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Monday, 6 July 2015

The Book of Common Prayer

Here are some reflections prepared recently on the significance of the Book of Common Prayer:

In 12 years of ordained ministry each of the parishes in which I have ministered have made use of the Book of Common Prayer in their patterns of services. At St Stephen Walbrook the Book of Common Prayer is used at our main weekly Eucharist, while in other settings its primary use has been as an early morning Eucharist or for Evensong. In all of these contexts I have greatly appreciated the sense that those attending engage with God through the familiarity of its language reinforced by repetition over the years.

The familiarity of its language, for those brought up with it, has been particularly moving when ministering pastorally to those experiencing dementia. Often these conversations are entirely disconnected from the present or are entirely set in the past because the short-term memory of the individual has declined significantly. However, when we share communion together the individual often comes fully into the present recalling words learnt in their youth in order to repeat them in the here and now as the significance of receiving the body and blood of our Lord is remembered.

So, one reason why I appreciate the Book of Common Prayer is to do with what it means to my parishioners. The BCP is 'generally reckoned a masterpiece of writing, as Thomas Cranmer's use of idiom, cadences, imagery, repetition, contrast and general rhythm made doctrine, devotion, and the sheer use of English both memorable and exemplary. In this way, the language and indeed the whole culture of the BCP came to be a major ingredient in not only the religion of England, but in the thought-forms and speech of a large proportion of English men and women.'

The spell that its language weaves on parishioners and others also leads me to appreciate the role it has played historically. 'From the 16th century to the 20th, literacy spread, particularly in the 19th century. The King James Bible was found in every literate home, and taught in school, as well as in the Sunday Schools which developed from the latter half of the 1800s. For many, members of the Church of England (one third of the nation at the religious census in 1851), the Book of Common Prayer was the partner of the Bible, being read and learned at home, and very often also carried to church.'

'Cranmer wanted the people of England to be constantly exposed to Holy Scripture in a language they understood, working through the whole of the Bible regularly and the Psalms every month, while following a calendar that rehearsed in every church year the whole story of salvation starting with the Fall and culminating in Christ's unique sacrifice of himself on the Cross and his glorious resurrection, the benefits of which we are not worthy to receive on any merits of ours—"we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table"—but only through the purest grace extended on the basis of Christ's unique status as Lord and Saviour.' This strong emphasis on a lectionary that takes people through the whole Bible is also hugely valuable.

'Cranmer strove to maintain as much continuity with traditional forms of worship as he could, given his commitments to the Reformation. 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, the Sarum Missal, which priests at Salisbury Cathedral had long used to conduct services.

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. 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.'

As a result, '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.'

This leads us, I think, to a place where faithfulness to the Book of Common Prayer does not simply mean its continued use with the liturgy of the Church of England but also means addressing similar issues to those addressed by Cranmer – issues of faith literacy, ecumenical dialogue and biblical education – in ways that are both contemporary and which have synergies with Cranmer’s solutions.

St Stephen Walbrook is, I think, an example of the way in which it is possible to combine old and new in the present in ways that have synergy which the past. The central setting of the altar reflects modern understandings of Church and liturgy but its location below and mirroring Sir Christopher Wren’s dome is, in fact, sympathetic to and understanding of Wren’s original design of squares and circles. The result is that when most people first see this space, as a whole, once they have ascended the stairs, they are amazed and delighted, thinking that they have in some small measure had a taste of heaven. What they are responding to is not simply Wren’s original design or Henry Moore’s altar but the integration of the two in the reordering which does not detract from either and instead creates something which is more than the sum of its parts. That was also Cranmer's achievement and we honour him and that achievement best, I think, when we seek to do for our time what he achieved in his.


John Rutter - The Lord Bless You And Keep You.

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