The Book of Common Prayer in Australia and the British Empire, 1788-1918

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In Peter Weir's 2003 film Master and Commander Captain Jack Aubrey, played with conviction by Russell Crowe, leads his crew in a bloody engagement to defeat a French warship off the Galapagos Islands. In the aftermath of the battle, Aubrey conducts the funeral of the British sailors killed in battle. He reads to the assembled crew a prayer, with due gravitas, accompanied by the solemn strains of Ralph Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. That prayer, entitled 'At the Burial of Their Dead at Sea', is, of course, from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This brief vignette, of the Prayer Book's use on a nineteenth-century warship on the far side of the world, gestures towards some of the key themes of this paper. The first theme is the important role played by the BCP in situations outside the traditional parish structure of Britain. While this included the deck of a Royal Navy man-o-war, the BCP's usefulness also extended to the colonies on the antipodes of empire. Our interest here is the Australian colonies up to the 1920s.The BCP proved immensely useful and adaptable in colonial and pioneer situations, particularly among laypeople and the military. The Prayer Book provided a prefabricated structure for fledgling churches where no clergyman was available. A second related theme is suggested by Captain Aubrey's use of the Prayer Book as the official form of words for state occasions such as the burial of sailors. The state-sanctioned status of the BCP, both within Britain and its wider empire, meant that it played an important but sometimes controversial role in early Australian history. But because of early religious pluralism in the Australian colonies, the Prayer Book quickly lost its official status. The BCP's changing official status is therefore a bellwether for the extent to which Anglicanism had an established status on Australian soil. The third theme of this paper is the extent to which the BCP was a force for unity and continuity in colonial Anglican theology and identity. As we shall see, the BCP's content and interpretation have been contested, most notably by Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic parties within the Australian Church.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-89
Number of pages15
JournalSt. Mark's review: A journal of Christian thought and opinion
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012

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