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Hallo again to all.

Title page to 1703 BCPOur leather and vellum copy of the 1703 printing of the Book of Common Prayer originally belonged to one Theodosia Cromley, from whom it passed to Ann Gascoigne, and then somehow to Michael Tomkinson, who put a bookplate in it sometime in the early 19th century. The book later passed into the possession of one Laura E Craig of 23 Kensington Court in London. In 1961 it was inscribed in a very American hand 'To Frank, From Uncle Gordon, December 1961'. We bought it from a dealer of antique books about 20 years after that.

In its 304 years, this Book of Common Prayer seems to have belonged to at least half a dozen people. We imagine that in the beginning it was used as an actual prayer book; and that gradually over time it became a reference work, and then something to be displayed and not used. We prize this edition for its unbelievably high quality etchings, and take it out of its bookshelf a few times a year to admire it and to explore its time-travel properties, taking us back to the world of Theodosia or Ann or Michael or Laura or even Frank. We've always assumed that Uncle Gordon bought it at a bookshop in London and took it home to America to give to Frank as a Christmas present.

A while ago we went on an anamnetic daydream with this copy of the prayer book, but were immediately sidetracked by noticing for the first time that it actually begins not with the Preface or with the statement onThe Uniformity Act from our 1703 BCP Concerning the Service of the Church, but with the complete text of Elizabeth I's 'Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer, and Service in the Church, and Administration of the Sacraments'. We'd read the history of that Act, and knew that the version from 'primo ELIZ.' was passed in April 1559 (immediately after the Supremacy Act) and was rather fierce in its penalties, requiring six months in prison for using unauthorized prayers in public services. In 1662 the second Act of Uniformity was passed during the reign of Charles II, and it, too, is printed in full in our 1703-edition Prayer book. We seriously doubt that any of the prior owners of our prayer book, especially those who used it as a prayer book, actually read the text of those Acts; those seven pages are not stained with old fingerprints. Swords and longbows that once terrorized and killed are now hung proudly on walls as trophies and decorations; statutes that once terrorized are now kept proudly on shelves in humidity-controlled libraries.

For centuries, churches were players in power struggles. Before the concept of an Anglican Communion existed, the faithful took for granted that church was what the authorities wanted it to be. Indeed, anything else was a crime. And the prayer book began with the full text of the Acts of Parliament that made it a crime and set out the punishment. That level of authoritarian control over religious matters is hard to find these days in most of the provinces of the Anglican world. It certainly doesn't exist in the United States, whose Episcopal Church was given an ultimatum last month by a group of leaders of churches in other countries. In exploring church power struggles, we can't help but think about the statement recently issued by the Church of Nigeria explaining its fierce stance on homosexuality, which includes the sentence 'In Nigerian traditional culture homosexuality is seen as taboo.' Seeing these Acts of Uniformity bound into a prayer book reminded us of that sentence: in North American traditional culture, exerting authority without having authority is seen as taboo. North American culture was shaped at the frontier, where North Americans learned the difference between consensus and mob rule.

AO columnist Bishop Pierre Whalon has filed a detailed 'Estimate of the Situation' offering his observations on the state of the combat between Nigeria and North America*. It's all starting to get interesting.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 1 April 2007

*We keep expecting to see a trademark umbrella in the hands of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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