Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England 
Churchhouse, 864 pp., £15, December 2000, 9780715120002Show More
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Someone once said that if he looked at his watch at eight minutes past 11 on any Sunday morning, he could be certain that in ten thousand parish churches throughout the length and breadth of England untold thousands would be intoning the eighth verse of the Venite: ‘Today, if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.’ We are not told why this perhaps fictitious person was not in church himself. Perhaps he had what the Tudor Act of Uniformity called ‘lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent’. (Brewers in the 17th century claimed that they could never get to church, since they had to keep their boilers going seven days a week.)

Otherwise, under the terms of this mid-16th-century Act of Parliament, essentially re-enacted in 1662, the entire population (‘all and every person and persons inhabiting within this realm’) was bound to present itself, at both Morning Prayer and Evensong (said at three o’clock, and potentially in conflict with Sunday and holiday sports and other recreations), and not only on Sundays but on other days ‘ordained as Holy Days’, on pain of a fine. Clergy who refused to minister according to the Book of Common Prayer or who spoke publicly against it, or who employed some other form of prayers, were subject to an ascending scale of penalties which culminated in life imprisonment. That really was Common Worship.

The all-embracing compulsion of the Prayer Book was demonstrated as much in resistance as in compliance. In 1549, the West Country rose in rebellion against the first of Archbishop Cranmer’s new English liturgies, denouncing it as ‘a Christmas game’. Exeter was besieged, troops were sent against the rebels, half of them foreign mercenaries, many lives were lost, and the leaders, including some clergy, were strung up. To measure the distance separating our secular, liberal and pluralistic society from the religious world of the 16th century, it is sufficient to imagine a mile-long queue of HGVs, moving slowly in convoy up the M5 and M4, in protest against Common Worship: the great Prayer Book Protest of 2000. Today, resistance is likely to come only from John Major’s little old ladies on bicycles, and from the Prayer Book Society – which may well have more members than those lobbies of fuel protesters.

It was Cranmer’s intention that what was said in church should be ‘understanded of the people’. The minister was to speak ‘with a loud voice’, so turning his body ‘as the people may best hear’. Where singing was retained, choirs were to use ‘a plain tune, after the manner of distinct reading’. Here was a revolution in itself, since before the Reformation the service had been said in Latin, mumbled in a low and inaudible voice – and no one listens to the words of polyphony. The new liturgy was to be one of understanding and even of participation in ‘responses’.

But both ‘the people’ and ‘understanded’ invite comment. How did Cranmer construct ‘the people’? It is a remarkable fact that in such a strictly hierarchical society as 16th-century England, the rites of religion made no social distinctions. We may know that worshippers sat in order of rank, that at Communion the gentry were given sweet, fortified wine, all the rest plonk. Although a 17th-century East Anglian cleric said that there ought to be ‘an holy-rowly-Powliness’ in church, ‘for there sure, if anywhere, we ought to be hail fellows well met,’ that was an eccentric opinion, and Samuel Pepys was gratified when the whole congregation rose from their seats as he and his party of strangers entered a Cambridgeshire church. Nevertheless, the Prayer Book speaks undifferentially of ‘the people’. But before we deduce some demotic intention on the part of the author, a piece of Marxism avant la lettre, we should remember that for Cranmer the people were the people of God, his elect, a notion that cut across 16th-century social values, neighbourhood no less than hierarchy. Everyone was bound to go to church, but that did not mean that Cranmer and English ‘Calvinists’ supposed that everyone was bound to be saved.

‘Understanded’ is equally problematic. We present Cranmer with bouquets for both deferring to and shaping the English language, but we are partly mistaken if we suppose that the language of the Prayer Book was popular language. As Adam Fox has recently explained in Oral and Literate Culture in England, 1500-1700, early modern England consisted of a huge variety of ‘speech communities’, local and occupational. These languages were not mutually comprehensible, and while they caused real problems for travellers in strange parts (what was a Norfolk man to make of the advice he received in Nottinghamshire: ‘Yaw mun een goo thruft yon beck, then yaws’t corn to a new yate’ – and so on), they consolidated local and professional identities, so many little worlds which we have still not entirely lost. So ‘the people’ would have known that they were in church, and most of them would not have heard this church language anywhere else, not in the pub or the street, unless they were godly people who read the Bible at home, in William Tyndale’s translation, which practically invented what we regard as standard 16th-century-speak. The most we can claim for Tyndale, and for Cranmer, is that Bibles and Prayer Books made more extensive the bilingualism which the gentry had employed, at least since the 14th century, when an incipiently standardised English first became a medium for poetry and serious communication.

With that significant proviso, Cranmer’s Prayer Book met the Aristotelian test, as Roger Ascham expressed it in Toxophilus (1545), ‘to speak as the common people do, to think as wise men do.’ There was also a third dimension: God. Common prayer required ‘people’ to address God in language worthy of the object, but which they could, as common people, plausibly employ. Cranmer achieved the sublime simplicity of, for example, ‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord.’

That was a triumph which no subsequent liturgical revisionist has been able to achieve. In the course of two or three generations, the Prayer Book words became as familiar and habitual as the ritual actions of the old Latin service. An early 17th-century Derby curate asked his people, saying that he meant no insult: when you come to church and go through the motions, doesn’t it amount to the same thing which we call the old religion? Judith Maltby has measured the strength of support for the Prayer Book on the eve of the Civil War, counting the numbers of signatures to petitions in its favour. Indeed, this support was one of the contributory reasons for the war. From Cheshire, in 1641, the petitioners claimed that ‘scarce any family or person that can read, but are furnished with the Books of Common Prayer, in the conscionable use whereof, many Christian hearts have found unspeakable joy and comfort; wherein the famous Church of England our dear Mother hath just cause to glory.’

The patterns and rhythms of Prayer Book worship which evolved in these generations were not altogether what Cranmer intended. He was responsible for a drastic rationalisation of the canonical hours of prayer into just two daily offices, for use morning and evening, and for putting these and all other regular church services under one roof, in one easily pocketed or portable book: a piece of Tudor efficiency. His Communion rite assumed full lay participation, in the cup as well as the bread. But the intention that Mattins and Evensong should be used on a daily basis was unrealistic, except perhaps in Maltby’s ‘conscionable’ households. And most English Protestants, like their co-religionists in other parts of Europe, could not be persuaded to break the medieval habit of taking Communion only once or twice a year. That once or twice could be an impressive demonstration of the real as well as formal inclusiveness of the reformed Church of England. Records exist to prove that in early 17th-century Southwark more than 90 per cent of the population (but not, apparently, William Shakespeare, living in the parish at the time) received Communion, significantly known as their ‘rights’, on the Sundays around Easter.

But this was not quite what Cranmer intended. As his biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch, has insisted, worship for Cranmer entailed the profound commitment of the frequent Eucharist. He would neither have understood nor approved of an ‘Anglicanism’ (a term he could never have encountered) which celebrates, as the jewel in its crown, choral Evensong in the setting of some sublimely beautiful medieval cathedral, which MacCulloch calls ‘the exploration of religion by those who have decided to remain on the fringe of the Church’.

From the outset, the religion of the Prayer Book had its religious critics. Elizabethan Puritans mocked the conventions of sitting, kneeling and standing when the Gospel was read, ‘with such a scraping on the ground that they cannot hear a good while after’. ‘They toss the Psalms in most places like tennis balls.’ With the mid-17th-century revolution and Civil War, the Prayer Book became a political symbol, still employed on a wide scale against the law and all adversity. Was the restoration of Anglicanism the consequence of the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, or the reason for it? With the legal resurrection of the Prayer Book, it could no longer pretend to be wholly consensual. For ever afterwards, the Church of England would be established but it would not be the Church of the whole nation. England’s enduring Catholics would, of course, say that that had always been the case, but if Richard Hooker had lived a hundred years later, not even he would have been able to say with a straight face that membership of the Church of England and of the Commonwealth of England amounted to the same thing. In the next revolution, of 1688-89, attempts at the comprehension of moderate Protestant dissent within the establishment failed, leaving only a measure of limited toleration for Nonconformists, which made a nonsense of the uniformitarianism of the Tudor statutes. The Church, as so often in years to come, found itself in crisis but survived, still in the 18th century the ideological backbone of what J.C.D. Clark has insisted was a confessional state.

So it was that all attempts to revise the worship of the Church of England, until well into the 20th century, were attempts not so much at liturgical reform for, as it were, its own sake and merits, as efforts to paper over cracks in the edifice of English Protestant Christianity, and to restore credibility to its discipline. Cracks are not necessarily threatening to the stability or even the survival of a building, but from the 1830s they were, as Anglicans who did not care to be called Protestants set about their programme of re-Catholicisation. Ecclesiastical lawyers earned fat fees and Anglo-Catholic ritualists went to jail over the interpretation of Elizabethan statute law and rubrics. Were Eucharistic vestments legal? Was it not a blasphemous repudiation of the Reformation to call Holy Communion ‘mass’ and to celebrate it with bells and smells? In Victorian England these issues were still political, and heartfelt. It was necessary to lay on special trains to bring from Lancashire to the Albert Hall the hundreds who wanted to protest against the proposed removal from the Prayer Book of the Athanasian Creed.

The sequel to these wars of religion was twenty years of liturgical revision conducted under royal ‘Letters of Business’, and designed both to contain the legitimate aspirations of High Churchmen, and to make it possible to reimpose liturgical order, conflicting policies which Bishop Hensley Henson of Durham condemned as ‘well-intentioned but intrinsically irrational’. The result was the revised Prayer Book of 1928. In the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA that book has left its mark on the new Book of Common Prayer which, in 1979, replaced the old Prayer Book. But in England, where Church Assembly had approved the new Prayer Book with a majority of 79 per cent, it fell at the Parliamentary hurdle, defeated in December 1927 by 238 votes to 205, thanks to the machinations of an Ulsterman and the hostility of MPs who were, many of them, not even communicant members of the established Church. In April 1928 there was a repeat performance. Bishop Henson, of all people, made public his reactive conclusion that there was now no alternative to disestablishment.

But seventy years on that has still not happened, which means that the Church of England is still legally bound to the use of liturgies dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and in the magnificent language of those days, still, strictly speaking, obliged to ask that God ‘prevent’ us in all our doings. Not so strictly, the Church moved in the postwar years to a succession of floppy little books, Series One, Series Two, Series Three; while more recently a whole generation has become accustomed to the much disparaged Alternative Service Book (1980), which maintained the fiction, although in many churches it was not a fiction, that this was merely a licensed ‘alternative’ to the supposed norm of the Book of Common Prayer. Church people dislike change, but within twenty years innovations can become old habits. Most of us became habituated even to the unfelicitous response to ‘The Lord be with you’ – ‘and also with you’. (But what would it mean, however gracious the words, to utter, in the 1990s: ‘and with thy spirit’?)

And so, in 2000, to Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, the culmination of many years of painstaking work, inspired by a disinterested concern to get the liturgy right, in relation to both ‘the rich inheritance of the past’ and what is claimed to be ‘the very best’ of contemporary forms of worship, no longer distracted, or not to anything like the same extent, by the politics of church parties and the atavistic dread of ‘popery’. The Book of Common Prayer remains the only permanently authorised provision for public worship, with the newer liturgies allowed ‘until further resolution of the General Synod’. But the Supreme Governor of the Church, while not in any formal sense declaring the royal assent, has accorded this new venture a cautious blessing.

Common Worship is a hefty book of more than eight hundred pages in which it would be easy to get lost. And it contains only what is needed for regular congregational use, forms of morning and evening prayer and ‘night prayer’ (compline), of the Holy Communion, and of initiation, not only Holy Baptism, but an enlightened service of ‘thanksgiving for the gift of a child’, suited to meet the needs of those parents and others who do not ask for baptism ‘but who recognise that something has happened for which they wish to give thanks to God’. This may help to reduce the incidence of what is at best embarrassing and at worst a scandal: requiring parents and godparents who hardly ever come to church to make promises which it is certain they will not keep. (One recalls the priest who, comparing notes with two colleagues about how to keep bats out of his church, said: ‘I baptise them and confirm them and they never come back.’) Other services, for marriages and funerals for example, are published separately.

It is not intended that worshippers will take this book to church, or be handed it at the door. Clergy, in consultation with their parochial church councils, are empowered and encouraged to pick and mix. Diversity is now a positive virtue. All the services are available on the World Wide Web and other electronic media, and can be downloaded according to taste and choice. Vicars without their own PCs will be at a serious disadvantage as the Church of England enters the age of Post-Modernism. Carping critics, and there will be plenty, should remember Matthew 11.17, the words of the children in the market place, calling to their fellows: ‘We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.’ For those still deeply attached to them, all the Prayer Book services are still here, alongside their more contemporary rivals. It will still be possible to go into church on a Sunday evening and to hear those matchless words, ‘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.’

But how many of us will do that? The main Sunday morning service, invariably these days a parish Eucharist, or ‘family Communion’, still attracts a respectable if ageing congregation in many typical parishes, but Evensong has almost everywhere collapsed. It is not an entirely fair question to ask of Common Worship whether it can staunch the haemorrhaging away of the very life-blood of the Church of England, since that is not its declared function, but Common Worship without worshippers can only be the pipedream of armchair liturgists.

The problem and the challenge is to persuade both those inside and outside the churches that worship has a meaningful connection with the worlds in which we live. On Advent Sunday (3 December) the Gospel for the day spoke of ‘distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.’ How topical – an apocalyptic prolepsis, one might think, of global warming. But this was the Sunday on which Common Worship made its debut, and in at least one parish the reading was applied to the distress and foreboding occasioned by this disruption to the well-established ways of churchgoers. In the Creed we are now to say that it was for ‘us’, not for ‘us men’, that Christ came down and was incarnate; and, something which exercised the General Synod for many hours (we may not say ‘man hours’), Christ is now incarnate ‘from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’, rather than ‘incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary’. One is reminded of the sketch in Beyond the Fringe: ‘Never mind the thousands perishing say I, sit down and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.’

The argument in favour of Common Worship is that it will energise congregations not only to worship more effectively but to bring those many humanly insoluble problems into church, fulfilling God’s promise (to quote the preface) to transform all creation in love and goodness. ‘Send us out,’ the Prayer after Communion still reads, ‘in the power of your Spirit, to live and work to your praise and glory.’

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