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The Once and Future Prayer Book

The Book of Common Prayer, although mutable and equivocal, is the measuring-stick of Anglophone piety—and ever shall be, world without end.

Credit: Stephen Barnes

There is nothing in the world quite so English as the Book of Common Prayer, and as England fades from existence, you might expect it to do the same. Yet long after England is absorbed into Airstrip One, or sinks giggling into the sea in a cloud of marijuana smoke, or whatever its fate is, Thomas Cranmer’s subversive, disturbing work will continue to have a ghostly existence well into the  future of mankind. 

This is because it embodies something very deep, an unusual coincidence of literary beauty and disturbing truth. Other cultures have sought to borrow it. English as it is, and beautifully written, it was translated very early in its life into French, in 1553. I came across Le Livre des Prieres Publiques some years ago in the Channel Island of Sark, still at that time the last feudal territory in the British Isles, a state of affairs now sadly extinguished by progress. Wonderfully, there is even an edition in Latin, which was still used in the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge until the 19th century. There are also versions in Scots and Irish Gaelic, and another in Welsh. It would not surprise me to find it in dozens of other languages. 


Even in English, its variations are complex and slightly devious, even shifty. Until 1859, it contained a special anti-Catholic service. This was designed to perpetuate the memory of the attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament and the King at Westminster in 1605 with many kegs of gunpowder. It thanked the Almighty for “the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our late gracious Sovereign” and denounced the “Popish treachery” which, undiscovered, would have slaughtered the entire governing class of England and Scotland “in a most barbarous and savage manner, beyond the example of former ages.” It urged God to “scatter our enemies that delight in blood. Infatuate and defeat their counsels, abate their pride, assuage their malice, and confound their devices.” 

But it has vanished. Though they survived well into Queen Victoria’s reign, these prayers became an excuse for raucous and bigoted anti-Catholic street demonstrations, which is why they were rightly suppressed. Even so, the high standard of sonorous English in this ceremony still offers a pleasing contrast with modern anti-terrorist rhetoric.  

The book itself was once banned entirely from use by the Republican Roundheads after they had beheaded King Charles I in 1649. Yet it continued in secret use, like samizdat books in the old USSR. The great ghost-story writer M.R. James, in his clever tale The Uncommon Prayer Book, refers to a 17th century legend that there was a special anti-Cromwell edition of the prayer book, secretly printed in 1653 by defiant monarchists. For April 25, which is both St Mark’s Day and the birthday of Oliver Cromwell, it is said to have prescribed the reading of Psalm 109, much of which is a furious, vengeful curse beginning with the words “Set thou an ungodly man to be ruler over him” and getting more savage as it goes on. If you ever find such a book, in some musty chapel or church untouched by the centuries, my advice is to leave it where you find it, and steal away softly. It may be haunted. 

By contrast, the 1928 Prayer Book of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA (as it then called itself) contains an explicitly republican prayer for the President of the United States (“O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world…”) and substitutes “O Lord, save the State” for “O Lord, save the King.” In Ireland, since four-fifths of the island became a republic in 1949, the (Anglican) Church of Ireland’s 1926 book has had different prayers for each jurisdiction. In the six counties of Northern Ireland, at Evensong (for example in St Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry, a couple of miles from the invisible border) it prays for the King. In the rest of Ireland, for example at lovely St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, it petitions more vaguely “O Lord, guide and defend our Rulers.” 

The essentially modern nature of republics is exposed in the Irish prayer book’s blander, more utilitarian attempt at a prayer for a mere President: “Almighty God, who rulest over the nations of the world; We commend to thy merciful care the people of this land, that, being guarded by thy providence, they may dwell secure in thy peace.” Anglicans in republics are also deprived of the tremendous prayer for the King’s Majesty: “O Lord our heavenly father, high and mighty, king of kings, the only ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all dwellers upon earth.”


Not that many of the Church of England’s clergy much like to say it these days. They do not like the Prayer Book very much, and have spent a large part of the last 40 years squeezing it out of use, except at special old people’s services early in the morning or in the evening. Many of them are not even familiar with it. Some, to my direct personal knowledge, actively hate it because of its emphasis on old-fashioned penitence.

Was there ever such a changeable book, with its half-Catholic version of 1549, its far more Protestant revision of 1552, and its more or less final fudge of 1662? And yet, was there ever such a beautiful and profound one? Much like the Church of England itself, the volume is disreputably worldly according to the time and place, and it is a cloudy compromise between Calvinism and Catholicism that nobody to this day has really been able to disentangle. And long may it remain so. I personally like the first Queen Elizabeth’s view that we should make of the Lord’s Supper what we will, and not hack windows into the souls of those kneeling next to us at the rail.  

Yet it is also so perpetually lovely and full of the Holy Ghost  that sin wilts in its presence and Godly persons of any denomination can and do sink gratefully into its poetry, given the chance. It provides the Constitution of Private Life, from font to graveside. I have attended funerals conducted according to its austere instructions and come away astonished at just how seriously it takes death in a world which prefers to hide it: “In the midst of life we are in death…suffer us not, in our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.” 

You cannot hear it spoken and be unaffected. It embodies the idea that truth is beauty and beauty is truth. Its marriage service is so profoundly moving and binding that large parts of it have entered the language—and yet, confronted with its enormous, towering promises, 21st century couples can still find themselves overawed and surprised by what they have somehow agreed to pledge. Some of the book’s wording, especially the marvelous “Prayer of Humble Access” (“We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table…”) has now been embraced by Roman Catholics of the Ordinariate, a low door in the wall between Anglicanism and the Old Faith opened by Pope Benedict. It even has prayers to be used at sea, seeking the aid of a God “who alone spreadest out the heavens and rulest the raging of the sea: Who hast compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end.” 

I have loved it in many different ways since I first encountered it as a child at a Cathedral choir school 60 years ago. I pushed it angrily away as a Marxist-Leninist atheist, correctly finding it hostile to what was then my temperament. I then found in its cadences a reintroduction to the England of field and hedgerow, bells and psalms that I had turned my back on and was now rapidly disappearing. 

I also found that thing lacking from so much modern religion, a presumption of intelligence. Its authors absolutely knew and had experienced the very doubts that I sought to overcome. They offered no sweet-talk or patronizing oversimplification. They were unapologetic. They expected me to be literate. And I found in its uncertainties and hesitations an absolute opposite to the homicidal dogmas which had so thrilled me during my Bolshevik years. I did not want to exchange Leon Trotsky for Ignatius Loyola or Edmund Campion. Thomas Cranmer’s wobbly, rather cowardly martyrdom seemed more appealing. 

So is his repeated confession, in the collects, of his and our inadequacy before the Throne of the Heavenly Grace. Certain passages (“forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee,” “through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee,” “the frailty of man without thee cannot but fall”) seem to have been written with a special passion and meaning, by a worldly man too close to temporal matters and temporal power, on the very edge of damnation, and knowing it.     

We rightly love William Shakespeare for his astonishing understanding of power, love, ambition, and doubt, and anyone who publicly suggested that his great plays should be turned into baby talk and paraphrase would be driven from the stage. Yet Thomas Cranmer, who had a similar understanding gained from intimate contact with Kings and a comparable gift of clear and unforgettable poetry is endlessly revised and rewritten and toned down by figures unworthy to sharpen his quill. It is not the glory of his language which causes this (though some people certainly loathe this too, as they loathe ancient buildings, traditions and music from the past). It is his unmistakable belief in what he says, his recognition of the importance of penitence, and of his own fallen nature as well as ours. 

Please look after this book. Though England has largely forgotten it, the whole round world still has need of it.


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