What’s the Point of The Book of Common Prayer?

Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts has been presenting a series on BBC Radio 4 looking at various British institutions and asking, “What’s the point?” (Wags on Twitter and other social media have been quick to respond: what’s the point of Quentin Letts? Although it’s his review of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet that got Letts trending on Twitter.) This week he asked, What’s the point of the Book of Common Prayer? The programme started with the observation that most churches now use contemporary forms of worship, and asked “why do a small minority of people choose to cling to a service that was written around the 1550s?” We then heard a clip of a plummy-voiced vicar intoning the words of Evening Prayer:

O Lord, open Thou our lips

And the choir’s response:

And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.

These words and the way in which they are sung will be very familiar to some; and completely alien to others. But is the Book of Common Prayer simply a refuge for those who struggle with the modern world? Or does the BCP’s ‘quiet piety’ have something to offer the contemporary soul?

The BBC’s favourite vicar, the Revd Richard Coles, who describes himself as an advocate for the BCP (or parts of it, anyway), pointed out (on Twitter) the programme’s first faux pas. Letts describes the Prayer Book as the Church of England’s ‘premier text’. It isn’t. The Bible is the Church of England’s premier text. And part of the reason that people love the BCP (as Coles does) is that it is shot through with biblical texts, in language that is familiar to those who were brought up on the King James Version.
As many have acknowledged, the English language owes much to the BCP, the Bible and Shakespeare. Letts points out that “the literati care about the BCP”; it is loved by poets and writers. As an example, he spoke to James Runcie, novelist and director, and the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was brought up on the language and piety of the BCP. He said the point of the BCP was that you can’t understand English literature without it, alongside the Bible and Shakespeare. Runcie said that if you had those, and the music of Bach – and, as an afterthought, food – you didn’t need much else. (Although he also confessed he never felt that he was quite as sinful as the BCP seemed to assume). Someone from Magdalen College School, Oxford, said how their children valued the BCP prayers they were taught as part of a reading competition. They were not frightened by the language of the BCP as they learn it alongside Shakespeare.

In my view, Letts’s case is surely weakened when the people he wheels in to support the BCP are such establishment figures as the son of a former archbishop of Canterbury and a teacher at an exclusive independent school in Oxford.

Also in Oxford, the programme took us to the place where Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, writer and compiler of the original BCP, and a leading light in the Protestant Reformation, was burned at the stake. Cranmer was a crafter of great prose, we were told, which has borne the repetition of centuries. As well as that, and despite his forced recantation, Cranmer was a convinced Protestant, hence his martyr’s death. Whereas the first Prayer Book, of 1549, was a conservative reformation of the church’s worship, retaining catholic features, the 1552 revision was “aggressively protestant”. A century later, following the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Prayer Book, which had been abandoned by Oliver Cromwell, was revised and published in the 1662 form which remains in use to this day.

Diarmaid Macculloch, who has written a biography of Cranmer, was asked what the point of the Book of Common Prayer was. He replied

The language is one of the points.

He said that Evening Prayer from the BCP, especially supported by the musical tradition of the Church of England, remains unsurpassed. The BCP also represents a link to the past which is part of this country’s story.

Which brings me to a key question of my own: given that we were started by a Galilean Jewish Rabbi, when did it become the church’s responsibility to promote English language, culture and history? The church is not called upon to act as an advocate for Shakespeare or choral music. Why should it promote ‘theme park England’?

This is the world of which John Major spoke:

Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.

I’m not a cricket fan. I prefer my beer cold. I like cities rather than suburbs. I don’t have a pet and wouldn’t know how to fill in a pools coupon. And I thought that Shakespeare was a dramatist whose work was to be performed rather than read. I am English and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. But I suspect that nostalgia is a deadly virus that should be kept out of churches.

The Revd Chris Moore, a vicar in rural Herefordshire, was asked about the use of the BCP in his parishes. Parishioners see BCP services as offering continuity with the history of the parish but also with their own childhood and the story of their own families. These are the prayers of our forebears and the prayers of place. He saw the value of BCP tradition in his rural, settled community (with its sparse population) and particularly in nursing homes when ministering to people with dementia, and even those who were comatose. Prayer Book words, he said, made a deep connection with people for whom they were part of their tradition. I understand that. But I don’t see it as an argument in favour of using the BCP at our main services. In a previous parish we had an old gentleman who occasionally used to visit his daughter somewhere rural in the south. He loved their early morning BCP communion services: they were exactly as he remembered them when he was a child. I’m not convinced that the role of church is to give people an opportunity to escape to the simpler world they knew as a child. I think our resources are needed more to equip people as they try to navigate the complexities of the world as it is today.

Letts saw the BCP as empowering people. Modern liturgies gave more power to clergy to control what was said in church, as they get to choose the words, unlike the BCP which strictly prescribes what may be said on any occasion. All very well in the days when clergy were barely literate and in a period of history when the struggles were as much political as religious, so the opinions of clergy had to be controlled by the State as much as by the Church.

The Revd Canon Giles Fraser, one of the more turbulent priests in the Church of England today, described the BCP as a “lightning conductor for discontent in the parish”. Those who dislike any sort of change in church life tend to gather around the BCP. They describe themselves as ‘traditionalist’. But what they want, he argued, was the 1950s, not the 1550s. The BCP was part of their “roar against modernity”. It’s also the atheist’s favourite expression of religion, he said, because you can love it for its language, while disavowing its content. He dislikes the ‘fetishisation’ of C16th language which some BCP supporters seem to love.

“It becomes a sort of an idol.”

He also said, that he didn’t like “the grovelling”. The BCP depicts God as a C16th Monarch to whom you have to grovel as a miserable worthless worm. (Just look at way BCP Evensong begins, how it gets us to approach God!) So, the BCP suits those who find change difficult. Fraser argues they need to grow out of their fear of change.

At the other end of the spectrum we find Messy Church – informal worship for all ages and a growing phenomenon reaching out to those who don’t come to our normal Sunday services. Does Messy Church even have a liturgy, he asked? What is liturgy, anyway?, his interviewee replied. It is how we give shape to our shared worship. Even the most informal ‘messy’ style gathering has a shape: Welcome, prayer, singing, hearing the bible, talking about life and faith, conversation and exploration with hands-on activities. Wasn’t this what Cranmer was doing? Putting the truths of the faith into ways that connect with people. We perhaps forget that what Cranmer did was to put prayer and liturgy into contemporary English language – not that priestly religious Latin that had gone before. If we think that God prefers to be addressed as ‘Thou’ we forget that in the C16th you would address your neighbour and your child as ‘Thou’. ‘Thee’ and ‘Thou’ is not special language that we use when talking to God. It was the vernacular of an earlier age. We no longer address one another as ‘Thou’. Why would we talk to God like that?

Letts then spoke to Geraint Bowen, organist and director of music at Hereford Cathedral. Bowen said that the BCP “governs what we do, as the cathedral choir”. He spoke of the ‘timelessness’ of their routine of daily evensong and matins. There’s no difference between what we do, he said, and what was envisaged in the 1550 BCP. He liked the BCP’s use of the Psalter in daily worship. On the 30th day of each month, we finish working our way through the psalms with Psalm 150, and so the BCP calendar is a great timekeeper. Cathedral worship is attracting more people, including those “not conventionally religious”. The BCP speaks to them, he said. But if cathedral worship is, as was stated, part of the “glory of English culture”, does that mean that the average parish church, with our limited resources, should seek to ape that? Are we not likely to fall short, offering a pale imitation of what people who attend Cathedral evensong crave? Also, in cathedrals, it is often the choir and organist who rule the roost. I don’t think that is healthy, and certainly not in parish churches.

Another Hereford vicar, the Revd Neil Patterson, pointed out that while the BCP is contained in a single, slim book, Common Worship provision occupies a lot more space. You can pop a Prayer Book in your pocket, which you can’t do with Common Worship. That’s fair, but the BCP is hardly comprehensive: no Carol Services, no Harvest Festivals and very little seasonal variation. In fact, what people love about the BCP, its familiarity, is also its greatest weakness. Apart from the psalms and biblical readings, and the collects, almost nothing else changes. There is very little recognition of the changing feel of the church’s seasons, its festivals and times of solemnity. Every Sunday in the BCP is the same as every other! Common Worship’s variety is one of its strengths. And you don’t need to carry all the books with you. You can download an app and read it from your iPad – as I do! Or you can produce local versions with just the material you need for a given occasion or set of occasions. (Do you really need access to the Funeral service while you are at a wedding? Actually, don’t get me started on the BCP funeral service!) Patterson argued that the wealth of Common Worship provision meant that preparing liturgy had become the preserve of the expert – the clergy – whereas anyone can pick up a Prayer Book and find their way around the services. Actually, I doubt if that’s true. I struggle to make my way through a 1662 Communion Service, finding the pages and knowing which bits to use as I fight my way through the homilies and exhortations that don’t really need to be there in the congregational version.

Prince Charles is Patron of the Prayer Book Society. He says that we shouldn’t be surprised if the language of prayer is difficult. The Word of God, he says, is supposed to be a bit over our heads. I don’t agree. The depth of the Bible will go over all of our heads. But there is enough there for the simplest soul, from cradle to grave. I’m sure Cranmer believed that. I think that obscuring the clarity of much of the Bible’s message behind archaic language is a way of hiding ourselves from what the Bible says. (I wish I thought that Prince Charles really wanted to hear the Word of God!)

Cranmer’s aim in producing the BCP was to replace a liturgy which didn’t connect with people and which no longer met the needs of the church, to get away from the clericalism of Latin masses and offices with simple prayers that could be understood by the person in the pew. But the BCP is now as foreign to most of us as the Latin mass.

Quentin Letts loves the BCP. He says that the Prayer Book suits the ‘private protestant prayerfulness’ of some. But he also sees it as chiming with the current mood of Eurosceptic Englishness. That’s all very well: just what we’d expect from a Daily Mail columnist. But not what we would expect from the God of the Bible, who is the God of all, not bound by culture or nationhood. God, after all, is not an Englishman.

One thought on “What’s the Point of The Book of Common Prayer?

  1. That is one of the best articles I have ever read about BCP. I was brought up in the Brethren &, from 1947, never read anything other than the KJV & Pilgrim’s Progress. However, I became a Christian in (about) 1972, and one Sunday evening in 1974, found myself in St Nick’s Halewood, where Canon Owen Eva was conducting Sung Evensong. What an eye-opener!! The Word of God leapt from every line of the BCP! I was an Anglican/Methodist for the next 25 years, and even though I’m Bridge Chapel’s oldest Elder, I still miss the beauty and total reality of the Book of Common Prayer. Thanks & God’s richest to you.


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