Friday, October 19, 2012

James Wood: "The Book of Common Prayer"

In the New Yorker, for the 350th Anniversary of the 1662.  It begins this way:
Suppose you find yourself, in the late afternoon, in one of the English cathedral towns—Durham, say, or York, or Salisbury, or Wells, or Norwich—or in one of the great university cities, like Oxford or Cambridge. The shadows are thickening, and you are mysteriously drawn to the enormous, ancient stone structure at the center of the city. You walk inside, and find that a service is just beginning. Through the stained glass, the violet light outside is turning to black. Inside, candles are lit; the flickering flames dance and rest, dance and rest. A precentor chants, “O Lord, open thou our lips.” A choir breaks into song: “And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” The precentor continues, “O God, make speed to save us.” And the choir replies, musically, “O Lord, make haste to help us.”

The visitor has stumbled upon a service, Evensong, whose roots stretch back at least to the tenth century, and whose liturgy has been in almost continuous use since 1549, the date of the first Book of Common Prayer, which was revised in 1552, and lightly amended in 1662, three hundred and fifty years ago. The Book of Common Prayer was the first compendium of worship in English. The words—many of them, at least—were written by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1533 and 1556. Cranmer did not cut his text from whole cloth: in the ecumenical spirit that characterizes the Book of Common Prayer, he went to the Latin liturgy that the English Catholic Church had used for centuries. In particular, he turned to a book known as the Sarum Missal, which priests at Salisbury Cathedral had long used to conduct services. It contained a calendar of festivals, along with prayers and readings for those festivals; and it held orders of service for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the Mass.


[T]he acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence, and many of his phrases and sentences are as famous as lines from Shakespeare or the King James Bible. People who have never read the Book of Common Prayer know the phrase “moveable feast,” or “vile body,” or the solemn warning of the marriage service: “If either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.” The same is true of the vows the couple speak to each other: “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.” The words of the burial service have become proverbial:
In the midst of life, we are in death. . . . Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy. . . . Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body.

The Prayer Book was a handbook of worship for a people, not for a priesthood, and its job was to replace and improve the ancient collective rites of worship that bound people together in the English Catholic Church. The marriage service, for instance, was a medieval liturgy that long predated the final form it found in the Book of Common Prayer. It availed Cranmer nothing to invent a liturgy that threw out that history and erected a verbal screen or altar between the priest and his congregation. Cranmer’s prayers use ordinary phrases and familiar Biblical similes. Here is the General Confession, the collective prayer that opens the service of Morning Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders.
There is a Protestant severity to the avowal that “there is no health in us.” But penitence can be reached only by walking down a familiar path, lined with straightforward words: we are “lost sheep” because we have “left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” Likewise, Evening Prayer is a comforting service, not just because it closes the day and lights a candle at the threshold of evening but also because the Book of Common Prayer sends the congregation home with two consoling collects, intoned by the presiding priest, which glow like verbal candles amid the shadows. The last collect goes like this:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.
To read, or hear, these words is to be taken back to a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century world of risk and daily peril, a place of death and sickness and warfare—a world in which Michel de Montaigne, for instance, lost five of his six children in infancy. The Book of Common Prayer contains a section with special prayers “For Rain,” “For fair Weather,” for protection against “Dearth and Famine,” for salvation from “War and Tumults,” and from “Plague or Sickness.” This plea is present in the penultimate collect of Evensong, too:
O God, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed: Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give; that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
A grand sonority (with the characteristic Cranmerian triad of “all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works”) gives way to a heartfelt request: please defend us from enemies, so that we may “pass our time in rest and quietness.” It’s interesting to compare the original Latin of this old prayer, which appeared in the Sarum Missal: “Tempora sint tua protectione tranquilla” can be roughly translated as “May our time under thy protection be tranquil.” In a fourteenth-century English primer, it was translated into English, and the prayer was now that “our times be peaceable.” But Cranmer has made the plea smaller and closer at hand. In the Book of Common Prayer, the language seems not to refer to the epoch (our time) but to something more local (my days); and tranquillity and peace have become the comfier “rest and quietness.” 


Above all, the Book of Common Prayer offered Cranmer’s language as a kind of binding agent, a rhetoric both lofty and local. The new English liturgy was quickly taken up by church composers. William Byrd (1540-1623), who became the organist of the Chapel Royal, composed anthems for Cranmer’s prayers and collects. His “Great Service,” probably written at the end of the sixteenth century, and still sung regularly today in British cathedrals and college chapels, set music to the English versions of the Te Deum and Benedictus (Morning Prayer) and the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Evening Prayer). A little more than a hundred years later, Henry Purcell, also an organist of the Chapel Royal, took Cranmer’s beautiful words from the service for the Burial of the Dead and set them to music for the funeral of Queen Mary II, in 1695: “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. . . . In the midst of life we are in death.” (Parts of Cranmer’s burial service also found its way into the libretto of Handel’s “Messiah.”)

Cranmer’s language endures in English literature and popular culture, from Neville Chamberlain’s use of the phrase “Peace in our time,” on his return from his ill-fated meeting with Hitler, to David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes.” It is the source of phrases like “miserable sinners” and “the face of the enemy” (from the prayer to be said by sailors before a fight at sea). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments”) clearly borrows from the Prayer Book’s marriage service. Samuel Johnson told James Boswell that he knew of “no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer,” and Cranmer’s rhythms can be found in Johnson’s prose, and in Jane Austen’s very Johnsonian prose. There is a rhythmic link between Cranmer’s fondness for triplets (“all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works”) and Austen’s: Lady Catherine de Bourgh “sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.” Austen, like the Brontë sisters, was the daughter of an Anglican parson, so she grew up with the Prayer Book’s cadences.

More at the link.  HT Mockingbird.

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