By Paul (H. Matthew Lee)
The Book of Common Prayer is the great masterpiece of the English Church, and although the Anglican Communion today is now present beyond the historical conquest of the British Empire, it is still impossible for us to think about and understand Anglicanism without reference to the history of the Established Church of England. This is particularly acute for me as someone who has little, if any, connection to the English and their colonial exploits by personal or familial history. Nevertheless, as an Anglican, the great treasures and sins of the English Church are as much my inheritance as they are to a thoroughbred Englishman, as we are mystically bound together by the common chalice and altar.
Through the prayer book, Thomas Cranmer almost single-handedly set the liturgical dialect of English Christianity which remains to this day. It is a language so grand that it was adopted by those outside of the Anglican Church, and not just by other Protestants. Long before the social emancipation of English Catholics and the post-Vatican II ecumenical thaw, Roman Catholic translations of the liturgy into English adopted Cranmer’s renderings of liturgical Latin into English as we can see in the early bi-lingual missals and, perhaps most significantly, the English translation of the Tridentine Breviary by John Crichton-Stuart. The same goes for English translations of the Orthodox liturgies which began in earnest with the Anglican hands of John Mason Neale and Isabel Hapgood.
Almost five centuries after its advent, the rhythm of the prayer book’s English has lost little of its power. As a literary masterpiece the prayer book is greater than the works of Milton, more significant than even Shakespeare, for it created the language of prayer for the English-speaking world — a sacral English, a dialect set aside uniquely for the loftiest purpose of worshiping God.
Despite the prodigious efforts of Anglophone Christians to vulgarize the language of prayer over the past half-century, the hieratic English of the prayer book still remains in all its grandeur. Far from being a museum piece it is still used daily in prayer; far from being “outdated” it is spoken not just by our stubborn elders who are content with the sacred language of their childhood but also the many young Anglicans who have discovered the classical prayer book and its irresistible magnetism.
But for all its literary excellence, if its aesthetic quality is all we cared about, the Anglican legacy would be poor indeed. One might sympathize with W. H. Auden’s exasperation at the introduction of “contemporary English” into the liturgy in his 1968 letter to St. Mark’s in the Bowery, and perhaps have even repeated his words verbatim (“Have we gone stark raving mad?”) while hearing the vulgarity that is supposed to be “friendly” to the modern ear. But losing oneself to purely aesthetic effect is a fascist play, not a Christian one. Certainly, Auden himself did not only have the aesthetic in mind in his letter as he notes that “one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.”
So, setting aside the ways the prayer book’s exalted dialect has been taken up and renewed by the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox today, what is it about the old prayer book that grasps our spirit with such power? The reason is much deeper and more profound than the fact that it avoids the cheap journalese that infects every corner of the Church, whether it be in its modern liturgical texts or diocesan pronouncements. No, the true reason for its power is that it still speaks those things which we have all stopped saying without apology, and it speaks it through our own mouths as we pray.
When one recalls the most moving passages of the prayer book they will all, invariably, be concerned with spiritual matters, moral themes, and attestation to transcendent otherness that are now strange and offensive to our decadent age. “In all time of our tribulation, in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgement.” Who today talks about the hour of death and the day of judgment? Not even at funerals do we talk about death today, distorted they are into the strange first-world decadence of “celebrations of life” or the unmitigated narcissism of “living funerals.” Do we imagine that we will outrun the deaths of our beloved and ourselves if we distract ourselves hard enough? But we hear from afar the truth perennial, perennial because biblical: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow…” And before we are left desolate in the recognition of our mortality, the voice of the deep intercedes for us: “… suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee,” and commits our mortal remains with those words that are still recognized by all: “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life… blessed are the dead which die in the Lord.”
When do we hear such meditation on the inevitability of our mortal end, or the cosmic agony of alienating ourselves from God in the pains of death? When have we last heard such things from the dean standing under the stars and stripes at a Republican rally; from the curate singing the national anthem in front of the altar (heaven knows what the “Land of the Free” or the “True North” have at all to do with Calvary and the empty eomb); the vicar duped by the latest “public intellectual” swindler; or the bishop waving a rainbow flag at the Pride parade? Might our upper-middle class white clergy have started to understand even a little about the mortal gravity of “lightning and tempest; plague, pestilence and famine; battle and murder, and sudden death” from the comforts of their suburban homes, now that a pandemic and social upheaval has arrived on their front steps?
A part of the old prayer book’s power is how it reveals our self-righteousness pretension for the sickness it is, a brittle narcissism that hides itself under the activist rhetoric of the day. When we see another mealy-mouthed publication from a synod, even Lambeth, saying something like, “May God lead us to solve our social inequality,” we can still hear the noble voice echo from the choir loft: “comfort all that are in danger, necessity, and tribulation… and all that are desolate and oppressed.”
For generations Anglicans prayed for truth and grace, peace and humble comfort, justice and atonement. But now, it seems, we cannot help ourselves from issuing a constant stream of fatuous self-indulgence thinly disguised in the jargon of social concern — and fancy ourselves wise for it. If only we were able to realize how facile all this is when our Anglican churches are among the most socio-culturally monochromatic institutions in North America. But if we incline our ear even in the midst of all such grim banalities, we can still hear the old organ bellow from above with moral clarity: “… there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.”
But more significantly, the old prayer book continues to inspire such great devotion from a diversity of young people, whether leftist or conservative, “Evangelical” or “Catholic,” because it is perhaps the last thing we have left in contemporary Anglicanism that is unashamed of being Christian in a robust, confident way. It is the only thing left which is connected, in both form and content, to our forebears and has resisted the contemporary obsession with novelty and “relevance.”
What brings us to breathe life into the old book with our prayers and allow it to shape our minds, tongues, and spirits, is that in its pages we find religion. In it we find a tradition that has been hallowed by the lips and fingers of the generations before us; in it are the liturgies which animate Scripture into the grammar of prayer, a language that speaks with confidence about the transcendent otherness of God and with sobriety about our sins. When we pray the Office we are in the company of the cloud of witnesses — the old granny in the country parish, the young soldier sent to his death by kings and high councils, the cloistered monks, the Israelites weeping by the rivers of Babylon.
The prayer book is sublime because its language is so authentically Christian, so authentically human. It gives glory to the majesty of God and unflinchingly lays witness to the grandest virtues and deepest failures of the human soul, and thereby shows us the path to repentance and true transcendence — our becoming one with God. Therein lies its timelessness, the reason for its relevance to our very day, and why so many have returned to these old words; these words that were deemed obsolete by an arrogant generation and pawned off for amateurish novelties.
When one opens a contemporary revision of the prayer book or some other concoction from our “liturgical committees,” one discovers a studious erasure of whatever is supposedly too difficult for our frail modern minds, too uncouth for the cultured ear — even to the point of censoring Scripture. There is to be no talk about rage or judgment; no mention of death or tribulation; no examination of gluttony and lust; no remembrance of sin or atonement; no courage to face suffering and martyrdom; no thoughts of even the cross or the empty tomb — no, of course not, because all these things would make us impolite company to modern society; too serious, too religious. And by that very fact these new liturgical texts and lectionaries are irrelevant to both Christians and non-Christians alike, because it is inauthentic to the complexities of both God and human life.
Well-meaning as our church might be in all this, our preaching is banal, our theology incoherent, our discipline nonexistent, because they are not grounded in the genuine prayers of the Church, shaped by the fullness of Scripture and hallowed by the witness of the saints. While stodgy English discipline still remained in her clergy and laity, the Anglican Church was able to speak with some truth about spiritual and moral matters due to the guidance and authority of the prayer book, even in the midst of the Church’s greatest periods of decadence. Let us today restore the ancient landmark which our fathers have set (Prov. 22:28), so that tomorrow we might speak more truthfully.
For all the manifold failures of the Anglican Church, indeed her multitude of great sins, it had the singular fortune to have had its foundations laid in an age of great strife, disease, and upheaval. It was mostly penned by the hand of an opportunistic man who, for all his sins, mustered his courage and recovered his integrity at the last moments as he thrust his right hand into the fire and burned on the pyre. The Bible and the prayer book, written by the Israelites and the English, carry a universal quality that transcends the ages of the authors. One, because it is the revelation of God; the other, because it is a faithful witness to the revelation of God. It is for this reason that I, who am neither Jew nor English (let alone Greek, Latin or Slavic), have them as my spiritual ancestors. So, in the memories of my predecessors I will carry these heirlooms which I have received as an adopted son to the next generation who belong to the Lord of Hosts.
So I beseech thee, good Lord, to hear us, “That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy holy Word.”
Paul (H. Matthew Lee) is a lay reader in the Diocese of Niagara of the Anglican Church of Canada, and a doctoral candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.