Instructing the children of St Luke’s School, New York, 1970.
THIS BLOG may seem like an unlikely venue in which to advance any defense so titled. But in hearing the much-maligned “Carl Sagan prayer” read this past week, your humble blogger was struck by this ugly stepchild of the 1979 Prayer Book.
Although Prayer C was a favorite of mine when I was a child, I will admit that all of the criticisms levied by its detractors are true. Its language is clunky and distinctly sci-fi inflected, reminding listeners of Dune or, yes, any of the works of Carl Sagan. The prayer bears the stamp of a certain kind of mid-century, space-race modernism that has not aged well. The call-and-response format disrupts the opportunity for devotion. Prayer C is, for all these reasons (and probably more), not especially lovable.
What I used to look forward to as a child was that most Carl Sagan of moments: “the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.” This had much to do with my affection for Star Trek and Star Wars, and for the possibilities of life beyond the confines of our small blue planet. The idea that the God of Jesus Christ was the author of creation writ large, not just the stuff of our daily lives but of the whole cosmos, was profoundly exciting to me. The God who created the universe, of which we are but the most infinitesimal fragment, that was the God who could raise Jesus from the dead, the God in whom we could put our trust.
Hearing it all these years later, Prayer C sounds naïve now, even touchingly innocent. And yet, even in its fumbling inadequacy, Prayer C points to a quality of wonder, of imagination, of hope that we have lost over the past 40 years.
One is reminded of John Gillespie Magee’s 1941 poem High Flight:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
OUR EYES no longer look to the heavens; we have become distinctly earth-bound. Prayer C is a curio of a time when the God of Abraham was above us, beyond our comprehension, and we recognized the human race in its proper scale: small, meek, and marooned on “this fragile earth, our island home.” In response, we replied that it was by God’s will, not any human effort, that all things “were created and have their being.”
These days, we quibble over what exactly it means even to be a human being. Our perspective, even in the church, no longer includes a God of majesty, at least not in any meaningful way. Having forgotten the lessons of Babel, we are stuck determining which of the countless categories of human identity are the most deserving of worldly justice. Race and class may be social constructs, but we accept those constructs as valid avenues in which to order the church.
The perspective of Prayer C, for all its mid-1970s situatedness, reminds us of a time when the human race, living under the spectre of nuclear annihilation, was mindful of its shared vulnerability. These days, any idea of commonality is increasingly called in for scorn: no green man could ever understand a blue man. But the perspective of Prayer C was one which placed humanity before a God who was larger than the cosmos itself. The God of Prayer C was powerful enough to conquer sin and death, to raise Jesus from the dead, and to overcome even the slow heat death of the universe. For all the flaws of its creators, this was an admirable perspective, and one which we would be well to remember in this age of fracture, despair, and moral entropy.
Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.
Almighty God, who didst give such grace unto thy holy Apostle Saint Andrew, that he readily obeyed the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him without delay; Grant unto us all, that we, being called by thy holy Word, may forthwith give up ourselves obediently to fulfil the holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
These hopes of a union with Rome were of course entirely illusory. Rome could never have offered any terms that were acceptable to the majority of Anglican clergy; in any case, in a country where people are free to switch religion, the whole notion of corporate reunion is curiously outmoded.
1. Andrew Brown and Linda Woodhead, That Was The Church, That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 11.
In 2011, the Dean of Lincoln escorts the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall on a tour of Lincoln Cathedral, which, as Ruskin said, is “the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have got.”