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Recently I have begun broadcasting a weekly Sunday service of Matins on YouTube according to the Liber Precum Publicarum, the Latin version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I was not sure if anyone would watch this experiment, but I was astonished when the first service of Latin Matins went beyond 500 views in less than a week. This unexpected level of interest has led me to reflect on why people are interested in the Liber Precum Publicarum. Latin liturgy is no novelty in the Roman Catholic Church, but many people are unaware that Latin liturgy also has a history in the Church of England. I suspect that much of the interest in the idea of the Book of Common Prayer in Latin arises from people’s unfamiliarity with this history, and from the counterintuitive idea that a liturgy specifically designed to replace the Latin liturgy of the medieval Church with a vernacular prayer book could end up being put back into Latin. My interest in living Latin (the use of Latin as a written and spoken language in the contemporary world) naturally extends to the use of Latin in worship, and the exercise is intended to show that it is possible to worship in Latin as a living language.
Many people may also be surprised to learn that praying The Book of Common Prayer in Latin is canonically sanctioned by the Church of England. The history of Latin prayer books in the Church of England goes back to 1551, when Thomas Cranmer had the 1549 Prayer Book translated into Latin in order to make it accessible to Martin Bucer and other Continental Reformers (Latin was, of course, the shared language of scholarship for both Catholics and Protestants in Reformation Europe). While it was a key aim of the Edwardian Reformation to make the liturgy accessible to the common people, and therefore to put it into the vernacular, this was never to be at the expense of the use of Latin as a language of learned communication by those who had the ability to do so, and the Edwardian Act of Supremacy permitted the celebration of Matins, Vespers and the Litany in Latin (and indeed Greek and Hebrew) where Latin was understood (although the act required the Mass to be said in English everywhere). The early Reformers did not associate Latin with Roman Catholicism per se, unlike some later Protestants, and did not consider that there was anything ‘unreformed’ about Latin liturgy if the congregation understood Latin. It is unclear, however, whether the 1551 translation of the 1549 Prayer Book was ever used for worship in universities and schools, since the 1549 book was almost immediately replaced by a new Prayer Book in 1552 – and there was no time to translate this Second Prayer Book of King Edward VI into Latin before Mary I became queen in July 1553 and restored the Catholic Latin liturgy in its entirety.
Mary was succeeded in 1558 by her half-sister Elizabeth, whose personal religious convictions are notoriously obscure but who preferred the liturgy in her chapels royal to be in Latin. The English Prayer Book that resulted from the Act of Uniformity 1559 was a slightly more conservative version of the 1552 Prayer Book, and this Elizabethan Prayer Book was translated into Latin in 1560 with official approval. Section 13 of the Act of Uniformity 1559 permitted the queen ‘to ordeyne and publishe suche further Ceremonies or rites as maye bee most meet for the advance of Goddes Glorye, the edifieing of his church and the due Reverance of Christes holye mistries and Sacramentes’. This meant, in effect, that adding to the 1559 Prayer Book was a matter of royal prerogative, and Elizabeth did so through proclamations, injunctions and letters patent. In response to a petition from Oxford, Cambridge, Eton and Winchester, Elizabeth accordingly issued letters patent authorising a Latin version of the 1559 Prayer Book in 1560, although the 1560 Liber Precum Publicarum did not exactly follow the 1559 book and contained some more conservative provisions.
In 1560 the Irish Parliament passed its own Act of Uniformity, prescribing the use of the Liber Precum Publicarum wherever congregations understood only Irish, on the grounds that no translation of the Prayer Book had yet been made into Irish. The Latin prayer book remained in use in Ireland for 48 years, before it was finally replaced by a Prayer Book in Irish in 1608. In addition to being used in Gaelic Ireland, at Oxford and Cambridge and in schools, the 1560 Latin prayer book was also notoriously used in Elizabeth’s own chapels royal. The queen was very fluent in Latin – indeed, her Latin sometimes proved better than that of scholars when she visited the universities – but Elizabeth’s insistence on having candles and a crucifix on the Communion table in her chapels led many to suspect that Elizabeth remained a crypto-Catholic even while she imposed the Reformation on her own kingdom. Whatever the truth, the 1560 Liber Precum Publicarum remains the only Latin prayer book to have been specifically approved by royal authority.
Just as earlier Acts of Uniformity had safeguarded the position of Latin in the liturgy, so Section 14 of the Act of Uniformity 1662 authorised the use of Latin,
Provided alwaies that it shall and may be lawfull to use the Morning and Evening Prayer and all other Prayers and Service prescribed in and by the said Booke in the Chappells or other publique places of the respective Colledges and Halls in both the Universities in the Colledges of Westminster Winchester and Eaton and in the Convocations of the Clergies of either Province in Latine Any thing in this Act contained to the contrary notwithstanding.
While a strict interpretation of the Act of Uniformity would have confined Latin services to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and three named schools (Westminster School, Eton College and Winchester College), from the first the Act was taken to mean that Latin might be used in places where it was generally understood. Most 17th-century grammar schools taught in Latin, often punishing their pupils for using any other language, and held prayers in Latin. However, Charles II never authorised any specific Latin version of the Prayer Book, leaving it open to interpretation whether the 1560 Liber Precum Publicarum should be used, or whether informal translations of the 1662 liturgy were permissible. To use the 1560 liturgy would have been strange, given that it was a translation of a now obsolete prayer book. A Huguenot clergyman, Jean Durel (who was also responsible for translating the Prayer Book into French for the Huguenot congregation of the Savoy) provided the first Latin version of the 1662 liturgy, which was followed by further unofficial translations in 1713 and 1821, until William Bright and Peter Medd brought out the first edition of their translation in 1865. This, which is perhaps the most accomplished translation, is the one I have been using to sing Matins.
Whether singing Prayer Book Matins in Latin on YouTube is canonical is a question I leave canon lawyers to resolve. I would argue that, since no-one is likely to watch the service unless they understand Latin or want to learn it, the online service falls into the same category as services in Oxford and Cambridge chapels. Unlike in the Roman Catholic tradition, where Latin has an established status as an ecclesiastical and liturgical language, in the Church of England Latin is traditionally an academic language; the purpose of Latin liturgy in the Church of England is not, therefore, to maintain tradition or safeguard the integrity of the liturgy but to reinforce the educational importance of Latin learning. In light of the growing popularity of living Latin, a revival of Latin liturgy seems a natural step.
You can read more about Latin versions of the BCP in Frank Streatfield’s 1964 Alcuin Club Pamphlet on the subject.