2012 is the 350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of its importance in his Christmas Sermon this year.
This coming year we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer. It has shaped the minds and hearts of millions; and it has done so partly because it has never been a book for individuals alone. It is common prayer, prayer that is shared. In its origins, it was meant to be – and we may well be startled by the ambition of this – a book that defined what a whole society said to God together. If the question ‘where are you?’ or ‘who are you?’ were being asked, not only individual citizens of Britain but the whole social order could have replied, ‘Here we are, speaking together – to recognize our failures and our ideals, to recognize that the story of the Bible is our story, to ask together for strength to live and act together in faithfulness, fairness, pity and generosity.’ If you thumb through the Prayer Book, you may be surprised at how much there is that takes for granted a very clear picture of how we behave with each other. Yes, of course, much of this language feels dated – we don’t live in the unselfconscious world of social hierarchy that we meet here. But before we draw the easy and cynical conclusion that the Prayer Book is about social control by the ruling classes, we need to ponder the uncompromising way in which those same ruling classes are reminded of what their power is for, from the monarch downwards. And the almost forgotten words of the Long Exhortation in the Communion Service, telling people what questions they should ask themselves before coming to the Sacrament, show a keen critical awareness of the new economic order that, in the mid sixteenth century, was piling up assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite.
The Prayer Book is a treasury of words and phrases that are still for countless English-speaking people the nearest you can come to an adequate language for the mysteries of faith. It gives us words that say where and who we are before God: ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’, but also, ‘we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of the everlasting kingdom’. It gives us words for God that hold on to the paradoxes we can’t avoid: ‘God… who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,’ ‘who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity, ‘whose property is always to have mercy.’ A treasury of words for God – but also a source of vision for an entire society: ‘Give us grace seriously to lay heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions’; ‘If ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution’.
The world has changed, the very rhythms of our speech have changed, our society is irreversibly more plural, and we have – with varying degrees of reluctance – found other and usually less resonant ways of talking to God and identifying who we are in his presence. If we used only the Prayer Book these days we’d risk confusing the strangeness of the mysteries of faith with the strangeness of antique and lovely language. But we’re much the poorer for forgetting it and pushing it to the margins as much as we often do in the Church. And it is crucial to remember the point about the Prayer Book as something for a whole society, binding together our obligations to God and to one another, in a dense interweaving of love and duty joyfully performed.
The Prayer Book was once the way our society found words to respond to the Word, to say who and where they were in answer to God’s question. Those who prayed the Prayer Book, remember, included those who abolished the slave trade and put an end to child labour, because of what they had learned in this book and in their Bibles about the honour of God and of God’s children. They knew their story; they knew how to give an answer for themselves, how to join up the muddle of their experience in a coherent pattern by relating it to the unchanging truth and grace of God. That’s why the coming year’s celebration is not about a museum piece.