Prince Charles has described it as a "touchstone" of British identity. Yet Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer will soon be obliterated from the lives of most Anglicans, according to the body established to protect traditional services.
Foreign imitations are confusing worshippers and destroying the authority of the original, says the Prayer Book Society (PBS), whose influential backers include its patron, the Prince of Wales.
Alternative "Books of Common Prayer", couched in contemporary language have sprung up around the Anglican world, and from next month, worshippers in the Church of Ireland will be told to use yet another new publication, still titled the Book of Common Prayer.
Now the PBS has issued a call to arms, predicting that correct use of the book will soon be confined to "a minority" and urging its 16,000 members to "act now to prevent this development".
The society describes the new publications as "acts of piracy" and "breaches of the Trades Descriptions Act".
The Labour MP Frank Field, a PBS member, is also concerned. "New ordinands don't actually know the Book of Common Prayer or how to use it," he said.
The 1549 prayer book was written during the Reformation by Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII's first reformed Archbishop of Canterbury. It was a translation of the Latin, with some reformation theology and vernacular. After the restoration, the 1662 version was produced.
The Book of Common Prayer produced some of the most famous phrases in the language, including those associated with marriage ("to love and to cherish, till death do us part") and death ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust").
This is what once prompted Prince Charles to describe it as "a glorious part of every English speaker's heritage".
At a reception at St James's Palace to mark the society's 25th anniversary, he said: "The book's survival is a touchstone of our ability as a society to value its spiritual roots, its liturgical continuity and its very identity as a nation of believers." According to PD James, the prayer book and the King James Bible have "formed" our language. "Yet," she says, "there are people going to read English at university who have never encountered either of them."
The 1662 version is still in use in England, where the modernised service book - including parts of the original - is labelled Common Worship.
But elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, there is no such distinction and new books are given the old title.
"This is clearly 'passing off', if not breach of copyright," protests Roger Evans, PBS chairman, former Conservative MP and a barrister specialising in ecclesiastical law.
The Rev Dr Peter Toon, a PBS spokesman, said that the changes have serious theological implications, as the prayer books are the "standard of doctrine" for Anglicans.
"People will accept the notion of common prayer on the American and Irish models, " he said.
The Church of Ireland says that its new book contains both new and traditional liturgy: "The Church is again to have one unifying book of common prayer, including within its covers material in both traditional and contemporary language."
THE OLD AND THE NEW
The Te Deum from the Book of Common Prayer (1662)
We praise thee, O God: we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee: the Father everlasting.
An Alternative Order for Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (The Church in Wales, 2004 )
You are God and we praise you: you are the Lord and we acclaim you;
you are the eternal Father; all creation worships you.
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