The Prayer Book Conundrum
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer was not the original English-language prayer book, but it is certainly the most recognisable. At the time, it provided services in a language that the people of England could understand. That may no longer be universally true – today’s detractors cite the dated language top of the list for reasons to ‘move on’.
There are many reasons why I find the Prayer Book as an issue to be problematic. So often the debate is based on gross generalisations, often reducing all 18-30’s into one homogenous bloc, and then using it as a stick with which to beat political opponents. Very often the debate appears to be entirely surface-level, failing to address the dramatic shifts in underlying theology between differing collections of liturgy. Too often it seems the people who elsewhere argue for a mixed-economy in church styles will do an about-face when one of those turns out to be focused on revitalising traditional language services.
In committing to writing the vast array of liturgies that is Common Worship (2000), the Liturgical Commission picked up a poisoned chalice with admirable stoicism. That extra texts that have been added since shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness in the original offering, but that the task was incredibly difficult to begin with. That’s because the people of the Church of England have a myriad different ideas about how to approach God, and feeling that new services are being written to privilege one group’s approach over another is going to touch nerves. And like a major national government IT project, what people said they wanted and what they actually wanted didn’t always line up. Whilst it was never going to please everyone, its truly remarkable that it has worked for so many.
The issue, then, could be seen as one of taste. Except that the words in Common Worship, and indeed the Alternative Service Book (1980) that preceded it, are not direct translations from traditional to modern. The creeds, for instance, no longer tell us that Jesus descended to the dead between his burial and resurrection. The confessions no longer contain words like “there is no health in us”. The harsh realism about the human condition contained in the Book of Common Prayer is just one theological aspect that has vanished without trace. At a time when society recognises more and more of humanities imperfections, and all Hollywood heroes must have crippling flaws, the church has decided to downplay this.
Then there is the age assumption. Its long been assumed that the church will ‘move on’ from the Prayer Book as the elderly who grew up with the services pass on and are replaced with those to whom these services are anathema. Except that doesn’t seem to be the universal case. Instead, whilst the numbers aren’t vast, there’s a distinctly non-zero number of under-30’s looking for BCP services these days. I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you they exist. I believe something similar is happening in the Roman Catholic church, whereby Latin masses are drawing crowds that look the very opposite of every prediction. The idea that there is a fixed direction of travel down the ages seems to be contradicted heavily by the facts.
Perhaps its the sense of predictability, and life seems quite uncertain. Perhaps its because it puts everything in hundreds of years of context, and the message of an immovable God matters in times of instability. Perhaps its because consumerism has spent so long selling us the latest and greatest that we want to rebel by being ‘old-school’. Maybe its because rigidly fixed liturgy gives something to grapple with firm in the knowledge it won’t bend too easily. Perhaps its just that, in God’s perfect creation, people are just weird. Why care?
I definitely want people to have access to services that speak their language. The use of the vernacular is important to me. The original idea of a Book of Common Prayer with a single set of words that everyone follows is far gone – and good riddance to it. Our towns and cities can easily sustain a range of options. But I can’t help but feel that we should be delighted to see others dusting off Prayer Books and building up the churches that use it. Perhaps there is no ‘solution’ as such, beyond respect for ‘the other’ in our vast and often times perplexing church.