In my introductory post on the Preface to the original 1549 Book of Common Prayer, I largely spoke on the first clause of the first sentence (no, it was not a run-on sentence) of the first paragraph. Basically, Cranmer sets out his justification for liturgical reform in saying that all things eventually become corrupted over time and occasionally need to be pared down and reformed. This is the basic premise of the Reformation.
Today, let us turn to the second major clause which I will place in bold for our purposes:
"There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted: as, among other things, it may plainly appear by the common prayers in the Church, commonly called Divine Service: the first original and ground whereof, if a man would search out by the ancient fathers, he shall find, that the same was not ordained, but of a good purpose, and for a great advancement of godliness: For they so ordered the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest part thereof) should be read over once in the year, intending thereby, that the Clergy, and especially such as were Ministers of the congregation, should (by often reading, and meditation of God's word) be stirred up to godliness themselves, and be more able to exhort others by wholesome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the truth. And further, that the people (by daily hearing of holy Scripture read in the Church) should continually profit more and more in the knowledge of God, and be the more inflamed with
the love of his true religion."
-1st Paragraph of the Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer, AD 1549
In this second clause, Cranmer further refines his justification. Looking at the evolution of the way the worship in the Church particularly in the West, Cranmer makes the claim that the common prayers of the Church can plainly be seen to have followed this pattern of continual enlargement to the point that the common prayers of Christians had become corrupted over time. Thus, Cranmer is saying that his liturgical reform was justified to the point that is was time to pare down and get back to the liturgical basics of the Early Church. Again, this is classic Reformation Protestant thinking.
Cranmer was, in a sense, correct in this. The Western Liturgy of the Catholic Church had greatly changed since the days of the house churches in the Book of Acts. One can fairly easily trace the evolution of the Western liturgy. Saint Paul speaks in his first letter to the Corinthians of the early Church's praxis and problems when it came to corporate worship and the Lord's Supper. Paul is somewhat vague on liturgical specifics, but obviously by circa AD 50 or so when Paul was writing, Christians had already evolved some sort of sacred meal that was different from a community potluck fellowship. What exactly this looked like in actual practice is anyone's best guess, as there are no rubrics or liturgical bulletins left from the 1st Century that might clue us into what exactly these early Eucharists actually looked like.
There are some extant Eucharistic prayers and fragments remaining from the second century. Justin Martyr, the first Christian to attempt a systematic theology with apologetics, describes to a Roman critic what actually goes on in Christian worship. Many Romans believed the rumors that Christians were into cannibalism and all nature of crazy things. There is a good little blog essay here on that.
Once Christianity became legalized by Constantine (Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, but ultimately gave it 'most favored religion' status), Christianity hit the mainstream. Christians were suddenly conducting worship services in many of the old Roman temples to various Gods. Finally, when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, Christian worship began to be done on behalf of the state. As such, many of the formal Greco-Roman customs and attire began to be used in Christian liturgy as they have been used in the Roman civic arena.
This radically changed the format of Christian liturgy. Heretofore, what had been done was largely in secret or in small houses became formalized public worship in venues that were large and ornate. Many of the annotated liturgies and Eucharistic prayers from the 3rd and 4th Centuries still survive. Eastern Orthodoxy still uses the Liturgy of St. Basil from this period. Eucharistic Prayer D in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is pared down version of the Basilian liturgy.
In a gross oversimplification, then came the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and the 'Dark Ages.' Into this void entered the Pope and the Roman Church. Because the Church in Rome was more organized than local Christian communities or churches that they came across in Missionary areas like Ireland, The Roman liturgy became standard in the West, though there was much variation from region to region due to the lack of community and easy access to books and resources.
By the Middle Ages, Rome had become very powerful indeed. Gradually, the liturgy moved to the priest and deacon basically doing everything. Lay people had little to actually do in the liturgy. In fact, the church pew is largely an invention of the Reformation. Medieval churches had no chairs or pews. They were simply open, much like a mosque. People could wander around during the liturgy and pray at the various statues or shrines in the church, or kneel and pray or do private devotions. The walls, arches, and ceilings would all have been painted in grand colors with figures of Saints. By this period, most people did not understand Latin, and as such had other things in the liturgy to occupy them, as they did not even receive the consecrated elements by the late Middle Ages. It actually must have been a very grand worship experience, believe it or not, that engaged all the senses. Eamon Duffy's book, The Stripping of the Altars, makes a very interesting case that Medieval Worship was actually very colorful and grand and meaningful for people, despite the Reformation cries to the contrary.
Even the Catholic Church itself when through periods of liturgical reform. The Council of Trent with the Tridentine Latin Mass reforms and the 2nd Vatican Council with the Novus Ordo. Just this last Advent 1, the Catholic church introduced a new English translation of the Mass. This is the work of the worshiping church: discerning Holy Tradition from human tradition. What layers have we added that are not really crucial in the worship of God and the proclamation of the Word, and what layers are crucial in the proclaiming of the living God?