of his favourite restaurants over quite a few years. I remember telling him how editing Cranmer’s communion service was so moving because you could tell at every word how much it was costing him: Stephen’s eyes told you how deeply he understood.

I am made to think at such moments about a film he once told me to see, which is one of my favourites: Babette’s Feast (1987) It is written in Danish, the story of the most extravagant feast prepared by a Parisian chef (played by Stephane Audran, one of the great actresses of the French avant garde) for the daughters of a Lutheran pastor.

It is exquisitely funny and yet also philosophical (it is full of Kierkegaard). It is a hymn to the body and the human soul at the same time. I don’t think I can explain the meaning that the BCP has for me better than by recommending anyone who has never seen it to do so. The scene when the old general eats quail is pure Medcalf.

Readers Loft: What have you been reading recently

Brian Cummings: I have been reading Moby-Dick. I knew it from long ago; but this was the first time I in any way understood it. It was a complete revelation. The language is sheer pleasure. It took me ages to read because I kept going back over paragraphs, reading some out loud. It’s also a great book about providence, the theologian in me was in heaven. I made a little grace note to Melville’s genius in the glossary of my edition; fellow Mobyists can seek it out.

Since then I relaxed by reading the Robert Harris Cicero novels. I didn’t expect to like them as much as I did; they are enchanting, and wonderfully complex about Cicero. I started looking at Cicero’s letters a bit as a result. For all his faults Cicero is on the side of the angels.

I have also been reading, because of a work project I have been doing, some of the plays of the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. What a writer he is: the combination of demotic simplicity and figurative complexity is like Shakespeare. Lucifer is in a recent English translation: I can’t commend it too highly.

Readers Loft: Anything else you’d like to say?

Brian Cummings: I’m really happy the edition is finished. It was a monster to do. But also a life-changing privilege.