These statutes, passed at different times, were vain efforts to secure uniformity in public worship throughout England. But as the principle of unity had been lost when communion with the See of Peter was broken off, all such attempts were foredoomed to failure. They were resisted by Catholics on the one hand and the Nonconformists on the other. The first of these Acts (2 and 3 Edward VI, c. 1) was called "An Act for Uniformity of Service and Administration of the Sacraments throughout the Realm". After a long preamble setting forth the reasons which had led to the drawing up of "The Book of the Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church after the use of the Church of England", and the desirability of having one uniform rite and order in use in all churches through England and Wales, the statute enacts that after Pentecost, 1549, all ministers shall be bound to follow the same in all public services. Then follow penalties against such of the clergy as shall substitute any other form of service, or shall not use the "Book of Common Prayer", or who shall preach or speak against it. Further penalties are decreed against all who in plays or songs shall mock said book. Private persons were allowed to use the forms for Matins and Evensong in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew in their own private devotions, and liberty was reserved to the universities to have the service in their college chapels conducted in any of these tongues. There is nothing in this Act to enforce attendance at public worship, but the provisions of the Act apply to every kind of public worship or "open prayer", as it was called, which might take place. The Act itself defines "open prayer" as "that prayer which is for others to come unto or near, either in common churches or private chapels or oratories, commonly called the service of the Church". This Act was confirmed by 5 and 6 Edw. VI, c. 1, repealed by I Mary, sess. 2, c. 2, revived by 1 Eliz., c. 2, and 1 James I, c. 25, and made perpetual so far as it relates to the Established Church of England by 5 Anne, c. 5 (c. 8 according to some computations).
The next of these Acts (3 and 4 Edward VI, c. 10) was passed in 1549 under the title "An Act for the abolishing and putting away of diverse books and images". The preamble of the Act recites that the king had of late set forth and established by authority of Parliament an order for common prayer in a book entitled, "The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments, and other rites and ceremonies of the Church, after the Church of England". The first section then suppresses and forbids all books or writings in Latin or English used for church services other than such as are appointed by the king's majesty. And all such books are to be collected by the mayor and other civil authorities and delivered to the bishop to be destroyed.
But as the "First Prayer-book" of Edward VI did not satisfy the reformers, it was soon supplanted by the "Second Prayer-book", issued in 1552 and also sanctioned by Act of Parliament. This Act of Uniformity is the first to be expressly called by that name, being entitled "An Act for the Uniformity of Service and Administration of Sacraments throughout the realm" (5 and 6 Edw. VI, c. 1). It goes much further than the previous Act, for it enforces church attendance on Sundays and holy days. After the preamble declaring the desirability of uniformity, the second section enacts that after 1 November, 1552, all persons shall attend their parish church on Sundays and holy days and shall be present at the common prayer, preaching, or other service, under pain of punishment by the censures of the Church. The archbishops and bishops are charged with the task of enforcing the Act (sect. 3); and they are to inflict the censures of the Church on offenders (sect. 4). The fifth section refers to the new "Book of Common Prayer", to which had been added a "Form and Manner of making and consecrating archbishops, bishops, priests, and deacons", and declares that all the provisions of the previous Act shall apply to it. By the sixth and last section any person convicted of being present at any other form of common prayer or administration of the sacraments shall be imprisoned for six months for the first offence, one year for the second, and shall suffer imprisonment for life for the third. The Act was to be read in church four times during the following year and once a year afterwards. It was repealed by I Mary, sess. 2, c. 2, but revived with certain alterations by 1 Eliz., c. 2, and confirmed by 1 James I, c. 25. It was made perpetual so far as it relates to the Established Church of England by 5 Anne, c. 5 (or c. 8 according to the chronological table of statutes).
Queen Mary contented herself with repealing these statutes of Edward and thus restoring the ancient liberty. No fresh Uniformity Act appeared on the statute book till Protestantism returned under Elizabeth. Then the well known "Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer and Service in the Church and Administration of the Sacraments" (1 Eliz., c. 2) was passed. The first effect of this statute was to repeal the Act of Mary as and from 24 June, 1559, and to restore the "Book of Common Prayer" from that date. The "Second Prayer-book" of Edward VI with certain additions and alterations was thenceforth to be used, and any clergyman neglecting to use it or substituting any other form of open prayer or preaching against it, was on conviction to suffer penalties which increased with offence till on the third conviction they mounted to deprivation from all spiritual preferment and imprisonment for life. Similarly severe penalties culminating in the forfeiture of all goods and chattels and imprisonment for life were decreed against all persons who spoke in derision of the "Book of Common Prayer". Attendance at church service on Sunday at the parish church was rendered compulsory, and any person absent without reasonable cause was to pay a fine of twelve pence, which would be equivalent to ten shillings in modern English money, or two dollars and a half. Long and extensive provisions for enforcing the Act are included, and one section provides for uniformity in the ornaments of the Church and ministers. This enacts that the same ornaments shall be retained "as was in this Church of England, by authority of Parliament, in the second year of King Edward VI".
This Act proved a powerful weapon against the Catholics, who could not conscientiously obey it, and it was used consistently as a means to harass and impoverish them. So effective was it that it needed no amending, and a century elapsed before the next Uniformity Act was passed. This was the celebrated Act of Charles II (13 and 14 Chas. II, c. 4: according to some computations it is quoted as 15 Chas. II, c. 4). It was followed by a short Act of Relief (15 Chas. II, c. 6). This Act is of little or no special interest to Catholics, for it was primarily designed to regulate the worship of the Church of England, and so far as Catholics were concerned it added nothing to the provisions of the Edwardine and Elizabethan Acts.
Relief from the Acts of Uniformity was granted to Catholics by the Second Catholic Relief Act (31 Geo. III, c. 32), though the benefits of the Act were limited to those who made the declaration and took the oath under the Act. So much of this statute as related to the declaration and oath was repealed in 1871 by the Promissory Oaths Act (34 and 35 Vict., c. 48). There were certain restrictions and conditions as to Catholic places of worship, but these were changed in 1832 by the Act 2 and 3 Wm. IV, c. 115, by which Catholics were placed on the same footing as Protestant dissenters in this and some other respects. Incidentally this statute made it compulsory to certify Catholic chapels to the Anglican bishop and archdeacon and the quarter sessions. But this restriction was abolished in 1855 by 18 and 19 Vict., c. 81, which provided that such buildings could be notified to the registrar-general instead. Even this provision has long fallen into disuse and it is not customary to register Catholic churches except for the solemnization of marriage. Thus for Catholics, as for Nonconformists, the provisions of the Uniformity Acts have been gradually repealed and now they apply only to the Established Church of England; but to that extent they are still on the statute-books and as late as 1872 a statute entitled "An Act for the Amendment of the Act of Uniformity" was passed (35 and 36 Vic., c. 35). As long as the Church of England is the established religion its worship will be regulated by statute, so that Acts of Uniformity in one shape or another will remain part of the English code of law unless, and until, disestablishment takes place.