Fit for sacred themes and devotion
An address by the Bishop of London at the 350th anniversary of the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer
St Paul’s Cathedral – May 2, 2012
Archbishop Cranmer commandeered Old St Paul’s on Whitsunday 1549 to demonstrate the new English liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. The Lord Mayor and the worthies of the City of London were present, but the Bishop of London boycotted the occasion, which was further marred by the failure of the Select Preacher to turn up.
Today, the presence of their Royal Highnesses, the Lord Mayor locum tenens, the Archbishop of Canterbury (this time in harmony with the Bishop of London), and a host of witnesses from all over the world together testify to the historic and enduring significance of the Prayer Book tradition as we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the 1662 edition.
The Prayer Book in English was the centrepiece of an audacious cultural revolution. Stephen Gardiner, the Bishop of Winchester, was one of those critical of the scheme to introduce an English liturgy. He dismissed the argument that it was desirable for the language to be “understanded of the people” and the mode of conducting the services such as to render them audible. The bishop protested that “it was never meant that the people should indeed hear the matins or hear the mass but be present there and pray themselves in silence.” The barriers of language and audibility were actually conducive to genuine devotion.
This protest from one of the most intelligent conservatives of the day illuminates the radicalism of what was published as the first Book of Common Prayer. It was an audacious attempt to re-shape the culture of England by collapsing the distinction between private personal devotion and public liturgical worship in order to create a godly community in which all and not just the clergy had access to the “pure milk of the gospel”. The result would be a sense of English nationhood crystallising around the biblical narrative of God’s dealings with the children of Israel.
And what English! Tyndale’s translation of a large part of the Bible and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer made of English a language fit for sacred themes and devotion. Cranmer’s was a very distinct achievement. Whereas Tyndale was the heir to previous experiments in turning the Scriptures into English going back to Wycliffe’s version, there had never been a liturgy in English.
But one of the functions of a liturgy is to preserve words and the possibility of an approach to God which is hard or impossible to express in the language of the street.
Cranmer distilled his liturgy from his studies of the Christian past and especially of the patristic period – the first five centuries; the springtime of the Church.
In the Preface to the first Book of Common Prayer, of 1549, he appeals to the authority of the “auncient fathers” as a guide in liturgical matters. Queen Elizabeth I, in her letter to the Roman Catholic princes of Europe, amplified the point “that there was no new faith propagated in England, no new religion set up but that which was commanded by Our Saviour, practised by the Primitive Church and approved by the Fathers of the best antiquity”.
But the liturgical inheritance was drastically pruned and simplified. The accent was on hearing and understanding—not on seeing—as in the theatre of late mediaeval religion.
There was, however, growing opposition to any set form of liturgy. The Puritans valued spontaneity and the unpremeditated devotional voice and privileged original sermons and prayers over readings from liturgical texts. They also resented the traditional sources from which the Prayer Book was composed.
The survival of symbols like the ring in marriage and the signing of the cross in baptism was attacked, as was even the simplified version of traditional clerical vesture. Milton excoriated traditional vestments as “guegaws fetched from Aaron’s old wardrobe”.
The agitation against the Prayer Book led to its suppression during the Commonwealth, but the sufferings of Prayer Book loyalists during that period gave the book a powerful aura, which contributed to its restoration with the monarchy. Our Book of Common Prayer was annexed to the Act of Uniformity, which received Royal Assent in May 1662 and so became a part of the law of England. It remains a doctrinal standard for the Church and an indispensable part of our identity.
In a book published in 1662, Simon Patrick comments on the rites and ceremonies of divine worship and approves “that virtuous mediocrity which our church observes between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome and the squalid sluttery of fanatic conventicles.” Of course we would be too polite to say such things now, but the Prayer Book offers a simple and moderate system for a whole life, from baptism to last rites, and seeks in its rubrics and ceremonies to embrace the whole person and not merely the cerebellum.
In more recent times, both the Bible and the Prayer Book have been more and more edited out of public discourse and increasingly also expelled from school. Cultural amnesia is supposed to be a gateway to a kinder and more tolerant world, while there has also been a cult of the new-fangled.
There was a fascinating example of the lingering antipathy to our cultural and religious inheritance in the reaction to the Royal Wedding in Westminster Abbey last year. In the acres of commentary in the secular press, there was no criticism of the couple’s decision to use the traditional language form of the service. Then a week later the Church Times published letters from clergy expressing exasperation “that the language of the liturgy remained buried in the past” and “that once again the opportunity to present the church in a more up to date way was missed”.
A week after that, however, another clergyman wrote to point out that the three who had decried the “stuffy service” were born respectively in 1960, 1951, and 1937. The royal couple (born 1982) had chosen the service, and the author of the letter observed that “it would appear that nothing dates so rapidly as yesterday’s modernity”.
Thanks to the labours of the Liturgical Commission, the influence of the Prayer Book in the new Book of Common Worship is more prominent, and we still have direct access to the original.
There is a challenge in every generation to distinguish between tradition, the living stream of spirit-filled wisdom, and traditionalism, which is the obstinate attachment to the mores of the day before yesterday.
We live at a time when there is an urgent need to articulate a fresh narrative about the English nation, now enriched as it is in this great cosmopolitan city with people who bring their own distinctive narratives. After the financial crisis, what we seem to be offered so frequently is the prospect of a return to “normality” defined in exclusively economic terms. Is it not already clear that we must prepare for a new normal, a narrative about Our Island Story which is realistic about our changed place in the world but which contains the seeds of hope?
The Book of Common Prayer, which immerses us in the whole symphony of scripture; which takes us through the Psalms every month; which makes available in a digestible but noble way the treasury of ancient Christian devotion has a beauty which is ancient but also fresh. If our civilisation is to have a future, the roots must be irrigated and the texts which we choose to pass on to our children have the power to create a community which does not merely dwell in the flatlands of getting and spending but which sees visions with prophets, pursues wisdom with Solomon, and lives with the generosity of the God who so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.