Friday, September 20, 2013

A new book about The Book of Common Prayer

I have not only profited by reading the work of Alan Jacobs, — from various essays to his biography of C.S. Lewis, The Narnian, and his history of Original Sin — I have also thoroughly enjoyed reading him. I just ordered his newest book, one that I have been anticipating, The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography. From the description at Amazon:
While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, "Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here..." or "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer—from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today—became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many. ....
From Jacobs' first chapter, in which he describes how The Book of Common Prayer came to be — the rather dangerous political context, Cranmer's theological goals, and how he intended to transform worship in English:
.... After centuries of liturgical prayers being muttered in low tones, and in a language unknown to the people, the new model demands audible English. After this prayer comes a beautiful exchange taken from Psalm 51: the priest says, "O Lord, open thou my lips," and the people reply, "And my mouth shall skew forth thy praise." Then "O God, make speed to save me" calls forth the answer, "O Lord, make hastc to help me." Such echoes and alternations are intrinsic to the structure of liturgical prayer: praise and petition, gratitude and need. The whole of the Matins service repeatedly enacts this oscillation.

After further prayers and readings from Scripture, the service comes to a close with a series of "collects" (pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable): these brief but highly condensed prayers were a specialty of Cranmer's. He did not invent them—Latin liturgies are full of them—but he gave them a distinctive English style that would be much imitated in the coming centuries. Here is the final collect of Matins:
O LORD our heavenly father, almighty and ever-living God, which hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger, but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight: through Jesus Christ our lord. Amen.
Here we see the rhetorical structure common to most collects: a salutation to God; an acknowledgment of some core truth, in this case that the people come to prayer only because God has "safely brought us to the beginning of this day"; a petition ('grant us this day we fall into no sin"); an aspiration, or hope and purpose for the prayer, often introduced by the word "that" ("that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance"); and a concluding appeal to Jesus Christ as the mediator and advocate for God's people. Anglican liturgies are studded with these collects, many of them either composed fresh by Cranmcr or adapted by him from Latin sources. They are among the most characteristic and recognizable features of prayer-book worship. ....
The "Book of Common Prayer": A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books)

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