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May 16, 2006

The Book of Common Prayer is standard issue for Hollywood films but not for Anglican churches: Harry Phibbs on arranging a Christening that uses the Book of Common Prayer

Posted by Harry Phibbs

The words of the Book of Common Prayer are more likely to be heard today in a Hollywood film than in an Anglican church. Harry Phibbs describes the difficulties he encountered in arranging a Christening using the Book of Common Prayer.

The disappearance from our churches of the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1662, has emaciated the Church of England to a devastating effect. For generations the language was the same, now it has been almost entirely lost in the space of three or four decades. A few parishioners have enough clout to have it retained, of course. The Royal Family still enjoy it at the Chapel Royal in St James's and the other services they attend in Windsor and the great state occasions at St Paul's.

As for the rest of us there is a greater likelihood of hearing the words of the Prayer Book by renting the latest Hollywood blockbuster from the video shop than by going to Church.

No wonder. Imagine you're a film director (of whatever religious belief) and you're including a wedding scene. Which version would you prefer to have the service begin with? This from the BCP:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men's carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.
Or this from Common Worship:
In the presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we have come together to witness the marriage of N and N, to pray for God's blessing on them, to share their joy and to celebrate their love. Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.
Or perhaps there is a funeral. What would be better at the box office? This from the BCP:
Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; 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, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
Or this from Common Worship:
God our creator and redeemer, by your power Christ conquered death and entered into glory. Confident of his victory and claiming his promises, we entrust N to your mercy in the name of Jesus our Lord, who died and is alive and reigns with you, now and for ever.
It's not even close, is it? Thomas Cranmer turns out to have become one of the greatest screen writers in the business. But what was universal for centuries in our churches has been virtually banished in the space of a few short decades. One test is to ask your local vicar to use the BCP for a specific family event - a wedding, a funeral or in my recent experience a christening.

When I tried to find a Church that would agree to christen my daughter I looked at Chiswick in West London so that my parents-in-law could conveniently provide a reception after the service. The nearest, St Michael and All Angels, by Bedford Park, flatly refused when I explained that I wanted the BCP used. The secretary relayed the request to the vicar (whose name is Kevin) and then relayed his refusal back to me.

Quite extraordinary, given the official status that the Book of Common Prayer enjoys. The Church of England's official website states:

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer is a permanent feature of the Church of England's worship. It is loved for the beauty of its language and its services are widely used. It is also the foundation of a tradition of common prayer and a key source of the Church of England's doctrine.
The statement adds that:
It cannot be altered or abandoned without the approval of Parliament.
But then comes a telling addition:
It is planned that the texts of the Book of Common Prayer will be published on this web site as time and resources allow.
Oh dear, the Church of England, with all its multimillion pound investments doesn't have the "resources". But it does find the "resources" to include the vacuous banal Common Worship in full. It says:
On these pages, you will find the Common Worship texts, supporting resources and information about other authorized services it says.
(Perhaps once they have found the resources they might like to include this link on their website).

In another section of the website Your Marriage in the Church of England one of the questions is:

Can I choose what kind of service I want?
The answer?
You can choose to have a modern language service or one in more traditional language including the Book of Common Prayer service. Talk over the options with your parish priest.
Good luck.

Anybody who believes the Church authorities are even handed between the use of the two texts is highly naive. New vicars can be ordained without ever having set eyes on the Book of Common Prayer. There is a remorseless ideological drive to eradicate the Prayer Book. I simply find it impossible to believe that this is because they imagine the modern language alternative is more effective. The only reason can be a wish to emaciate the Church and erode its self belief.

The resistance is valiant with the Prayer Book Society offering comfort and solidarity to those who are unwilling to allow the demise of the Prayer Book. Its ranks include my fellow Social Affairs Unit commentator the Rev'd. Peter Mullen of St Michael's Cornhill in the City of London. They have many powerful allies not least the Prince of Wales. The Prayer Book Society lists Church services that use the BCP. This is most useful and includes churches around the country but often you have to get up pretty early in the morning with services starting at 8.00 or 8.30 am.

The Revd Canon George Tolley of Sheffield Cathedral says:

The demolition of common prayer is clearly the agenda of the Liturgical Commission. Liturgy is no longer regarded as a foundation of doctrine, unifying and nurturing the whole Church, but a collection of resource materials for use by worshipping congregations. The Preface of 2000, compared to the Preface of 1662, sadly tells of a Church that has lost its way.
It might be harder to get your child baptised using the BCP than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle but this does not mean it is impossible. (Here I am assuming that Jesus was referring to a well-known gate in Jerusalem called Needle's Eye, that was built so low that a camel could only pass if it entered kneeling and unencumbered with baggage rather than a needle as in a sewing implement and that therefore it is difficult rather than impossible for a rich man to get into Heaven.)

I discovered that the Revd Patrick Tuft of St Nicholas Church, Church Street, Chiswick (down by the River Thames, off the Hogarth roundabout) was more open minded. He didn't agree at once but asked to see me about it. He had no objection he said but was curious as it was such an unusual request.

There was the practical problem to overcome as the Church didn't have the relevant Prayer Book. I offered to bring along photocopies but this quickly shamed him into assuring me he would be able to get hold of them one way or another. I think the challenge and novelty of this mission intrigued him.

I'm a member of the Atheneum, you know,
he assured me evidently worried that I have written him off as some kind of left wing wrecker because of his initial reticence. The lesson is that many priests are quite responsive to what their parishioners think. But we have to tell them.

Pressure can come from below to counter that from the Church bureaucrats. His sermons are sound and interesting. They use the BCP text for their Sunday evening services at 6.00 pm (although the Bible readings are not taken from the King James Bible which is a bit of a cheat.) I should go along more often.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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It is a shame that the beautiful language of the BCP has been consigned to the past.

Is there a reason you didn't have your daughter christened in the parish where you regularly worship?

Posted by: Michael Bates at May 16, 2006 02:54 PM
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Another fine piece from Mr Phibbs!

Thos Cranmer's solicitors take note: one morning Ira Gershwin came to work and told his brother, George, that he had a terrifying nightmare: "Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms came back to life! And they had good lawyers!"

Posted by: s masty at May 16, 2006 09:17 PM
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