Friday, September 27, 2013

"I can sing the Creed, but I can't say it"

I am reading Alan Jacobs' The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography and have reached the point where Jacobs describes an unanticipated result of the Anglo-Catholic effort to revive earlier forms of worship. Cranmer hoped that use of the Book of Common Prayer would turn the worshipers attention to the meaning of the words in the language they understood. This 19th century liturgical reform may have had the opposite effect:
...[T]heir efforts did indeed lead to a renewal of interest in and commitment to the prayer book. But with their relentless focus on bodies and objects as symbolic conveyors of spiritual truth—their insistence on what Neale called the Sacramentalist principle that by "the outward and visible form, is signified something inward and spiritual: that the material fabrick symbolizes, embodies, figures, represents, expresses, answers to, some abstract meaning"—they limited the words of the prayer book to an ancillary role. This limitation was reinforced by the AngloCatholic preference for sung services whenever they were possible—sung Eucharists and Evensongs especially, which allow the specific language of the prayers to disappear into a sensuous impressionism constructed primarily through architecture, incense, vestments, and melody. ('Thus the line attributed to various rebellious Anglicans, most commonly to the twentieth-century American bishop James Pike: "I can sing the Creed, but I can't say it")

All this...can feel quite distant from Cranmer's belief in the power of words to convey theological truth, and his consequent insistence that priests should enunciate their prayers clearly and "in a loud voice." The auditory churches of the Restoration era did much to capture this impulse, even as they neglected much of the ceremonial power of the pre-Reformation church, but in justifiably seeking to restore those ceremonies, the Ritualists may have erred in the opposite direction. They transformed Cranmer's powerful words into a kind of ambient music, often heard without acknowledgment, received aesthetically but not necessarily with the ear of understanding. [emphasis added]
Alan Jacobs, The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography, pp. 146-147