Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Book of Common Prayer at 350

The Christian who has chosen to not be familiar with The Book of Common Prayer has deprived himself of the best collection of prayers and readings available for worship in the English language. Thoroughly Protestant, it nevertheless connects us with the Church throughout its history. The prayerbook's language also contributes to our cultural literacy in much the same way as does that of Shakespeare or the King James Version. This year is the 350th anniversary of the 1662 revision of the book - the version that lasted unaltered for centuries. Excerpted from James Wood, "The Book of Common Prayer," in The New Yorker [I've reformatted a bit]:
.... The Book of Common Prayer was the first compendium of worship in English. The words—many of them, at least—were written by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1533 and 1556. Cranmer did not cut his text from whole cloth: in the ecumenical spirit that characterizes the Book of Common Prayer, he went to the Latin liturgy that the English Catholic Church had used for centuries. In particular, he turned to a book known as the Sarum Missal, which priests at Salisbury Cathedral had long used to conduct services. It contained a calendar of festivals, along with prayers and readings for those festivals; and it held orders of service for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the Mass.

The Missal was a handbook for priests and monks, though, not for the laity, and its language was Latin, not English. Cranmer wanted a prayer book in English, one that could be understood by ordinary people, even by those who could not read. To this end, he translated and simplified a good deal of the Sarum Missal: from the monastic services of Matins, Vespers, and Compline he fashioned Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (commonly known now as Evensong), which are familiar to millions of members of the worldwide Anglican Church. He borrowed elements of the liturgy of the Reformed church in Cologne, and adapted a prayer of St. John Chrysostom from the Byzantine rite. He also wrote dozens of new prayers and collects, in a language at once grand and simple, heightened and practical, archaic and timeless. ....

.... People who have never read the Book of Common Prayer know the phrase “moveable feast,” or “vile body,” or the solemn warning of the marriage service: “If either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.” The same is true of the vows the couple speak to each other: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.” The words of the burial service have become proverbial:
In the midst of life, we are in death. . . . Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy. . . . Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body.
Despite the quality of language that strikes us nowadays as majestic and grandly alienated, the words of the Prayer Book are notable for their simplicity and directness. C.S. Lewis called this quality “pithiness”; I would add “coziness” or “comfortability.” The Prayer Book was a handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood, and its job was to replace and improve the ancient collective rites of worship that bound people together in the English Catholic Church. The marriage service, for instance, was a medieval liturgy that long predated the final form it found in the Book of Common Prayer. It availed Cranmer nothing to invent a liturgy that threw out that history and erected a verbal screen or altar between the priest and his congregation. Cranmer’s prayers use ordinary phrases and familiar Biblical similes. Here is the General Confession, the collective prayer that opens the service of Morning Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.
There is a Protestant severity to the avowal that “there is no health in us.” But penitence can be reached only by walking down a familiar path, lined with straightforward words: we are “lost sheep” because we have “left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Likewise, Evening Prayer is a comforting service, not just because it closes the day and lights a candle at the threshold of evening but also because the Book of Common Prayer sends the congregation home with two consoling collects, intoned by the presiding priest, which glow like verbal candles amid the shadows. The last collect goes like this:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
To read, or hear, these words is to be taken back to a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world of risk and daily peril, a place of death and sickness and warfare—a world in which Michel de Montaigne, for instance, lost five of his six children in infancy. The Book of Common Prayer contains a section with special prayers “For Rain,” “For fair Weather,” for protection against “Dearth and Famine,” for salvation from “War and Tumults,” and from “Plague or Sickness.” This plea is present in the penultimate collect of Evensong, too:
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
A grand sonority (with the characteristic Cranmerian triad of “all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works”) gives way to a heartfelt request: please defend us from enemies, so that we may “pass our time in rest and quietness.” .... [much more]
There are several websites that provide the contents for the 1662 version of The Book of Common Prayer, among them: The 1662 Book of Common Prayer Website, and The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, as printed by John Baskerville in 1762; in PDF format. It can also be purchased as a book here, here, and elsewhere.

James Wood: The Book of Common Prayer : The New Yorker