Patrick Collinson

  • Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England
    Churchhouse, 864 pp, £15.00, December 2000, ISBN 0 7151 2000 X

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.

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