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“Mutual Society, Help, and Comfort”

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about James Wood’s essay on the Book of Common Prayer in the New Yorker, and I’d like to return to that for a moment.

Near the end he’s got a neat little reading of a scene from Pride and Prejudice in which the absurd Mr. Collins lists three reasons for marrying and as the third, and most important, notes that “it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness.” Wood shrewdly notes that Collins here is echoing (probably unconsciously) but also deviating from the prayer book’s marriage rite, which also lays down three reasons for institution of marriage:

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, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.

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.

Wood very nicely explains why all this is a joke on Mr. Collins, but he also thinks, far less plausibly, that it’s a critique of the prayer book itself:

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?

There are a good many unacknowledged assumptions going on here — for instance, that the placing of “mutual society, help, and comfort” in the third position indicates that it’s the least important, though, as Wood surely knows, the last place can also be the place of greatest emphasis. But I wonder also whether there’s not a lack of historical imagination here. Wood’s implicit syllogism seems to go like this: I greatly admire Jane Austen for her “canny and satiric incisiveness”; I find the prayer book’s priorities (as I understand them) “intolerably pompous”; therefore “surely” Jane Austen feels as I do about this matter.

And maybe she did. Or maybe she didn’t. Maybe she took sin more seriously than James Wood does and therefore was more likely to approve a “remedy” for it; maybe she valued “the procreation of children” more than he does. It’s unwise simply to assume that people formed in very different cultures than ours nevertheless think just as we do, sharing our preferences and priorities.

In any case, it’s worth noting that the consideration that Wood sees as being demeaned by being moved to the third place in the series was a doctrinal innovation when Thomas Cranmer added it to the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. The medieval liturgies he drew on in creating his prayer book didn’t mention “mutual society, help, and comfort” or anything of the kind: he chose on his own initiative to add that reason, and though it was a new idea, his theological advisor Martin Bucer liked it so much that he, like James Wood, wanted it moved to the beginning of the list. (Not for the same reasons, though: he just wanted to make it clear that mutual society came before procreation in time. Or, um, was supposed to.)

Cranmer himself was married twice: first as a young scholar, to a woman he was willing to give up his Oxford fellowship to marry. But alas, she died in childbirth, as did their child. Only many years later did Cranmer marry again, and in the turmoils of that time the safety of his wife and children was an ongoing source of anxiety for him: when he saw that he himself was in danger, he had them shipped secretly off to the Continent.

In light of Cranmer’s history as a married man, we might note one other small innovation. In medieval liturgies the husband’s vow read as follows: “I [name] take thee [name] to my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us depart.” Cranmer added one small phrase, just before the final clause: “to love and to cherish.”

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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