When Thomas Cranmer produced the first Prayer Book in English in 1549, in the reign of Edward VI, England had recently broken from Rome and the Archbishop was keen to give the people clear direction in the matter of worship, now that the Pope was no longer the Head of the Church. He revised this book in 1552, only for the king to die, and his sister Mary to take the throne, restoring Roman Catholicism and burning anyone who didn’t like it, including Cranmer himself. Five years later Mary was dead and Elizabeth took the throne, restoring the Protestant religion of her father (Henry VIII) and with it Cranmer’s Prayer Book, tweaked a bit to keep people happy on both sides of the religious debate.
In 1604 King James ordered some further minor alterations – after all, a man associated with the authorised version of the Bible could hardly let the prayer book go by totally untouched – but then things turned ugly again during the Civil War and it was not until two years after the restoration of the monarchy, in 1662, that the Book of Common Prayer that we still use today was finally approved.
We do not know what the parishioners of Shalfleet made of all this. For hundreds of years, of course, they had worshipped in the church with services held exclusively in Latin, so the ability to hear and understand what was going on was quite a radical change. And whether they cared about the points of doctrine that exercised the bishops and scholars so much, it is hard to say. But what we can say for certain is that parishioners kneeling down to pray in Shalfleet Church in the 17th century, and indeed in the 16th century, would have heard the same words that we hear today. And when the vicar walked up the steps to the wooden pulpit to deliver his sermon, just think – it was the very same pulpit that our own vicar uses today.
History is all around us, but nowhere is that more obvious than in our medieval parish church.