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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Celebrating the Book of Common Prayer 1662-2012

To lovers of literature, Warwickshire means not only Shakespeare but George Eliot, one of the great wordsmiths of the 19th century.  In her novel Adam Bede there is a beautiful tribute to the Prayer Book that shaped and influenced her so profoundly in her youth as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, Coventry.   

Ad­am's tho­ughts of Hetty did not de­afen him to the service; they rat­her ble­nded with all the other deep fee­lings for which the ch­urch service was a ch­annel to him this after­noon, as a certain consciousness of our entire past and our imagined future blends itself with all our moments of keen sensibility.  And to Adam the church service was the best channel he could have found for his mingled regret, yearn­ing and resignation; its interchange of beseeching cries for help, with outbursts of faith and praise - its recur­rent responses and the familiar rhythm of its collects, seemed to speak for him as no other form of worship could have done.

As we know, the contrast the author is drawing is between the excesses of nonconformist ‘enthusiasm’ as it was called at that time, and the more sober liturgy of the established church.  For myself, the contrast was not between one style of worship and another, but between any worship and no worship at all.  I first attended a church service as a teenager.  It was 1962, so I have my own anniversary this year.  It was evensong, Book of Common Prayer. I had hardly stepped foot inside a church before. My parents had little time for religion. But they did love music. To help me develop musically, I was drafted into one of the best church choirs in London that sang to cathedral standard. No-one took much notice of probationers in those days. I was left to make what sense of it I could.  All of it was utterly new to me. The canticles that evening were sung to Walmisley in D minor. I have had a soft spot for that setting ever since.  I remember feeling awed and moved by what I was experiencing, this tapestry of words and music that seemed to envelope me. It was strange, and yet familiar, as if I had known it all along, but had not known that I knew, like an old friend I had met for the first time.  It was somehow familiar and reassuring at the same time as it was unknown and new. I realised that in an important way I had come home.

I come to you from a cathedral that has a particular interest in the Prayer Book.  In our library we have a first edition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, and a copy of the Sealed Book of 1662.  But our closest connection is through the great Bishop Cosin of Durham who was influential in shaping the 1662 book.  The University library has the wonderful Durham Book, his personal copy of the 1559 Elizabethan revision of Cranmer’s two prayer books, painstakingly, and lovingly, annotated with comments and emendations in preparation for the next revision.  Some of the best 1662 collects are written by him.  And like all English cathedrals, ours is a place where you know that Cranmer's work retains an honoured place in the daily round of prayer.

There is a paradox here.  What for Cranmer was a bold experiment in creative vernacular liturgy has become for us the traditional rite. So to honour the Prayer Book is to recognise that that in the 16th century, this was a radical break with tradition.  By the 17th century this had changed, not least because high church Anglicans like Bishop Cosin recognised Cranmer’s debt to patristic and medieval rites, and how his intense focus on the passion and death of Christ was completely in the spirit of late medieval devotion.  Meanwhile, the new liturgies of today have enriched all our churches with fresh insights by taking us more directly back to forms of worship that belonged to the early Christian centuries.  We can be glad that we are in the happy position to do as Jesus says, and in our worship bring out of our treasures things old and new. 

The Prayer Book is part of our cultural inheritance. It belongs to the legacy of Christian England, like the arcades and monuments of our churches and cathedrals, like the King James version of the Bible whose 400th anniversary we celebrated last year, like the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, like Gibbons and Purcell, like Anglican chant and Hymns Ancient and Modern.  Its measured 'rhythms and cadences' as we call them, its unforgettable words and images, its gravity and quiet joy, its undulating landcsapes of contrition and praise, its sense of balance and proportion, these all create a whole that is infinitely greater than the parts. It is something of a miracle, unique to the English speaking world. We are right to cherish it.

But the Prayer Book is more than a treasured part of our heritage. Beauty can remain merely an aesthetic experience, or it can lead us into a more inward place where we find God. For example, the office of evensong speaks at many different levels.  It begins by marking the ending of the day: we go to sleep with the memory of having prayed ‘defend us from all perils and dangers of this night’. But that phrase seems to suggest deeper darknesses that need lightening in whatever ordeals we may be going through: sickness, bereavement, sorrow, fearfulness, shame.  And then we are led further to reflect on the ultimate sleep that awaits us all, death itself.  ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.’  Each Nunc Dimittis we sing or recite is one less until eternity. That thought haunts you, but it gives you courage you as well, for it helps you face your own mortality.

I am saying that the Prayer Book is a rich manual of 'soul-making' as John Keats called it.  It trains us to become what we will all one day be for etenity: contemplatives. Like the Rule of St Benedict, it offers a school where disciples can be trained for eternal life. By inculcating the virtue of stability, it exercises an enduring pastoral, formative influence on all who take it to their hearts.  For we are what we pray, as the old Latin tag has it: lex orandi lex credendi, what you pray is what you believe.  The words we say, the texts we sing in worship shape us, whether we like it or not.  And in the case of the Prayer Book, the fact that these words are so imbued not only with biblical texts but also with the Bible’s imagery and symbolism is part of what makes it somehow familiar. These words matter. Their repetition when we truly mean them from the heart has a healing, redemptive effect on us. How many times have we prayed the confession at communion, and found that the burden of our sins is indeed intolerable because we have been made to say those tough words and think about their meaning?  Or discovered the release that comes when we hear the comfortable words read and are then summoned to lift up our hearts?  To be caught up in spiritual dynamics of the Prayer Book is, I think, to experience a kind of catharsis of the soul, a purifying that leads to a more serious sense of purpose in being Christians, and therefore, better human beings. 

Finally, this purifying of spiritual motive and intent is a consequence of being required by the Prayer Book to pay attention and listen.  Many texts are to be spoken by the priest alone, addressing the congregation or God on our behalf.  Take the Prayer of Humble Access.  Why does the rubric require the priest to say it on behalf of the worshippers rather than by the congregation itself? Perhaps because here, at this solemn moment in the rite, the text wants us not to be busy with our heads in our books worrying about written words.  Instead it invites us to approach the sacrament in a more contemplative way, allowing this great prayer to draw our thoughts and meditations towards the gift of God in the body and blood of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  It is wrong to say that we do not ‘join in’ just because we­ are silent: on the contrary, we ‘join in’ in a more demanding way: by listening and praying while others perform the liturgy on our behalf.  Its carefully calibrated pace slows us down, makes us go deep, something that we need in a world that is often fast and shallow.  We learn that liturgy must never be manic and busy.  It must make us sit at the feet of Jesus.

To Adam Bede, the Prayer Book service ‘spoke for him as no other form of service could have done’.  In the Letter to the Hebrews the author reminds his readers to ‘remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you’.  Today we celebrate the 1662 Prayer Book and the leaders who had a part in creating it during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their labour of love continues to speak the word of God to us today and to testify to Christ who is the same yesterday, today and for ever.  

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