Happy Easter!

Occasionally, people ask me why the date of Easter changes each year. Usually I try to bluff my way out of it, hoping to give the impression that I know the answer but that it is too complicated for mere mortals to understand. I do know that, because of its connection with the Jewish Passover, and the Jewish lunar calendar, it is something to do with full moons and the spring equinox. But not actual full moons or equinoxes. No, ecclesiastical full moons and equinoxes that you can look up in tables (not astronomical ones that you would look up into the sky to see). And I know that the Christian calculation parted company with the Jewish one some time in history, so that Easter doesn’t always coincide with Passover. Anyway, you can read all about it on Wikipedia (as I have tried to do) and learn the actual formula which determines that Easter can fall anywhere between 22nd March and 25th April. This year, Easter Sunday is 27th March (if you follow the Gregorian Calendar, as we do in the West. It’s on 1st May if you use the Julian Calendar, as Eastern Churches do. And Passover is a month later, on 23rd April this year.)

Of course, the changing date makes life difficult for some, including schools whose holidays are now fixed in the first week or two of April, rather than being dependent on religious festivals. Some years ago, I got a phone call from a parishioner who worked for one of the utility companies asking if I could let him have the date of Easter for the next few years. I was able to look it up for him and I like to think I made a small contribution to their planning (although I never got a reduction in my fuel bills).

In 1928 Parliament passed the Easter Act, fixing Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. The Act has never come into effect, because it would require the agreement of the major Christian churches. Archbishop Justin Welby has said recently that there could be such an agreement within five or ten years (Church Times, 22nd January). Until that time, I will continue to rely on someone cleverer than me to work it out and let me know.

Of course, any change to the calculation will be controversial. In 664 AD, at the Synod of Whitby, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would henceforth calculate Easter following the practice of Rome, rather than that of the Celtic church of Iona. In our day, some will be saddened by the prospect of a utilitarian calculation based on the practicalities of the calendar, rather than wrestling with astronomical phenomena. It also finally breaks the link with the date of the Jewish Passover, which some might regret.

The death of Jesus on the cross is linked to the Passover in the gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we are told that Jesus celebrated the Passover – which we remember on Maundy Thursday and call the Last Supper –

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed
(Mark 14:12; see also Matthew 26:17 and Luke 22:7).

He was crucified the following day, the day after Passover, which we call Good Friday. But John says that Jesus was crucified on the day of the Passover (John 19:31). How do we explain this apparent contradiction? It’s possible that John is using a different way of dating the Passover – in the year in which Jesus died, it’s possible that the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed over the proper date. So controversies over dates are nothing new! Or it may be that John is drawing out the symbolism of Jesus as the new Passover lamb, sacrificed like the other lambs for the feast in which the Jewish people remember their liberation by God from slavery in Egypt and their journey towards freedom in the Promised Land, as described in the book of Exodus.

Either way, it is that story which informs the gospels’ understanding of the death of Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29; see also 1 Corinthians 5:7).

Some churches mark Maundy Thursday with a meal, like the Jewish Passover Seder. We are not planning to do that this year, but maybe one year we will. Instead, we will recall the Last Supper with a celebration of the Eucharist in which, rather than eating a meal together, we simply take bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus, who said, “This is my body… this is my blood”.

You’ll find details of our services for Lent, Holy Week and Easter elsewhere. I hope you will put these in our calendar and join us for at least some of them.

Happy Easter!

Alan Jewell

Evensong – a personal reflection by Kenneth Critchley

As Saint Matthews develops its service patterns, I am pleased to have been asked to provide some thoughts regarding the Evensong service.

At Saint Matthews we are very fortunate to have a bi-weekly Evensong service supported by an evening choir, when many churches have either lost this service altogether or only retain once a month.

The Evensong service connects the congregation to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the 1549 and 1552 prayerbooks of Thomas Cranmer. I find a great feeling of strength and continuity in knowing I am saying and singing the same words and phrases that have been said by worshippers of the Church of England for over 450 years.

The Evensong service itself is a wonderful combination of extracts from scripture and deeply thought and expertly crafted text. I find the General Confession and its preamble in particular a deeply moving and thoughtful contemplation of one’s relationship with God.

The service structure with Psalms , the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, lessons from the Bible, The Apostles Creed, the Lord’s prayer (in traditional form), the three Collects, Prayers and Responses constitute a  carefully structured, beautifully balanced and thoughtful form of worship.

The service is further enhanced by singing from Hymns Ancient and Modern and a Sermon able to consider some of the deeper themes to be found in the lessons for that day.

Evensong is a service that binds us to tradition whilst still remaining relevant today.

I would certainly recommend attendance at Evensong for all those who are more traditionally minded and also for those who wish to explore the deep heritage of the Church of England.

I hope these thoughts will have encouraged some of the readers to try the Evensong service over the next few weeks and months.

If you wish to attend, the Evensong Service is currently being held on the first and third Sundays of the month at 4:30 PM until the end of March 2016, when the time will be reviewed.

If you would like to join the Choir: The choir meets to practice the psalms and hymns for 30 minutes before the start of the service.

Kenneth Critchley

See amid the winter snow…

A couple of pictures of our churches in the snow. Obviously this year a white Christmas seems very unlikely, and the idea that Jesus was born ‘amid the winter snow’ is very farfetched, but a couple of nice images nonetheless.

The photo of St Matthew’s is courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick, the one of St Cross, Judith Brown. If you have pictures of our churches or parishes, please send them to me so that I can put them on the website.


While Shepherds Watch…

By the time you read this, I will have sung the Christmas carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”. More than once. I have to admit – just between you and me – that it’s not my favourite hymn. Sung to the tune most often used (in this country at least), ‘Winchester Old’, I think it’s a rather pedestrian telling of the story of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). And it doesn’t help knowing that half the congregation are fighting the urge to sing, “While shepherds washed their socks…” (I also get a picture of a very large reggae singer when I see the words “Mighty Dread”.)

I agree it ends well, with the Gloria:

All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.

The words were written by Nahum Tate, the Irish writer who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. (Although the satirist Alexander Pope cites Tate as being under the influence of the goddess Dullness in his work ‘The Dunciad’). Tate’s great contribution to the church’s worship was his collaboration with Nicholas Brady on a metrical version of the Psalms, some of which we still sing as hymns, such as their setting of Psalm 42, “As pants the hart for cooling streams.”

“While Shepherds Watched” first appears in Tate and Brady’s supplement to their collection of psalms, published in 1700. But wait a minute! The story of the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke isn’t a psalm, is it? Nope! But this is how the hymn gained its popularity: at the time, hymns were not sung in Anglican churches. Let me say that again: hymns were not sung in Anglican churches! The only approved texts were the canticles (e.g. the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis) and the psalms, which were sung at Matins and Evensong. If you look at the 1662 Book of Common Prayer you will see no mention of hymns being sung. At Morning and Evening Prayer, the BCP allows the following:

In Quires and Places where they sing
here followeth the Anthem.

Tate’s “While Shepherds Watched”, having been snuck into a book of psalms to be sung in churches, became popular because it is really a versified paraphrase of a scriptural text, the words being very close to those of Luke 2:8-14. So, at the time, “While Shepherds Watched” was the only Christmas hymn that could be sung in the Church of England! No wonder it became popular! Many of the hymns and carols that we sing today were not used in churches until as recently as the second half of the 19th Century (which makes them a modern innovation, not a tradition!) (In my humble opinion, carols were meant to be sung in pubs, not churches, but that’s a conversation for another occasion…)

The uniqueness of “While Shepherds Watched” also accounts for the fact that it has been sung to many different tunes in its lifetime. Many churchgoers seem to believe that for most hymns there is one ‘proper’ tune and they get very uncomfortable when the vicar or organist suggests singing them to a different tune. But over the years, the words of “While Shepherds Watched” have been sung to at least a dozen different tunes, perhaps more. In America, they use a tune based on one from an opera by Handel. It has also been sung to the tune ‘Lyngham’, which we more often associate with the words “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”, by Charles Wesley. There are regional variations too around Britain: in Cornwall it is sung to a tune called ‘Northrop’ and in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, it is sung, with a refrain, as song called “Sweet Bells“. At this point, I’d like to recommend that you listen to one of the Christmas albums by Kate Rusby, a folk singer from Barnsley. Or better still, go to see one of her Christmas shows: the song, “While Shepherds Watched” turns up in various guises, including to the tune we normally associate with the Yorkshire song “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”. Before you throw your hands up in horror, let me point out that the tune – ‘Cranbrook‘ – to which ‘the national anthem of Yorkshire’ is sung, was originally written as a hymn tune, and in some places, is still the most popular tune for “While Shepherds Watched”.

Each year at St Matthew’s we hold a Christmas Tree Festival. This year we are taking the theme “While Shepherds Watch…” I’m trying to remember how we chose it… I think someone had heard of the “Messy Nativity” project in Liverpool in 2010: sheep knitted by members of the Mothers Union popped up in the shops at Liverpool One, and other places, during the Advent season and were used to tell the Christmas story. So, if you are coming to St Matthew’s during Advent and Christmas, look out for the sheep: see how many you can count. Remember the shepherds who were the first to hear the good news. Think of Jesus saying that he is The Good Shepherd and his stories of shepherds looking for their lost sheep. And join me in singing “While Shepherds Watched” with gusto (to the tune ‘Cranbrook’).

Remembrance Sunday 2015: Branse Burbridge

When I was an undergraduate, I worshipped at St Aldate’s Church in Oxford. One member of the pastoral team was a Reader whose name was Branse Burbridge. It’s one of those names that sticks with you! His wife was Barbara. She was also a member of the pastoral team, so between them – Branse and Barbara Burbridge – they were a bit of a tongue-twister!

Branse led worship and preached at services, but what I remember about him is the way he read scripture. I learned that if he was reading in church he would study several different translations of the passage and put together his own version. He had worked for Scripture Union, as schools’ secretary. He put so much in to his preparation that, in church, instead of reading the text from the page, he brought it to life, like an actor delivering a monologue. His son, Paul Burbridge, is part of the Riding Lights Theatre Company, so the acting gene was obviously passed on from his father!

We also knew that Branse had ‘been something in the war’. All I really knew at the time was that on Remembrance Sunday, Branse wore his medals on his Reader’s scarf. It didn’t mean a lot to me. I have since discovered that:

Wing Commander Bransome Arthur “Branse” Burbridge DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (born 4 February 1921) is a former Royal Air Force (RAF) night fighter pilot and flying ace—a pilot credited with at least five enemy aircraft destroyed—who holds the Allied record of 21 aerial victories achieved at night during the Second World War. Burbridge is the most successful British ace still living.

Branse, the rather quiet, modest, gentle, artistic man that I knew was a genuine war hero. A flying ace, who holds the record for the most kills achieved by a night fighter. He and his navigator, Squadron Leader Bill Skelton (who later became a priest in the Church of England), were known as the ‘night hawk partners’. Bill and Branse used to have theological discussions while they were flying above the clouds at 300MPH.

I also learned that Branse was brought up in a Christian household – his father was also a preacher – and that the family were pacifists. In September 1939, because of his strong Christian beliefs, Branse registered himself as a conscientious objector.

As the war progressed, he changed his views. He had believed that as a Christian, it was not right to take another person’s life. Jesus tells us that we are to love, not just those who love us, but our neighbour, whoever that might be, and that our enemy is also a neighbour whom we are to love. Branse became convinced that, although it was not right to take someone’s life, the war meant that people were dying and that he should do what he could to prevent the deaths of others. In 1941, at the age of just 20, he joined the RAF, where he became the night fighter pilot that I have described.

He came to believe that shooting down an enemy plane, his aim was not to kill the pilot but to prevent that plane from killing anyone else. He is quoted as saying:

“I always tried to aim for the wings of enemy aircraft and not the cockpit. I never wanted to kill anyone.”

Branse remained the gentle, loving, Christian man, who came to believe that it was his Christian duty to help bring the war to an end. When asked how he had the courage to do what he did, he said, “Well, someone had to do it!”

The next time I heard about Branse was a few years ago when a story about him made the papers.

In February 2013 Burbridge’s family reported that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and they were considering selling his medals and wartime memorabilia to fund his private care home. On 25 March 2013, Burbridge’s medals fetched £155,000 at auction.

A gentle Christian man, a bone fide war hero, now with Alzheimer’s and needing care, which he and his family did not have the resources to provide, in the way they felt he needed and deserved.

On Remembrance Sunday, we rightly name those who have died in the service of their country and in the defence of our freedom. We also remember those who survived. They too have paid a price for the freedom we enjoy.

Peace on Earth?

To being with a question: Did Jesus come to bring peace on earth?

Yes, of course! Right from the beginning, from the Christmas story, we hear the angels sing:

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (Luke 2:14)

(Not everyone then? Just those whom God favours? Maybe it will turn out that God favours everyone!)

Or, if you want to go back earlier and pick up the verse in Isaiah as a pointer to who Jesus is, he is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)

Jesus, Prince of Peace

Jesus’ life and ministry are all about bringing peace, aren’t they?

We see it when Jesus meets individuals in need:

And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Luke 7:50)

And in his preaching:

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matthew .9)

When he sends the disciples out to preach:

Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” (Luke 10:5)

Jesus weeps over his city, Jerusalem, and with it, the world:

‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19.42)

And his parting gift to those who put their trust in him is peace:

‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.’ (John 14.27)

Not Peace, But Division

And yet, in today’s Gospel we read that Jesus says:

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division! (Luke 12.51)

In Matthew’s gospel (Mt 10:34), it’s a sword that Jesus has come to bring, not peace. So what’s that all about then?

When Mary and Joseph take their child into the Temple, they meet the old man, Simeon:

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:33-35)

Mary’s son, the prince of peace, for all that his life will be an expression of peace, love and compassion, will know that you can’t force peace on others. Jesus, the man of peace is destined to be rejected by those in power, and that will break his mother’s heart. And Jesus will warn that those who follow him will also experience that pain. Families will be divided as some say yes to God’s offer and others reject it.

Peace With God

Peace? Yes – we can have peace with God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1)

Peace With Others

We are to strive for peace with others.

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12.18)

I love that “so far as it depends on you”. You can do no more!

Peace At The Last

We can look forward to the peace that is promised.

But to have a peaceful life in this world? Given the way the world is, how can anyone be comfortable? We dare not make peace with the world in which we live. Ultimately, peace belongs to the kingdom which is to come.

As Elvis put it so memorably, one day

There will be peace in the valley for me, for me

Or, in the words of John Henry Newman:

May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest,
and peace at the last!

The Golden Rule (Luke 6:27-38)

The ‘Golden Rule’ – “Do to others as you would have them do to you” – has been around in some form or other in different cultures over many centuries. It was around before Jesus used it, although before Jesus, it tended to be stated in a negative form: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”. In this form, it was about limiting the harm we do. Like the Old Testament injunction, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, which was about limiting revenge so that it did not escalate. But we still end up with a lot of eyeless, toothless people!

Or the lawyer who, being told by Jesus to love his neighbour, asks, ‘Well, who is my neighbour?’ He’s trying to limit his obligations by closely defining those to whom he owes his love. Jesus turns that upside down: not, Who is my neighbour? Buy, Who isn’t?! Is there anyone I can’t be a neighbour to, if I choose? And Jesus gives him the Parable of The Good Samaritan to illustrate that anyone can be a good neighbour to anyone if they choose, including the people they don’t naturally get on with or relate to.

And that’s the point. If we love those who love us, it makes the world go round smoothly, but only because we have a reciprocal arrangement with those around us: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We’ve evolved to do favours for one another: I’ll let a car in front of me in the queue for Runcorn Bridge, because, I’d expect someone else to do the same for me. That’s how the world works. I will do something for you in the expectation that you’ll do something for me at some point down the line. According to the film, The Godfather, that’s how the Mafia works: I’ll do you a favour. And at some point in the future, I’ll call that favour in. You’ll have to do it, because you are indebted to me.

Jesus says, Imagine doing something for someone who can never repay you! Just doing it – being kind to someone who can never return the favour:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

Anyone can love their neighbour, if they are allowed to choose who their neighbour is – the nice people who are like us – even sinners do that. But Jesus says we can love our enemy.

How can we love our enemy? Because love isn’t a deal we make with one another: it’s the undeserved, unrewarded commitment to make someone else’s life better, to want the best for someone else, regardless of whether that can work for our benefit to. What does that look like? It looks like Jesus, forgiving his killers from the Cross. It is God being merciful to ungrateful wretches like you and me.

It’s called grace. Once we grasp that, or begin to grasp that, to know that we are loved, even though we don’t deserve it, we can start to love one another, including those who don’t deserve it.

There’s a lot more that needs to be said about the verses in this passage: it’s not an abuser’s charter; offering the other cheek to someone who slaps you is about defiant but non-violent resistance; as is giving your shirt to someone who has taken your coat, because it leaves you naked and shames them, not you. Perhaps giving money to a beggar on the street may not be the most loving thing to do. But the kingdom principle is clear:

God loves sinners. He loves you! And he expects us to love one another, including, and especially, those who can never love us back.

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.

A little Moment of Mindfulness

Matthew 11.28–end

Jesus says:

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

I’m preaching on this at this morning’s communion service at St Matthew’s. Except, why would anybody need to hear a sermon on it? Why don’t we just listen to words of Jesus and let him speak? I’m toying with idea of just reading it, maybe a couple of times, in a Lectio Divina kind of way.

Of course, there’s plenty of stuff you can say about these words –

  • Like the idea of a carpenter telling you that his yoke is easy. It’s almost an advertising slogan – try our yokes, they’re really smooth!
  • Or the question, If the burden you are carrying is heavy, and Jesus didn’t give it to you, where did you get it? From religion? From the Church?
  • Or the great insight into God that Jesus offers: that God is gentle and humble in heart. Imagine that! And if God can afford to be gentle and humble, then I’m pretty sure we can learn to be.

Mindfulness is a very popular idea these days, from Buddhist tradition but appropriated by therapy and business. It seems to be  that we focus about half our attention on the past, fretting over choices we made and the opportunities we missed; and about half on the future, worrying about what might be coming our way. And that leaves exactly nothing for the present. We miss the moment. So, here’s my suggestion. Give yourself a moment to read those words of Jesus again.

Come to the one who is gentle and humble and who gives you rest.