Saturday, 15 January 2011

Getting Religion: Revising (or Not) the Church of England Book of Common Prayer


I was, for various reasons, recently put in mind of the Church of England Book of Common Prayer, and how it has remained unchanged since the 17th century - 1662 in fact, just two years after the Restoration of Charles II to the throne after a period of Puritanical rule under Oliver Cromwell. The notion of a Book of Common Prayer in the Protestant tradition is of its very nature a bit fraught. Adaptation, free-thinking dissension, and individual interpretation are the very raison d'ĂȘtre of Protestantism. Thus, an interesting situation has evolved in which the official Book of Common Prayer coexists with alternative versions including a Common Worship volume from 2000. They provide variations on services, and their presence and widespread use highlight the duality of experience in the Church of England between official form and actual practice.

Because the Church of England (hereafter known as the C of E) is the official state religion, it requires an act of Parliament to officially revise the Book of Common Prayer, and any number of factors militate against this occurring. In the first place, extremely mild and timid changes would not be worth the effort, and any substantial changes risk angering enough MPs and constituents -- in short, it is impossible to please everyone. Consequently, over 300 years later, the 1662 Book is still the official version. The most significant twentieth century movement to make substantial revisions occurred in 1927-28, following two decades of study and church recommendations. The new version, to be used at the discretion of individual clergy, and approved by the Church of England Convocations and the Church Assembly, was twice voted down by Parliament. The notoriously hardline Home Secretary William ('Jix') Joynson-Hicks was one of those who inveighed against the proposed changes, labeling them dangerous papist attempts to restore a more Catholic version of mass and imply assent with the doctrine of transubstantiation. No further formal attempts to alter the Book of Common Prayer were again ventured, with the Church instead proffering the rather less dramatic series of "alternative service" volumes from the 1960s through to 2000. Individual congregations use, adopt, and dispense with, elements of service and prayer forms as they see fit.

This blending of the official and the local, unofficial, and adaptive versions of worship illustrate a characteristic of the C of E, and Protestantism at large, which is ultimately both its strength and its weakness. The toleration for, and even encouragement of, alternative ways of doing things can give the tradition great flexibility, but it may also prove its undoing if the narrative strands pull in too many diverse directions to be relevant or immediate to the majority of its adherents. As Jeremy Paxman explores in his book The English:

I once asked the Bishop of Oxford what you need to believe to be a member of his Church. A look of slight bafflement crossed his face. 'An intriguing question', he answered, as if it had not occurred to him before.
You cannot imagine an orthodox rabbi, or a Roman Catholic priest replying like that. When the bishop went on, he opened with an inevitable English preface, 'Well it rather depends... An evangelical church will say you need to be sincerely converted. A traditional Anglo-Catholic church will teach you a Christian orthodoxy virtually indistinguishable from Roman Catholic teaching... The C of E doesn't believe in laying down rules. It prefers to give people space and freedom. It's enough to make the effort to attend and take communion. That shows you believe.'
This is the sort of woolliness that drives critics of the C of E to distraction...
[Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People, 1998, p. 95]

Possible woolliness aside, it would be difficult to deny that at least some of this sentiment lies at the heart of Protestantism -- once one has protested against any given practice or doctrine to start with, there really is no stopping its evolution and continued iterations as the centuries proceed. It is equally true that, for those inclined, the beauty and tradition inherent in a service following the Book of Common Prayer of 1662 is unmatched. Religion, especially in our times, is often presented in individualistic terms, but it is of course also intertwined with tradition, social belonging, and a sense of continuity with the past. For many, a quiet and contemplative service such as Evensong (unique to the C of E and the Anglican tradition) is as much about connecting with the comfort of an unchanged centuries-old practice as anything rather more doctrinal. The Book of Common Prayer may have remained unchanged due to institutional inertia, but how the official Church proceeds in the way forward ultimately resides within itself.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

3 comments:

Michael said...

Your post about the Book of Common Prayer coincided with my visit to a local Anglican church. Although I was spiritually suckled in the Baptist tradition, I have long been fascinated with Christian liturgy. So on my bookshelf you will find several editions of the Book of Common Prayer (with its attempted successors and pretenders) alongside the Roman Missal and other manuals of that ilk. At the particular Anglican church I mention, the pew-racks are empty: the detailed order of service is printed in the bulletin. I missed the heft of the Book of Common Prayer, but perceived its legacy in the sheaf of bulletin papers. The Book of Common Prayer seems to be a curious democratizing force in the practice of formal religious observance. With the help of a pew-book, the stranger can speak in unison with the seasoned worshipper. The oratorical mysteries of the clergy are revealed, recorded, and reinforced by their appearance on the printed page. Is it any wonder that the Book of Common Prayer's appearance in 1662 (and, of course, the Bible's Authorized ["King James"] Version in 1611) coincided with the explosion of congregationalist movements in Britain and its English-speaking colonies?

IdleHistorian said...

Interesting point on the democratizing force of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible that was produced at the same time. Certainly both have shaped Protestant religious experience to a large extent.

Hels said...

I loved the line about the minister who inveighed against the proposed changes, labelling them "dangerous papist attempts to restore a more Catholic version of mass and imply assent with the doctrine of transubstantiation".

There has been no more effective rallying cry (against ANY issue whatsoever) than it is a part of dangerous papist leanings, even conspiracies.

The authorities may have been correct with Guy Fawkes (died 1606) and his men. But an attempt to modernise the Book of Common Prayer in 1927-28, after two decades of prayerful study, was no Catholic plot.

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