Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Prayer Book at Carlisle

I was asked to preach at a festival evensong at Carlisle Cathedral yesterday, celebrating the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. I was royally welcomed and had a very good time there (again!). It's a slightly awkward event, since naturally many of the congregation were deeply affectionate towards the BCP, and my own views are a bit more ambiguous than that. In particular, I didn't have the nerve to comment on the Prayer Book's abject attitude to state power, which it portrays as uniformly benevolent and only ever to be obeyed - but it didn't seem the place for a Lib Dem party political broadcast.

Anyway, here's what I said (more or less):

It is one of the strangest objects in the life of the Church: hidden in plain sight, so familiar that we do not realise how odd it is. The Book of Common Prayer: the book that launched a thousand books, which sparked a rebellion in one century and a civil war in the next, which began as shockingly revolutionary and became a touchstone of conservatism, and which has defied all efforts to rewrite or relegate it for three and a half centuries. You might have expected some rewriting: it had been done often enough before. The first edition of the Prayer Book came from 1549, from the turbulently Protestant reign of Edward VI. The second, which was radically different, appeared only three years later, in 1552. Both were edited and assembled by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, as part of his programme to turn a reluctant England into a Protestant country. And it’s still essentially Cranmer’s Prayer Book we have today: there were some minor further revisions at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, in 1559, and another set in 1662, when the Prayer Book was restored after the Civil War, Cromwell’s republic and the eventual restoration of the monarchy. And that 1662 version, scarcely changed from Cranmer’s original, is the liturgy we have followed this afternoon.

            I love it; many of us love it. But what I’d like to do for a few minutes this afternoon is to show it to you from some different angles. Because its history is of a book used very differently from the one we have today.

            When Cranmer’s Prayer Book was first introduced in 1549, it was a shocking revolution. To know why, you need to know what it was replacing. Before 1549, the mainstay of the English church, as of the Church across Europe, was the Latin Mass, which was said in every church at least weekly, and often daily. And that Mass would seem very strange to us, even to those who come from a Catholic background. The modern Eucharist is a kind of dialogue between priest and people: the priest says a bit, then there is a bit in bold for us all to reply, and so forth. And because of that it is essential that the whole thing is conducted in a language that we can all understand, or at least understand up to a point. This is why most modern Anglicans find the idea of a Latin service so bewildering: what’s the point if no-one can understand it? The point, however, that the medieval service was not only in Latin, but that the priest usually whispered it, or muttered it: for most of the congregation it would make no difference whether he was talking English, Latin or Swahili, they couldn’t hear him. Nor could they see him: he would be in the chancel, they down in the nave, so what they could see would be the screen – we still have medieval screens in plenty of our churches; and above it the rood-loft. Every medieval English church had a rood-loft; not a single one survives. It was a central, life-size or larger crucifix, with Jesus flanked by his mother and the beloved disciple St John: the crucified Lord, framing the body of the risen and glorified Lord which the miracle of the Mass, the miracle of transubstantiation, made literally and physically present. So the lay people knew the priest was up there, but couldn’t hear him, nor really see him, and you couldn’t understand what he was saying even if you could hear him. What you can see is this vivid full-size crucifix and, perhaps, other images of saints dotted around the church. So for most of the service you will do your own thing. You will say your own prayers, perhaps using your own Book of Hours which you have brought with you. You may move around – after all, most churches in this period don’t have pews yet, and so you have to stand or kneel on the stone floor – move around and say your devotions to each particular saint. For most of the service, the medieval Mass was an occasion for private prayer, not for the whole congregation to be united in a single act of worship. After all, why do you need to hear the priest? He isn’t talking to you. He is talking to God, praying for you, celebrating the sacrament on your behalf. And while I wouldn’t actually advocate that, I do wonder sometimes if in the modern church we forget what worship is for. We don’t worship for our own entertainment or even, principally, for our own edification or uplift. Our services are not there to amuse us or offer us therapy. We are there to worship God, to offer ourselves to him and not to talk to each other. For all its faults, the medieval church understood that better than we do.

            Nor did most medieval people actually receive communion: only the priest himself did that. Most people only received once a year, at Easter. The modern practice of weekly communion would have suggested to our forebears either that we are fearsomely holy people who live our lives continually aware of the immanent and transcendent presence of God; or that we have slapdash, complacent and presumptive attitudes towards the sacrament and the grace of God which it represents. Their reticence was largely based on a trembling awe. After all, they believed – as a great many Christians, including some here today, believe – that when a duly ordained priest celebrates communion, and offers bread and wine to God, God miraculously transforms the bread and wine into the very substance of Christ, his body, blood and bone, as they put it. They only retain the outward appearance of bread and wine. So in every celebration of Mass, the miracle of the Incarnation is made new: Christ himself is literally, physically present among the people.

            In his two Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552 Thomas Cranmer systematically took this kind of Christianity to pieces, and set up something different in its place. He did so because he had become convinced that the medieval way of doing things, a way that he himself had practised as priest and as bishop for many years, was gravely wrong. And so he implemented a religious revolution in order to put it right.

            The Mass’s place in the regular round of worship was taken by two new services, which Cranmer called morning and evening prayer, but which quickly became known as matins and evensong, after two of the round of daily offices sung by monks and in cathedrals. That link was made because that was Cranmer’s source. He based those two services on the Benedictine office, the prayers said each day by the oldest order of monks in Christendom. Cranmer disapproved of monks, whom he saw as freeloaders with pretensions to spiritual superiority who never did anything to help the rest of the church; but he thought that their simple rounds of prayers could be made the property of the whole people. And like the Benedictine offices, these new services were to be said responsively, with the priest in dialogue with the people, in what we now recognise as the typical Anglican way but which was then very much a novelty. And these Prayer Book services of matins and evensong were to be said in every church every day. And if you read Cranmer’s preface to the Prayer Book,  it makes it absolutely clear what Morning and Evening Prayer were for. They were teaching tools: they were mechanisms for delivering the English Bible to the people. If you came to Morning and Evening Prayer in your parish church every day for a year, as some people might well do, you would in that time hear the entire New Testament read four times, apart from the book of Revelation, which Cranmer was wary of; almost all of the Old Testament read, apart from some of the stodgy bits; and you would hear the entire book of Psalms read from start to finish every single month. The liturgy which served as a delivery system for these great slabs of Scripture was itself very heavily scriptural: the canticles, the versicles and responses, and many of the prayers are either directly lifted from Scripture or only very lightly modified. A few prayers were included which are not directly Biblical in origins, notably the collects, and these are probably Cranmer’s finest work: but they are fragments around the edge of a service which was 90% pure Bible. And this was quite deliberate. You no longer came to church to say your own prayers privately. You came to be shown a good Biblical model of what it was to pray; and above all you came to be taught, to be exposed to Scripture. Worship was no longer principally for God’s sake; it was for the sake of edifying the believer, in the belief that faith comes by hearing, and without faith there can be no true worship.

            Cranmer did this because – and I’m afraid there can be no doubt about this point – he was a full-blown, card-carrying Reformed Protestant. Modern Anglicanism has tended to see itself as a moderate movement, halfway between Protestantism and Catholicism. For Cranmer, that would have been as nonsensical as trying to be halfway between good and evil – as embarrassing as we might find that view nowadays. Modern Anglicans have valued the historic episcopate and the threefold order of bishops, priests and deacons, and the Catholic structures which we inherited from the medieval church, not least the glories of our cathedrals. Cranmer of course was a bishop, but he had an extremely low view of episcopacy, as did most of his successors for the next fifty years. For him, ‘bishop’ was simply a title that you give to a senior official in the church, and there was nothing particularly special about how that official should be appointed. And as to cathedrals ... Cranmer was long of the opinion that the cathedrals should either be dissolved altogether, that is, that their property should be turned over to charitable purposes and the building allowed to become merely parish churches, or, at least, that they should be refounded as resource centres for their dioceses. Instead of supporting canons and prebendaries – a species of clergyman whom, he said, were neither good teachers nor good learners, but good eaters and drinkers – instead, a cathedral should spend its resources supporting a corps of itinerant preachers, who would move around the diocese bring the true, Protestant word of God to the people.

            Instead, after his death the Church of England slowly changed into something a little different. And his Prayer Book was at the heart of that change: a book which once seemed so shockingly radical came to be treasured for the way it preserved so many of the texts and patterns of the old ways, a union of the old and the new which came to fit very well with how the Church of England thought of itself. Pretty soon it was hardline Protestants who were disagreeing with it. And in the 17th century, when it finally took its current form, the word ‘Common’ in the title was little more than a bitter joke: the Prayer Book was by then a sharp point of division. When the Book was reintroduced in 1662, two thousand parish clergy who could not square it with their consciences were expelled from their livings, an event which the Church of England has done its best to forget but which is still the foundational trauma of the Noncomformists. And at the Glorious Revolution in 1689, there was a serious attempt to revise it to produce a new liturgy, the so-called Liturgy of Comprehension, that would be acceptable to a much wider sweep of English Christians: but the Church refused even to discuss it, and even suppressed the text so that for a couple of centuries it was uncertain even what the Liturgy of Comprehension had said.

            Now of course we do not use the Prayer Book as a weapon in the same way, and the so-called ‘alternative’ liturgies of Common Worship actually dominate the Church’s life. Even when we do use it, we don’t use it the way Cranmer would have done. We don’t use his lectionary, there is almost never more than one psalm, and much more emphasis is placed on the musical and ceremonial quality of the service than he would have liked. But if Cranmer were here now, would he be using his own service, or Common Worship? Well, he would have thought Common Worship’s theology was rather soggy, rather as we might think his theology was rather spiky. But he would have approved the principle of updating liturgies as language changes, and indeed I think he would have been dismayed to find that his words, almost unchanged, were still being used 450 years later: he would have feared that that was a form of idolatry. And yet ... the Prayer Book service has earned its keep all these years. Cranmer was no especially great writer of theology, polemic or devotional work, and he was a very poor composer of verse. But he was a wonderfully precise author of liturgy. He had the unusual gift of being able to write, or rather compile, the sort of texts which sound better the hundredth time you say them than they did the first time. The years of labour behind the Prayer Book show themselves in the care with which he uses language – much of it archaic now, but there is not a word wasted. His Collects are beautifully concise compared to the terribly longwinded ones in Common Worship. Personally I like much of Common Worship, including its flexibility, and it seems to me that an exclusive diet of the Prayer Book could become deadening. I also have to recognise that much of my affection for the Prayer Book is a matter of historical sentimentality, and that sort of thing really can become close to idolatry. Nor do I want to start thinking that if I like the sound of a service, that means that that service is true worship of God. And yet ... the tightness, precision and economy of language in the Prayer Book is a legacy which is worth holding on to, and – which is rather harder – trying to recreate for our own day.

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