The Book of Common Prayer
August 11, 2013

The Book of Common Prayer

I’ve disliked Cranmer ever since I read Richard Marius' biography of St. Thomas More. Cranmer is portrayed as a man who bent with the prevailing winds, and who was too cowardly to publicly acknowledge that he had, in violation of his promise of celibacy as a Catholic priest, married. His final martyrdom under Mary does nothing to redeem him in my eyes. So rather than a portrait of Cranmer, which in any case is available on the cover of the OWC edition of The Book of Common Prayer I've used a woodcut that shows his execution along with that of Ridley. I may be mistaken, but I believe the woodcut comes from another English classic, Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

There's a spot in the Don Juan in Hell episode in Act III of Man and Superman in which Don Juan says:

"The plain-spoken marriage services of the vernacular Churches will no longer be abbreviated and half suppressed as indelicate. The sober decency, earnestness and authority of their declaration of the real purpose of marriage will be honored and accepted, whilst their romantic vowings and pledgings and until-death-do-us-partings and the like will be expunged as unbearable frivolities. Do my sex the justice to admit, Senora, that we have always recognized that the sex relation is not a personal or friendly relation at all.”
" I don’t want to talk about the whole of the Book of Common Prayer. I’m mostly interested in what Don Juan had to say about the marriage ceremony, so I’ll be talking about that.

The Book of 1549

The celebrant addresses the congregation and gives a precaution that marriage

"is not to bee enterprised, nor taken in hande unadvisedlye, lightelye, or wantonly, to satisfie mens carnal lustes and appetites, like brute beastes that have no understanding: but reverentely, discretely, advisedly, soberly, and in the feare of God.”
" The service immediately creates a distinction between romantic yearnings, or lustful desires, and the more sober purpose of marriage. It immediately relates pure sexuality to that of the beasts. The celebrant then enumerates the purposes of marriage:
"One cause was the procreacion of children, to be brought up in the feare and nurture of the Lord, and prayse of God.”
" Here we have what Shaw, or Don Juan, might have described as an indelicate description of the real purpose of marriage, procreation. It’s not having a jolly good time from mattress pounding, but the screaming, bawling, pooping, vomiting consequences of all that mattress pounding. This brings us to another purpose:
"Secondly it was ordeined for a remedie agaynst sinne, and to avoide fornicacion, that suche persones as bee maried, might live chastlie in matrimonie, and kepe themselves undefiled membres of Christes bodye.”
" It’s a remedy against sin because it provides grace, and also because it provides, as Juan points out, a means to satisfy lust without venturing outside a monogamous relationship. A more purely social aspect is also recognized:
"Thirdelye for the mutuall societie, helpe, and coumfort, that the one oughte to have of thother, both in prosperitie and adversitie.”
" This purpose, which has become dominant in some groups, is actually subordinated to the first purpose, procreation. None of these purposes is described as the sole purpose of marriage, they are all intrinsic parts of it, and a marriage without them is incomplete and lacking.

After the statement of the purpose of marriage the celebrant inquires about impediments, and then moves on to the vows. At the point where the bridegroom places the ring upon the bride’s finger the bridegroom says:

"With thys ring I thee wed: Thys golde and silver I thee geve: with my body I thee wurship: and withal my worldly Goodes I thee endowe. In the name of the father, and of the sonne, and of the holy goste. Amen.”
" I think I came across that bit about I thee wurship sometime in the mid to late ‘60s in Ramparts magazine, which was, at the time, a liberal Catholic magazine. That always stuck in my mind, and it seemed vaguely pagan. The Oxford edition that I'm writing about footnotes wurship as honour and gives the example of Wycliff’s translation of Matt: 19:19 worship thi fadir and modir. In this context it would refer to the respect that the male owes to the female, and that is paid through his body.

Various prayers are said, and then we come to this prayer:

"O MERCIFUL Lord, and heavenly father, by whose gracious gifte mankind is increased: We beseche thee assiste with thy blessing these two persones, that they may both be fruictful in procreacion of children; and also live together so long in godlye love and honestie, that they may see their childers children, unto the thirde and fourth generacion, unto thy prayse and honour: through Jesus Christe our Lorde. Amen.”
" This particular prayer is omitted if the woman is past childbearing. It is notable in that it recognizes the primary purpose, in those capable of reproduction, of procreation, and its omission, for those no longer fruitful, emphasizes the companionate and social aspects of marriage.

The Book of 1559

There are some differences, but the language regarding the purpose of marriage, the vow to respect the bride, with my body I thee worship is retained, and there is a prayer for a fruitful marriage.

The Book of 1662

The line about with my body was a point of contention with the Puritan element. The OWC edition has an explanatory footnote that mentions objections made as early as 1604. The House of Lords in 1641 suggested I give thee power over my body.*

*Book of Common Prayer, 780.


The elements that I initially identified, the statement of the purpose of marriage, the question about impediments, and the pledge to honor the woman remain intact. That the question of the usage worship as a synonym for honor was raised by 1604 indicates that there was a shift in semantics so that the meaning honor or devotion given to God, dominated other meanings that referred to other honorees.

In identifying the purposes of marriage procreation is put first. This rhetorical device foregrounds procreation and gives it an emphasis that is not granted to the more social/sexual aspects of marriage. It also speaks against gay/lesbian marriage, which is inherently non-procreative, and must rely on heterosexual couples, or outside donors to provide children. It is only the social/sexual aspects, which are less important than the reproductive aspects, that gay marriage achieves.