Robbie Low wishes the Book of Common Prayer many, many happy returns

THE SURVIVAL AND, INDEED, revival of the Book of Common Prayer is due, in no small part, to the tireless and enthusiastic work of the Prayer Book Society. For over twenty five years, an achievement marked recently by a royal reception at St. James’s Palace, this plucky band of stalwarts have stood firm for what one of my more Roman-minded colleagues calls, “Dr. Cranmer’s interesting anthology”.

Formed in the early 70s when coal miners could unseat governments and the “god all matey” speak of Series 3 was being geared up for its launch onto unsuspecting congregations, the Society seemed to many to be espousing a hopeless cause. They were regarded, at best, as antiquarians and, at worst, as impediments to the mission of the modern church. Generations of clergy have now been trained largely ignorant of the history, use and devotional life of the Prayer Book, and those who would worship according to its rites pushed to the very margins of the worshipping timetable, “lucky” to get an occasional 8 o’clock or a token evensong slap in the middle of a decent summer afternoon. Conversations with modernist clergy over many years has all too often revealed a sense of cruel delight in these “achievements”.

And what are the achievements of the modernising tendency to date? Far from reversing the decline in churchgoing, the modern rite has accompanied a tragic and spectacular acceleration of that decline, the altar of sacrifice has been translated from God-centred adoration to man centred counter service and the great phrases of the gospel, memorable to the death bed, which resonated in our forebears hearts, have been replaced by a dreary committee speak that stumbles to impersonate the English language.

If this seems an unduly harsh judgement two things should be bourn in mind. One is that the Prayer Bookers do not argue for the removal of the modern rite but simply for a fair crack of the whip in the worshipping life of English parishes. Second the modern rite has been judged a failure by those most wedded to its use. A recent bowel movement of the liturgical industry has just expelled the unloved and unlovely “replacement” for the Prayer Book from the worshipping body. All the parishes which invested heavily in the ASB will shortly find themselves with boxes of redundant ecclesiastical lumber. While the clergy, those who still say their offices, divide their efforts between the Prayer Book, the Breviary and Celebrating Common Prayer, the parish councils will be asked to stump up for the latest expensive experimental volumes complete with inclusive language scriptures. (This latter coup is particularly important and a largely unobserved sleight of hand. Given the ancient wisdom that what you pray is what you believe the liturgical boffins have achieved, by subtle fiat, the political correctness that no amount of argument could have imposed upon the parishes of England.) The demise of the ASB in less than twenty years of life is an eloquent commentary in itself. Those who fought to impose it will not see their grandchildren baptised to its rite or themselves hear its words of comfort in extremis. Nor is there likely to be, outside the world of journalistic humour, an ASB Preservation Society.

The new volume, with its three quarter hearted attempt to ape the Roman lectionary at a time when in doctrine and ethics we are diverging rapidly, is, we are told, here to stay. The liturgical sales persons are busy about the diocese selling (and explaining) the new product.

Whether this becomes the liturgy of the new millennium or ends up as “son of ASB” is, in some sense, irrelevant to the life of the Book of Common Prayer which has already stood the test of time and has survived its recent persecutions in remarkably good fettle. Increasing numbers of modernisers are resigned to the fact that it will not be stamped out and some wiser priests are beginning to use it as an evangelistic tool to reclaim the older lapsed and offer a radical counter cultural experience to the young.

All of this makes the work of the Prayer Book Society of considerable and continuing importance. Far from being a bunch of old fuddy-duddies praying devoutly for the return of Queen Victoria, it contains, amongst its huge and growing membership some of the best historical, doctrinal and liturgical minds in the C. of E. and some of its most active and engaged clergy. It has enthusiastic and dynamic sister organisations throughout the Anglican Communion and a publishing arm which produces a plethora of helpful and educational literature and two of the best magazines available to Anglicans (Faith and Heritage and Faith and Worship).

Now, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the first English Prayer Book, the Society has, with the help of Everyman’s Library and The Lutterworth Press, put on a publishing feast. Earlier this summer the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, the Society’s keen supporter and ecclesiastical patron, gave a typically erudite and wonderfully uplifting lecture at the British Library and followed up by opening his home for the press launch.

The three volumes are:-

The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward VI
£18.99, Prayer Book Society
480pp . 0.9535668 .0.3

A Prayer for All Seasons
£17.50 The Lutterworth Press
72 pp 0.7188.2995.6

The Book of Common Prayer 1662
£12.99 Everyman’s Library .
592pp 1.85715 . 241 . 7

Let me begin with the latter. For a book of this size and quality it is quite simply a bargain. It is sturdily bound for years of use. Substantial high quality paper is graced by generous and easy to read print and will be as appropriate for private devotion as for the prie-dieu and the saying of public office.

It contains, amongst other treats, a lucid introduction and brief history by Cranmer’s’ brilliant biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, and a helpful bibliography and beautifully laid out chronology by David Campbell. It is a joy to see the lectionary of readings made so accessible and comprehensible along with the keys to the calendar.

In addition to the book itself we receive, as a bonus, an appendix containing the 1549 Mass and Order for the Burial of the Dead. Both of these are in a form which removes the hazards of more arcane spelling and enables us to celebrate these rites with our people.

An additional appendix contains fascinating material eliminated since 1859 i.e. the Gunpowder Plot prayers, the Feast of Charles, King and Martyr and the birthday prayers for that other Charles and his “Happy Return”.

This is the best edition of the Prayer Book I have come across and it has gone straight to work in my pew.

A Prayer for All Seasons is a small but beautiful gift book for a friend, confirmand, an ordinand or one’s own bedside table for night prayer. It contains simply those beautiful unequalled gathering prayers which are the Collects of the English Prayer Book. Heart opening and heaven opening they are set amidst a series of beautiful woodcut engravings from the 1903 Altar Service Book (McManus and Staley) which are a devotional treasure in themselves.

There are powerful forewords and afterwords by the Prince of Wales and the Bishop of London – memorable phrases abound – and a splendid introduction by playwright Ian Curteis (President of the Writers Guild). For many new readers and old alike though, the dozen pages on the origin, history, authorship and themes of these great prayers by Canon H.J. Burgess will be as great an incentive to own this volume as any.

Finally the The First and Second Prayer Books of Edward V1.

Another beautiful production, clearly laid out, the glorious eccentricities of the ancient spellings and phrasings taking us into the historical heartland of the modern Anglican church. Apart from the joy of rediscovering some of the prayers we can also see for ourselves what was lost in the turbulent century that separated these books from the beloved 1662. The Holy Communion has here the full and vital invocation of the Holy Spirit over the elements. There is a certainty about the real presence, the ministry of angels, the full participation in the worship of heaven.

The “intercessions” are part of the thanksgiving. Penitence and absolution are in the Presence of the Consecrated Host and Comfortable Words issue from the sacrifice and provoke the response of Humble Access (“We do not presume…..”) Shock, horror……. the bane of traditionalists, the peace, is revealed to be original though it is not, mercifully, followed by five minutes of walkabout and inter pew fellowship.

The Visitation of the Sick is powerful and fully sacramental – confession and unction are normative. The Burial Service has more sense of heaven and the continuity of life in Christ. The weekly lection for the Sabbath prints the portion of psalmody and details of readings for the morning and evening prayer either end of the communion scriptures.

A bride’s first duty was to obey but a man not only gave a ring and a promise of worship (much tougher) to his bride but handed over gold and silver to her via the priest. It’s all there in the rubrics and the vows, girls!

It is a lovely volume, full of powerful prayer and wonderful surprises. Every parish library should have a copy and all Prayer Book devotees and those who want to know the origins of our English liturgy will want to own this book.

Many happy returns to the Prayer Book and thanks to the Society for keeping this living treasury within our reach.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the diocese of St Alban’s