|God Talk||by James Wood|
|The Book of Common Prayer at three hundred and fifty.||A Critic at Large, October 22, 2012|
The visitor has stumbled upon a service, Evensong, whose roots stretch back at least to the tenth century, and whose liturgy has been in almost continuous use since 1549, the date of the first Book of Common Prayer, which was revised in 1552, and lightly amended in 1662, three hundred and fifty years ago. 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.
Cranmer had been a Cambridge scholar (he had held a lectureship in Biblical studies) and a diplomat, before being plucked by Henry VIII to be archbishop, and he almost certainly did not imagine that he was writing one of the great, abiding works of English literature, what the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch calls “one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language.” But the acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence, and many of his phrases and sentences are as famous as lines from Shakespeare or the King James Bible. 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.” It’s interesting to compare the original Latin of this old prayer, which appeared in the Sarum Missal: “Tempora sint tua protectione tranquilla” can be roughly translated as “May our time under thy protection be tranquil.” In a fourteenth-century English primer, it was translated into English, and the prayer was now that “our times be peaceable.” But Cranmer has made the plea smaller and closer at hand. In the Book of Common Prayer, the language seems not to refer to the epoch (our time) but to something more local (my days); and tranquillity and peace have become the comfier “rest and quietness.”
The Book of Common Prayer was born of a time of “War and Tumults.” In Europe, a powerful anti-Catholic movement had found its boldest leader in Martin Luther, who excoriated the Church in his Ninety-five Theses (1517-18). Luther attacked the Church’s practice of apparently offering salvation (or, at least, partial remission from sins) through the sale of indulgences. Luther came to believe that absolution and salvation were not in the power of the Church but were freely bestowed as gifts by God. The sinner is justified—redeemed from sin, made righteous—by faith alone in God, not by doing good works or by buying ecclesiastical favors. Along with this emphasis on faith went a necessary stress on the sinful helplessness of man, and on our spiritual fate as predestined by God (since we cannot earn our own redemption). Luther and his fellow-reformer John Calvin appealed to the Church fathers as theological sponsors. Both Paul and Augustine, after all, were preoccupied by the narrative of our original sin, and Augustine had argued that God’s grace was bestowed, not earned. The Catholic Church struggled internally after the Reformation with the problem of “double predestination”—the idea that God has already decided who will be in the elect and who will be damned.
Pope Leo X could not see the Catholicism in Luther’s Protestantism: he excommunicated the insurgent in 1521, sealing a schism that Luther had probably not desired. In the next twenty years, Lutheranism became a German church; Calvin established a kind of Protestant theocracy in the city-state of Geneva; Protestantism spread to France, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Scandinavia; and the Catholic Church in England severed its ties with Rome. Thomas Cranmer was at the middle of this revolution. Henry VIII had used him in 1527 on diplomatic business, as one of the theologians tasked with arguing the rectitude of the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry, who made him Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533, was probably less of a reformer than Cranmer: he wanted the Pope out of his business, but saw himself as “Defender of the Faith,” a faith still essentially that of English Catholicism. (The British monarch is to this day the “Defender of the Faith.”)
Only when Henry was succeeded by Edward VI, in 1547, could the reform that Cranmer wanted truly proceed. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1552, three years after its publication, in order to intensify the Protestantism of its theology. Ecclesiastical committees had worked on the revision, and this version became the established collective liturgy of the Church of England for the next four hundred and sixty years. Between 1645 and 1660, during the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, it was suspended, and was then reissued in 1662, after the restoration of the monarch. The 1662 edition is identical, in all important respects, to its 1552 predecessor, except for the addition of the Psalter, a complete version of the Psalms, by the English Biblical translator Miles Coverdale.
Protestantism at once diminished and intensified the role of the Church in ordinary English lives. The Church lost some of its role as mediator, intercessor, and dispenser of magic and solace. If the Church cannot help you toward salvation, then the saints cannot do anything for you, either, and praying to and for the dead is useless. A whole unwritten liturgy of feast days and processions to shrines and pleas to saints, along with a host of superstitious reflexes—a kind of continuous spectral accompaniment to earthly life—disappeared when Protestantism changed the emphasis from salvation by works to salvation by faith. The Church in England had now become a goading schoolmaster, intent on your doing as well as possible (though without any knowledge of the likely results) in those fatally important forthcoming exams. Like the goading schoolmaster, Protestantism intensified the severity of its demands. It strove to bring worshipper and Church into greater intimacy: the Protestant emphasis on the authority of Scripture, and the ability of laymen to interpret it (as opposed to the authority of ecclesiastical tradition), meant that the Bible had to be available in modern languages—Luther translated the Old and New Testaments into German in 1534 and 1522, respectively, and the first authorized Bible in English appeared in 1539.
As the Protestant reformers worried, both the priesthood and the laity were often ignorant of doctrine and Scripture; Latin was the obvious obstacle to greater participation and spiritual literacy. Likewise, the Protestants thought that the celebration of the Mass had become a theatrical spectacle, controlled by the magus-like priest, who officiated at the altar, raising up the bread for the adoration of the people and signalling that the Eucharist had become the “real presence” of the body and blood of the crucified Christ. Cranmer made sure, in an appendix to the 1552 edition, that the Anglican Prayer Book denied “any real and essential presence … of Christ’s natural flesh and blood” in the bread and wine of the Communion service. It was to be understood as a reënactment of a last supper and not a miraculous performance. The presiding minister says to the Anglican communicant as he offers the sacraments:
No vicar today intones that part of the Prayer Book Communion liturgy where he or she is supposed to remind the congregation that, if we are not cleansed of sin when we come to take the bread and wine, “Come not to that holy Table; lest, after the taking of that holy Sacrament, the devil enter into you, as he entered into Judas, and fill you full of all iniquities, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul. … We eat and drink our own damnation.” Contemporary stomachs are not strong enough for such theological carrion. But the larger Protestant concern was that the congregant should be a communicant, not merely a dazzled consumer. In 1550, the Council of the Church of England ordered the removal of altars from all churches; Communion was henceforth to be administered from tables. Theologically, the Book of Common Prayer is both radical and conservative. Its Protestantism can be felt in its emphasis on man’s sinfulness, and on the unearned gift of God’s salvation. Still, it was an eclectic and consoling document, the least revolutionary of the European Protestant liturgies. Along with the services for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Holy Communion, the 1662 Prayer Book has a calendar of the church year; a list of saints’ days, both major and minor; liturgies for special days like Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday; and services for the “Burial of the Dead,” for “The Visitation of the Sick,” for “Thanksgiving of Women after Child-Birth,” and so on.
Above all, the Book of Common Prayer offered Cranmer’s language as a kind of binding agent, a rhetoric both lofty and local. The new English liturgy was quickly taken up by church composers. William Byrd (1540-1623), who became the organist of the Chapel Royal, composed anthems for Cranmer’s prayers and collects. His “Great Service,” probably written at the end of the sixteenth century, and still sung regularly today in British cathedrals and college chapels, set music to the English versions of the Te Deum and Benedictus (Morning Prayer) and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Evening Prayer). A little more than a hundred years later, Henry Purcell, also an organist of the Chapel Royal, took Cranmer’s beautiful words from the service for the Burial of the Dead and set them to music for the funeral of Queen Mary II, in 1695: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. … In the midst of life we are in death.” (Parts of Cranmer’s burial service also found its way into the libretto of Handel’s “Messiah.”)
Cranmer’s language endures in English literature and popular culture, from Neville Chamberlain’s use of the phrase “Peace in our time,” on his return from his ill-fated meeting with Hitler, to David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes.” It is the source of phrases like “miserable sinners” and “the face of the enemy” (from the prayer to be said by sailors before a fight at sea). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”) clearly borrows from the Prayer Book’s marriage service. Samuel Johnson told James Boswell that he knew of “no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer,” and Cranmer’s rhythms can be found in Johnson’s prose, and in Jane Austen’s very Johnsonian prose. There is a rhythmic link between Cranmer’s fondness for triplets (“all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works”) and Austen’s: Lady Catherine de Bourgh “sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.” Austen, like the Brontë sisters, was the daughter of an Anglican parson, so she grew up with the Prayer Book’s cadences.
Perhaps the most inspired, and funniest, borrowing from the Book of Common Prayer occurs in “Pride and Prejudice,” when Mr. Collins makes his infamous marriage proposal to Elizabeth Bennet:
Every reader notes that the pompous parson neglects to mention love or even the happiness of the woman he wants to marry; every reader notes the sly vaudeville whereby Austen makes us think that Mr. Collins’s third reason for matrimony will be his most important (“which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier”), only to have him announce that his third reason is the approval of his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. But how many readers note that this classic comedy is really a joke, from an Anglican vicar’s daughter, about the order of the marriage service in the Book of Common Prayer? In that book, the priest begins by announcing three reasons for the existence of matrimony:
First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name. Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry. … Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
Not until the priest reaches reason No. 3 does he begin to get around to what most people would imagine to be the first and best reason to marry: “for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other.” Surely it struck the canny and satiric Jane Austen as intolerably pompous that the Church apparently prized the production of Christian children and the avoidance of fornication above the happiness of its congregants? And so she gave Mr. Collins a narcissistically exaggerated version of the Prayer Book’s liturgy. Thomas Cranmer’s words live on in Jane Austen’s, even if not in the form he would have desired.
And they live on in agnostic or atheistic writers, like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. “To the Lighthouse” is full of liturgical and scriptural echoes:
Woolf appears to borrow both from the King James Version of Isaiah 40 (“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people … make straight in the desert a highway for our God”) and the Te Deum of the Prayer Book (“Vouchsafe, O Lord: to keep us this day without sin”). Beckett’s characters, who can find no comfort in the desert, also have recourse to Cranmer’s words. “Happy Days” leans on the Prayer Book’s “Gloria” (“As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen”) for Winnie’s opening prayer, as she rummages in her bag and counts her minimal blessings: “For Jesus Christ sake Amen … World without end Amen … Begin, Winnie … Begin your day, Winnie.” For Austen, belief was stable enough so that the liturgy could be mocked, fondly and without danger, exactly as a silly vicar could be safely made fun of. Both Woolf and Beckett approach Cranmer’s words without easy mockery but with something closer to reverent irony. Yet they both use the language of the Prayer Book to enact prayers that have no hope of answer: at best, we are “vouchsafed” something, but cannot say what it is. The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.
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