Talk about God
- By James Wood
Suppose you find yourself, in the late afternoon, in one of the English cathedral towns—Durham, say, or York, or Salisbury, or Wells, or Norwich—or in one of the great university cities, like Oxford or Cambridge. The shadows are thickening, and you are mysteriously drawn to the enormous, ancient stone structure at the center of the city. You walk inside, and find that a service is just beginning.
Through the stained glass, the violet light outside is turning to black. Inside, candles are lit; the flickering flames dance and rest, dance and rest. A precentor chants, ‘O Lord, open thou our lips.’ A choir breaks into song: ‘And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise.’ The precentor continues, ‘O God, make speed to save us.’ And the choir replies, musically, ‘O Lord, make haste to help us.’
The visitor has stumbled upon a service, Evensong, whose roots stretch back at least to the tenth century, and whose liturgy has been in almost continuous use since 1549, the date of the first Book of Common Prayer, which was revised in 1552, and lightly amended in 1662, three hundred and fifty years ago. The Book of Common Prayer was the first compendium of worship in English.
The words — many of them, at least — were written by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1533 and 1556. Cranmer did not cut his text from whole cloth: in the ecumenical spirit that characterises the Book of Common Prayer, he went to the Latin liturgy that the English Catholic Church had used for centuries.
In particular, he turned to a book known as the Sarum Missal, which priests at Salisbury Cathedral had long used to conduct services. It contained a calendar of festivals, along with prayers and readings for those festivals; and it held orders of service for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and the Mass.
The Missal was a handbook for priests and monks, though, not for the laity, and its language was Latin, not English. Cranmer wanted a prayer book in English, one that could be understood by ordinary people, even by those who could not read.
To this end, he translated and simplified a good deal of the Sarum Missal: from the monastic services of Matins, Vespers, and Compline he fashioned Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer (commonly known now as Evensong), which are familiar to millions of members of the worldwide Anglican Church. He borrowed elements of the liturgy of the Reformed church in Cologne, and adapted a prayer of St John Chrysostom from the Byzantine rite. He also wrote dozens of new prayers and collects, in a language at once grand and simple, heightened and practical, archaic and timeless.
Cranmer had been a Cambridge scholar (he had held a lectureship in Biblical studies) and a diplomat, before being plucked by Henry VIII to be archbishop, and he almost certainly did not imagine that he was writing one of the great, abiding works of English literature, what the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch calls ‘one of a handful of texts to have decided the future of a world language.’ But the acute poetry, balanced sonorities, heavy order, and direct intimacy of Cranmer’s prose have achieved permanence, and many of his phrases and sentences are as famous as lines from Shakespeare or the King James Bible.
People who have never read the Book of Common Prayer know the phrase ‘moveable feast,’ or ‘vile body,’ or the solemn warning of the marriage service: ‘If either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.’ The same is true of the vows the couple speak to each other: ‘to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth.’
Full article in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/10/22/121022crat_atlarge_wood?currentPage=all
Wikipedia on The Sarum Missal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarum_Rite
Wikipedia on James Wood: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wood_(critic)
Wikipedia on Thomas Cranmer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cranmer
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