Walpole Old ChapelThe Book of Common Prayer 
1662 – and all that

For me the important celebration of 2011 was the 400 th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible.  I have rejoiced to explore something of its history and continuing influence.  It has been, I believe, a celebration that has been widely shared throughout our nation.

Now we move on to 2012 in which mark another important event and its influence within the church.  The significant date is 1662. The event to mark is the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  The BCP was part of my early life.  From age six I attended, every Sunday morning, Willowfield Parish Church in Belfast.  By the time I was 8 I could make all the responses in Morning Prayer.  I was familiar with its phrases and intonations.  At the age of 12 I joined Boys’ Brigade at a Congregational Church and was no longer part of Anglican worship.  I had become a non-conformist, even if at that time I was not fully aware of the significance of that phrase.

In 1962 I moved to Nottingham to begin studying theology and preparing for ordination.  I was immediately aware that English Congregationalism was marking a 300th anniversary but it was not a celebration of the Book of Common Prayer.  It was a deeply felt memorial of what had come to be known as the Great Ejection.  I began to discover the significance of both events and the connection between them.

Now, 50 years later, I am again using the Book of Common Prayer.  I rejoice in the ecumenical opportunity given to me in retirement to be counted an honorary member of the Blyth Valley Team and to lead worship in the parishes of the benefice.  I remain a minister of the United Reformed Church and a non-conformist.  It is from this joint perspective that I reflect on the events of 1662.

Some brief history is helpful.  Charles II was restored to the British throne in 1660 following the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell.  The Church of England would again be the dominant Church in England.  On 4th April 1660 Charles signed the Declaration of Breda, which he and his advisors had drawn up to help prepare for his return.  The phrase in it which relates to the concerns of this article is as follows: we do declare a liberty to tender consciences, and that no man shall be disquieted or called in question for differences of opinion in matter of religion, which do not disturb the peace of the kingdom; and that we shall be ready to consent to such an Act of Parliament, as, upon mature deliberation, shall be offered to us, for the full granting that indulgence.  I believe that Charles was utterly sincere in this.  Many believed that a system would be worked out whereby dissenters and the Anglican Church could live alongside each other, with different patterns of worship and church structures, yet with respect for one another.

It was not to be so.  Parliament enacted the so-called Clarendon Code regulating what was permissible for the English in matters of Religion.  It consisted of 4 Parliamentary Acts:
The Corporation Act (1661)  This Act prevented dissenters (defined as those not taking communion at a parish church) from holding municipal office.  This strict religious test excluded a substantial section of English Society from public affairs, and also from obtaining university degrees.  Dissenters could not attend Oxford or Cambridge Universities.  This Act was not fully repealed until 1828.
The Act of Uniformity (1662)  Following the publication of the Book of Common Prayer Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity.  All clergymen were required to give complete and unqualified assent to the Book of Common Prayer and its use in worship by St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24th August or they must leave their livings.  There is general agreement that about 2000 clergy refused to give assent and were ‘ejected’.
The Conventicle Act (1664)  This act forbade coventicles (a meeting for unauthorized worship) of more than 5 people who were not members of the same household. The purpose was to prevent dissenting religious groups from meeting.
The Five-Mile Act (1965)  This final act of the Clarendon Code was aimed at Nonconformist ministers, who were forbidden from coming within 5 miles of incorporated towns or the place of their former livings. They were also forbidden to teach in schools. This act was not rescinded until 1812.

There was also a Quaker Act passed in 1662 requiring people to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, which Quakers did not do out of religious conviction.  A further Test Act, passed in 1673 required holders of civil and military offices to profess the established religion and to receive communion according to the rites of the Church of England.  This Act was not fully repealed until 1828.

The intention of all of the Acts of Parliament was to eliminate dissent from the life of the nation.  The effect was to entrench dissent in the life of the nation.  The events of 1662 decided not only the future of church life in England but also the very shape of English society.  To understand the divisions and structures of society since the seventeenth century requires an awareness of the events of 1662.

I hope we will take time to reflect on this.  I hope we will find good cause to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  I hope we will find reason, in this more ecumenical age to repent of past church divisions looking to the future with greater hope of being one people in Christ.  This we need to do in our separate groups and congregations but even more so in united acts of worship and shared study.  One opportunity to do this will be at Walpole Old Chapel on Sunday 24th June at 3.00pm.  I will be leading a service at which Clive, Bishop of Dunwich will preach.  It will be for us an opportunity to reflect on the events of 1662 with thanksgiving and repentance.  There is good reason for both.

Bill Mahood