The Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer

by Philip Jones

The Act of Uniformity 1662 provided that ‘All and singular ministers in any cathedral, collegiate or parish church or chapel or other place of public worship … shall be bound to say and use … the Book of Common Prayer’ (s.1).

The Book of Common Prayer (‘BCP’) was scheduled to the 1662 Act.  For this reason, the Privy Council held that BCP rubrics were of statutory authority and therefore to be exactly applied in public worship: ‘the Rubric[s] … must be strictly observed: no omission and no addition can be permitted’ (Martin v Mackonochie (1868) 2 Law Reports, Privy Council, 365 at 382-3).

However, the provisions of the Act of Uniformity 1662 to which the BCP was scheduled were repealed by the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, s.6(3) and schedule 2.  The 1974 Measure introduced a new regime of public worship.

S.1(1)(b) of the 1974 Measure empowers the General Synod ‘to make provision by Canon … for any matter, except the publication of banns of matrimony, to which any of the rubrics contained in the Book of Common Prayer relate’.  This confirms s.7(2) of the Marriage Act 1949, which provides that ‘Banns of matrimony shall be published … in accordance with the form of words prescribed by the rubric prefaced to the office of matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer …’. 

S.1(2) of the 1974 Measure provides that ‘any such Canon shall have effect notwithstanding anything inconsistent therewith contained in any of the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer’.

S.1(1)(b) further provides that ‘the powers of the General Synod … shall be so exercised as to ensure that the forms of service contained in the Book of Common Prayer continue to be available for use in the Church of England’.

The rubrics are defined as ‘all directions and instructions contained in the [BCP], and all tables, prefaces, rules, calendars and other contents thereof’ (s.5(2)).

Forms of service are defined as ‘any order, service, prayer, rite or ceremony whatsoever … and the catechism’ (s.5(2)).

Thus the 1974 Measure effectively divides the contents of the BCP into two categories

(1) forms of service and

(2) rubrics (which are everything in the BCP other than forms of service). 

The Measure provides that BCP forms of service should continue to be available for use.  However, the only BCP rubric saved by the Measure is the one concerning banns of marriage.

This means that, with the sole exception of banns of marriage, the 1974 Measure abolished whatever legal authority the rubrics may have had under the 1662 regime.  The Canons promulged under the 1974 Measure have replaced the rubrics.  Therefore the rubrics cannot now have the authority attributed to them by the Privy Council in the 19th century.  All pre-1974 interpretations of the rubrics, whether right or wrong, are irrelevant to the modern law of worship.

Chancellor Rupert Bursell discussed the law of worship in two faculty cases, St John the Evangelist, Chopwell (1995) 3 Weekly Law Reports 606 and St Thomas, Pennywell (1995) Family cases 50.  He also wrote a book on this subject, Liturgy, Order and the Law (Clarendon, Oxford, 1996).

However, although Chancellor Bursell wrote 20 years after the Worship and Doctrine Measure was passed, he seems not to have appreciated that the 1662 regime was actually abolished by that Measure.

Both cases were concerned with the introduction of items associated with ‘ritualism’, including sanctus bells, a thurible or censer and (in the Pennywell case) a ‘sacrament-house’.

The chancellor observed (no doubt correctly) that such items would formerly have been considered illegal.  However, he granted the faculties sought.  His explanation of the change in the law was that the ‘rigorist’ interpretation of the BCP rubrics favoured by the Privy Council in the 19th century ‘has now been swept away’ (Pennywell, p.65), in favour of a more lenient interpretation. 

Both judgments are peppered with references to the ‘rigorist interpretation’ of the BCP and its rubrics.  The Chancellor did not accept that it is actually the authority of the rubrics themselves that has been ‘swept away’, not any particular interpretation of them.

On the contrary, the Chancellor worried that the famous ‘ornaments rubric’ in the BCP ‘may still apply’ to the sacrament-house in Pennywell (p.62).  He even purported to extend the supposed authority of the BCP rubrics by suggesting that they (and not just those concerning banns of marriage) may apply to modern forms of service as well as BCP services.

This latter suggestion was prompted by comparison of different ordination services.  The Chancellor observed that the 1662 rubrics provide for objections to be made to the ordination of a priest or deacon during the ordination service.  Modern ordination services apparently do not make provision for objections.

The Chancellor stated that ‘It is inconceivable that the question whether a valid objection may be made depends upon the choice of ordinal’ (Pennywell, p.67).   His conclusion followed that ‘In these circumstances, the rubric in the BCP, being a rubric concerning Church order, must apply to both rites [i.e the BCP and the modern rite]’ (pp.67-8)  

It may indeed be anomalous and unsatisfactory that one form of ordination service makes provision for objections to a candidate while another does not.  However, the solution is contained in the 1974 Measure.  The General Synod can exercise its powers under that Measure either to promulge a canon requiring that an opportunity for objections must be given at every ordination service, or to decline to approve a new form of ordination service unless it includes provision for objections.

The 1974 Measure provides that the BCP remains one of the sources of the Church of England’s doctrine (s.5(1)).  The rubrics may therefore still be evidence of doctrine.  However, the law of doctrine is a different subject from the law of worship.