Skip to content
Register Sign in Wishlist

Very old and very new

The traditional Book of Common Prayer in a brand new setting for the 21st century

A slightly extended article written by Amanda Taylor, Bibles Marketing Controller for Cambridge University Press, for the Prayer Book Society Journal, Advent 2004.

Cambridge University Press has published the Prayer Book since the seventeenth century and the Bible since the sixteenth. Our first ever publication was a liturgical treatise.

Despite the 'family heirloom' nature of the Book of Common Prayer, it continues to evolve. In 2004, Cambridge introduced a brand new setting of the Prayer Book, harnessing modern technology to this historic text.

Over the years, we have provided Bibles and prayer books in a range of formats for personal and for public use. Many of the settings we use are old ones dating back over a hundred and fifty years. This is a mixed blessing: the advantage is that we can often give someone a pleasant surprise by replacing a well-loved old book with a brand new version of just the same thing; the disadvantage is that just as the grass withereth and the flower fadeth, so also the printed image deteriorates.

The earlier setting of the Prayer Book we used for pew editions was created more than half a century ago. It was past its best and quite hard to read.

The new setting offers a sharper image than the earlier one, while keeping everything on the same page – essential for a book that is used in congregational worship, so that everyone is following the same part of the service at the same time.

Although most of the Prayer Book stays the same from one printing to the next, there are certain places where changes have to be made – for instance, the demise of the Queen Mother in 2002 necessitated alterations in the Royal Prayers. This requirement to make occasional changes always presented certain difficulties, such as fitting in the text and matching the typeface. As anyone who has laid out a newsletter knows, making small changes can be more fiddly than producing a full page. In the earlier edition, it was often awkward to make small amendments without leaving an obvious gap or squashing the text to make it fit. With a digital version of the text, it is much easier to make alterations tidily.

Peter Ducker is the Cambridge designer charged with making the new setting compatible with the earlier one. He explains how he enjoyed re-setting the classic BCP text so that it could be used alongside the earlier setting:

'Our Standard Edition prayer book used a Times font (a sharpened-up Plantin with a touch of Perpetua) designed by Stanley Morrison for The Times newspaper before the second world war. Morrison was also Typographical Adviser to the Press, and he cut a special semi-bold version of the Times font for use in Bibles and prayer books.

By today's standards, and after many years of use, it was showing its age. With the current need to change to a digital version, it was felt that the time had come to update the design. New tastes in typography, character and word spacing made it look outdated.

The challenge was to keep the page breaks exactly as in the earlier setting. This allows churches to have books with the same page numbers as the old without having completely to replace their stocks. Few churches can afford that!

'We were unable to find a digital Times typeface to match the old Times semi-bold. So the new setting uses Lexicon, a modern font designed for dictionaries and encyclopaedias which accommodates a lot of copy in a small space.

I decided to use the same conventions as the old setting, being aware that I do not have the authority to meddle with the Prayer Book. When making up pages, it became clear that the original typesetters had had to cheat. They squeezed the word and line spacing to balance the page when they did not want individual prayers to spill over to a new page. Very skilful in its own way.'


First, in order to do this, I tried to be strict and make the first word and the last word on a spread match, but this meant that the word spacing was very uneven because of the necessity to spread the Lexicon setting on some pages and squeeze it on others. A compromise had to be found; it looked as though the text was being forced to do things it did not want to. So, to even things out, I decided on what the original compositors did, and cheat! Prayers and rubrics still started and ended on the same page, but, in 'turnover text', it might turn over in a different place.

The italics in Lexicon are more compressed than in Times, so the rubrics took less space; sometimes this was useful, sometimes it was not! For example, in the old setting, the 'Publick Baptism' service is printed small, and the Communion rubric in normal size to keep everything on the same page. I didn't need to do that with Lexicon.'

Peter acknowledges the challenges he has faced, but says he wouldn't have it any other way:

'I love having problems to solve and finding a solution that is practical and aesthetic in equal measure.'

Two Treatises, the Press's first book

The earlier setting

The new setting

Join us online

This site uses cookies to improve your experience. Read more Close

Are you sure you want to delete your account?

This cannot be undone.


Thank you for your feedback which will help us improve our service.

If you requested a response, we will make sure to get back to you shortly.

Please fill in the required fields in your feedback submission.