whose bowels move and melt with pity to the poor’… is a marvellous hymn by the great Isaac Watts. It is obviously true – especially for any of us (man or otherwise) that have had times of suffering the opposite. But clearly, Watts isn’t talking about digestive rhythms, he is referring to the idea in the King James Version of the First Letter of St John. The language of mercy and compassion in this instance come from the gut – so either our bowels are ‘shut up’ or open/moving with compassion.
It would be very funny to see the faces of the congregation asked to sing this hymn on a Sunday morning now! Language changes. In the Book of Common Prayer we bid God ‘Prevent us O Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour’. What? Stop us? No! Pre-vent meant ‘to go before’, ‘to prepare a path’, in those days. Other words too – nice, smart, awesome – have all changed in their use and meaning.
So why has the congregation of St Giles’ Church in Lent of 2023 decided to go back to using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Holy Communion liturgy for the main 10am service for much of this holy season? Why are we dusting off outdated and strange words?
Well, despite the widespread use of modern language services in most churches nowadays, the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is still the ‘normative’ rite of the C of E. It is still the default to which all later liturgies are optional alternatives. The Common prayer book was designed to be just that: a one-stop-shop from cradle to grave for all English people, and it still has riches to offer. The words: ‘We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs’, ‘and with thy spirit’ have given voice to prayer in communities of every shape and size up and down the land for centuries. They have sustained and nurtured us in war, pestilence and peace, in times of celebration and disaster. Recent funerals like those of The late Duke of Edinburgh, Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the wedding of the now Prince and Princess of Wales show the BCP’s genius for bringing people together before our Maker.
For all this, we must be careful not to be wallowing in nostalgia. Christianity is a religion of hope. Christians are encouraged to look forward with love and hope – to look out and up and forward in everything that we do. We do not hanker after a better past, worshipping nostalgia. Lent (the Springtime for the soul) is our preparation for Easter. In the Resurrection of Jesus, God defeats death and hell forever. Sin and separation and darkness of every kind is deprived of its ultimate power – in the end, eternal life and love will have the last word. This new reality consummated in the Resurrection of Jesus is a new creation, not a return. Christians are an Easter People – our cry of Alleluia is a hopeful forward-looking song, not a nostalgic ballad.
Likewise, we don’t worship the Prayer Book (however beautiful its cadence and language, or important its influence on our history and culture); we use the Prayer Book to worship God and love our neighbours as ourselves (or at least to try to do those things)!
And what’s more, we have to be honest that the Prayer Book is as political as it is religious. It emerged after the Church in England removed itself from the Catholic Church on the continent. The various versions that were compiled until the definitive Restoration edition of 1662 speak of negotiation and compromise. If you come to St Giles’ (as I hope you will) to use these beautiful, truth-telling words you will notice parts of the medieval Catholic Mass translated directly into English. You will notice new Protestant theologies gaining ground in the way the crucifixion is articulated, and sinfulness engaged with head on (and at some length…). As we pray these words together, you can almost hear the editorial board rowing over ‘nothing has changed!’ on the one hand and the Reformers’ shouts of ‘this is all corrupt – we have a new and better way!’ on the other. Is the Prayer Book the definitive statement that the C of E was not a new church or religion, but a continuation? Or is it precisely the opposite? Is it both?!
Calvinism and ancient Catholic threads are interwoven with prayers that also speak simply to rural communities facing disease and ‘inclement weather’. The Prayer Book is a work of poetic genius, political strife, and a deep and abiding expression of ‘ordinary’ humanity. Whenever I use it I feel a very strong sense of connection with the people who have lived its rhythms for centuries. This connection with God and other people feels like an enormous privilege.
As ever, it is a curate’s egg – but then again since when was anything worth having in life simple?
Snippet from the spring Barbican Life editorial by Reverend Canon Jack Noble