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A New Creation: Performing the Book of Common Prayer

According to the medievalist Mary Carruthers, the metaphor of travel governed monastic architecture and liturgy. Those who entered a church or performed a service set out on a journey from a starting point (or stasis) to an end (or skopos), passing through the intellectual, emotional, and physical stations along the Way (or ductus).[1] These stations were thought to affect travelers deeply. Upon completing the pilgrimage they would not only be somewhere different but actually besomeone different as well. The authors and editors of the Book of Common Prayer cribbed heavily from monastic sources, and the stations of its famous morning and evening services—the Sentences of the Scriptures, an exhortation, public confession, absolution, and the Lord’s Prayer—led congregations from separation to unity, forming the young Church of England along the way.

Along with classical terms like ductus, men and women in early modern England also inherited the belief that bodily actions both displayed inner states and, more importantly, produced them. With its roots in the Aristotelian concept of habitus, the idea that our devotional practices make up our minds was held by everyone from the churchman John Browning to the eccentric polyglot Sir Thomas Browne.[2] The compilers of the first Book of Common Prayer certainly agreed, and Ramie Targoff has shown us how Thomas Cramner and others wanted worshippers to “absorb” the liturgy and to perform their devotions in a way that their “hearts might fully concur with [the minister] in every particular sentence.”[3]

We should not confuse absorption of the liturgy, however, with passivity. The American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, during an unsuccessful job talk at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, said that action refines sentiment. He praised the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer for realizing that we feign the passions we actually feel:

The feigning of a passion that you really feel. What is it? It is the special mark of our church that it teaches the congregation to feign the devotion they really feel; and, by doing so, the church develops and strengthens the sentiments. You teach your children to kneel down and say their prayers. Why? Because by the law of the association of ideas, if they really have the devotional feeling, the deliberate putting on of the expression of it, develops the feeling. . . . There is the great psychological principle with which the clergyman has to work.[4]

When it came to liturgy, the editors of the Book of Common Prayer saw words and actions as bound together and equally important to participation. Indeed, the 1662 edition of the prayer book included a rubric with directions for performing each part of the morning and evening services; it matched particular words with participatory commentary like “all kneeling” or “said in a loud voice.” What I will show now is how, through word and action, these services “feign” the gathering of sinful individuals into a pardoned and unified church.

Men and women in monastic orders were almost constantly engaged in prayer and penance. The new services, however, were supposed to be the “religious portion” of most English Christians’ lives, and Thomas Cranmer and others were aware that many in the pews would not have spent their days (or nights) like monks. After a short scriptural reading, the minister exhorts the assembly to acknowledge its sinfulness: “Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness. . . . Wherefore I pray, and beseech you as many as are here present, to accompany me with a pure heart, and humble voice unto the throne of the heavenly grace, saying after me.”[5] At this point in the service, the minister is both one of the congregation and remains apart from them. He calls them “brethren,” brothers, and his use of the first person plural (“us . . . our”) implies that he, no less than they, suffers from “sin and wickedness.” At the same time, however, he is the speaker, the one who calls the rest to account (“I,”he says, ask “you” to repeat after “me”). He knows the way from separation to unity.

After the exhortation, the minister and congregation make a public confession. This is the moment when the congregation begins its participation, both in voice and in body. The 1662 prayer book offers these directions for the confession: “A general Confession to be said of the whole Congregation after the Minister, all kneeling.”[6] The minister says each clause of the confession, and then the congregation traditionally repeats it “after” him (“Almighty, and most merciful Father,” says the minister; “Almighty, and most merciful Father,” replies the congregation). As Peirce has suggested, kneeling was more than a show of penance; it was meant to create the “humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart” that the minister had called for in his exhortation. Notice that here, as in the exhortation, the people remain apart from the minister, following his lead.

After the confession, the minister stands alone and gives the “Absolution or Remission of sins.” He tells the congregation that if their hearts concur with their actions, they are forgiven: “Almighty God . . . hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins.” The congregation replies “amen,” and then says the Lord’s Prayer, with these further directions: “Then the Minister shall kneel, and say the Lord’s Prayer with an audible voice; the People also kneeling, and repeating with him, both here and wheresoever else it is used in Divine service.”[7] The people do not repeat the Lord’s Prayer after the minister, as they did in the confession; they instead speak it in unison with him, as one voice. Furthermore, as the minister and congregation say the Lord’s Prayer, they are kneeling together, on equal footing (as it were). Having gone through penance and absolution, they are now equal participants in the service, and after another short dialogue, during which they all stand together, minister and congregation, united now into one church, they join their voices in psalms and canticles. Through human confession and divine forgiveness, the people and minister have become one church, which worships as a single body with a single voice. To return to the Latin, the stasis or starting point of the liturgy was separation, but via a ductus of confession, absolution, and forgiveness, the congregation arrives at its skopos: a single church. Now we have the creation I promised in the title of my paper, but where is the newness?

To answer that question we must return to the very first station of the service. Both the morning and evening services begin with the Sentences of the Scriptures. As it appears on the page of the prayer book, the Sentences of the Scriptures consists of eleven verses from such books as Ezekiel, Joel, Daniel, Matthew, Luke, and the Psalms.[8] In general, they suggest that the minister who speaks the Sentences has sinned but that God is willing to forgive him. A verse from the book of Joel captures this dynamic: “Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.”[9] Themes of contrition, judgment, and forgiveness run throughout the verses as a whole, though each of them addresses these themes in a slightly different way. For instance, a verse from Psalm 51 deals solely with fault and not at all with forgiveness: “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”[10]

As the Sentences of the Scriptures appear in the prayer book, one verse follows another, as if each were a line of poetry, and yet it would not make sense toread the Sentences of the Scriptures as a unified literary object because it is nothing of the kind. In practice, different performances of the liturgy could begin with different sentences. The rubrical directions for the Sentences read: “At the beginning of Morning Prayer the Minister shall read with a loud voice some one or more of these Sentences of the Scriptures, that follow.”[11] The phrase some one or more of these Sentences may seem unremarkable, but I contend that it allows the minister to vary the path of the service as a whole. Instead of thinking of the “The Order for Morning and Evening Prayer” as a command, we should understand it here as a set of rules or a regulatory scheme.[12] The minister could say one of the sentences, or two, or all eleven, in any order, and could therefore conceivably create a new prayer every morning and every night without straying outside the order of the service. In all likelihood, the minister would simply choose one of the eleven, but even that amount of variability suggests that as every day is different, with its own sins and shortcomings, every service, through which the minister and the congregation set out on the path to forgiveness and unity, must be different, too.

It may seem that I am claiming too much here—after all, as I mentioned, the provided passages are fairly similar—but even subtle changes in the selection or ordering of the verses alter the preparation for the entire service. Imagine the following two prayers spoken aloud at the beginning of the Order for Morning Prayer:

I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:3)

I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him; Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (Luke 15:18–19)

I will arise and go to my Father, and will say unto him; Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (Luke 15:18–19). I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. (Psalm 51:3)[13]

In the first prayer, the minister acknowledges his fault to himself, and this bitter self-knowledge sends him on a journey to the Father’s house. He plans his confession, but that is something he will offer in the future, at the end of the journey. In the second prayer, however, the supplicant first resolves to travel to the Father and then ends with the confession itself, addressed to the Father. The difference between these prayers may seem slight, but each has a different ductus: it draws the listener along a different emotional path. One who followed the first prayer would begin the rest of the morning service with a sense of determination, steeled for the journey. One who followed the second would begin it in a state of great suspense. Confession has been made, and now one must wait for the Father’s reply. What will he say? Such changes in wording produce recognizably different prayers and recognizably different paths.

Many other parts of the morning and evening services also follow a variable order rather than a tight script. Most obviously, the church calendar appoints different Old and New Testament lessons for each day of the year. Other times there are choices between various psalms and canticles, between Mary’s Magnificat and Psalm 98, for example. No two morning or evening services need ever be alike, and therefore, each new service can unite the church in a new way. Rather than existing as a text on a page, the church appears whenever and wherever it is performed, embodied in a way that carries it through history from one day to the next. The journey is always different, undertaken multiple times every day, but the destination is always the same. Along the path from the Sentences to songs of praise, the congregation has become a part of the whole church, and the variability of the Orders reminds them that this had to happen anew every day and requires their participation. In sum, the liturgy was a necessary condition for the ongoing life of their tradition.

One might argue, of course, that this was all wishful thinking on the part of Thomas Cranmer, John Cosin, and the many others (myself included) who either wrote the Orders or commented on them. Perhaps the liturgy was ineffective. Perhaps it never formed the peoples’ piety in the way Cranmer and Cosin hoped it would. Many English Christians did in fact resist liturgical reforms. Before the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the king had decreed that the Lord’s Prayer was to be said in English rather than in Latin, but reports from the district of Kent informed Cranmer that the locals refused to pray in the vernacular for fear that it wouldn’t work. When it was published, the Book of Common Prayer was too Catholic for the Puritans and too Protestant for the Catholics. It seems to have won scant public approval—at least at first. Over the next two hundred years, it went through more than five hundrededitions, and more than one million copies were made between 1549 and 1730.[14]

The laity jealously guarded its participation in the liturgy. The historian Judith Maltby relates a telling anecdote about a Manchester church. Parishioners of the church complained about their new curate in a long letter to the local bishop. The letter included a list of fifteen grievances, and their chief complaint was that the new minister, Ralph Kirke, had removed congregational participation from the Order for Morning Prayer:“For the manner of morninge prayer whereas divers of the parish, who have been used to helpe the parish clarke, to read verse for verse with the Curate for fourtye yeares laste past and more. . . . The sayde Ralph Kirke hath of late tymes not permitted them so to doe.”[15] In contemporary terms, people in the parish had read the scriptures aloud during the service for forty years, and Ralph Kirke had reserved that privilege for himself. Many others also took their ministers to ecclesial courts, insisting that they be allowed to participate in the services just like the prayer book said they should. In some dioceses, parishioners brought their prayer books to church and followed the service closely, demanding that the minister follow the liturgy as the prayer book had laid it out.

The Book of Common Prayer also survived seventeenth-century England’s political upheavals. For instance, during the Glorious Revolution, 15,000 Londoners petitioned Oliver Cromwell to eliminate the Anglican services and its hated prayer book. However, a counterpetition sprang up in defense of the liturgy.[16] Its signers were not only lords and gentry. Instead, as Maltby has discovered, support for the Book of Common Prayer came from “hedgers at the hedge, plowmen at the plow, threshers in the barn.”[17] By this time, the prayer book had “settled into the national consciousness,” and it was valued by many, high and low alike.[18] The Book of Common Prayer as a whole created subjects in a double sense. In prayers for the royal family and for “the Queen’s Majesty,” it was forming them as political subjects. But through their participation in the service, they also became part of the church’s body and exercised control over it. Whether signing petitions or taking their ministers to court, the people of the Church of England were protecting their prayer books, their liturgy, and, by extension, their church.

Much recent reflection on Christian liturgy has tied it to ethical formation, particularly virtue theory. That is, liturgy is a set of practices that both suggests rules for right living and enables its practitioners to follow those rules. The recent Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is a good example. Take this line from the introduction, written by a theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, and an Anglican priest, Samuel Wells: “The liturgy offers ethics a series of ordered practices that shape the character and assumptions of Christians, and suggest habits and models that inform every aspect of corporate life.”[19] This line of thought derives from Alasdair MacIntyre, who, more than anyone else, reintroduced Christian ethicists to virtue theory. MacIntyre insists that practices are essential for both the growth of virtue in individuals and for the ongoing life of a tradition as a whole. His understanding of practices and tradition seems to cover the Book of Common Prayer quite well. Through their participation in the liturgy, English men and women learned to live as members of the church. Yet by practices MacIntyre means “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity.”[20] Of course liturgy is a complicated, cooperative human activity with internal goods, and many in early modern England absorbed and displayed these goods (humility, thankfulness, and the like), but I would demur here over the idea that those performing the liturgy are always striving toward some more excellent realization of its goods. In fact, what appeals to me about liturgy is not its rare excellence but its ordinary everydayness: the way today’s excellent service brings us to the same place (unity, forgiveness) as yesterday’s mediocre one.

Let me expand this point by returning to Mary Carruthers. Of the frightening statues at Moissac Abbey in France she writes that “I have deliberately not presented an erudite reading of this material; more learned people can, have done, and will erect much more impressive edifices upon this extraordinary sculptured fiction than I have here. . . . But almost anybody can ‘get’ the fundamentals of this composition, because almost everybody will be affected and intended emotionally by it.”[21] Liturgy, no less than architecture, was supposed to edify the rude and learned alike, andwhile few can be courageous, it is easy to be afraid of those statues, and it is easy to participate in the Church of England through the Book of Common Prayer. The very name implies that anyone can join in. While I think that MacIntyre describes the workings of Thomism exactly, I submit that if we expect liturgy to function like Thomistic education, we will inevitably be disappointed. I do not deny that liturgy has a hand in Christian formation, and I have argued that it was vital for the formation of the Church of England; I only doubt that a teleological virtue ethic offers an adequate account of that formation. It does not seem to me that one improves through the liturgy in the way one gets better at portrait painting, baseball, chess, or theology (MacIntyre’s paradigmatic examples of practices). This would explain why every time we talk about liturgy in terms of moral formation, we have to acknowledge the awkward fact that those of us with formal liturgical traditions tend to be no more virtuous than those of us without them. Perhaps the point of liturgy is not to form excellent Christians, though that may happen. The point may be just to gather the ordinary ones, imperfect and common as they may be, into a living tradition again and again.

 


[1] Carruthers, The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Creation of Images 400 to 1200 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 262.

[2] Targoff, Common Prayer: The Language of Public Devotion in Early Modern England (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 10–11.

[3] Ibid., 46–47. The remark in quotation marks comes from Richard Bancroft.

[4] Charles Sanders Peirce, “The First Six Lessons in Elocution for Episcopalian Ministers: The Address to the Congregation at Morning and Evening Prayer,” Harvard University Archives.

[5] Brian Cummings, ed., The Book of Common Prayer: The Texts of 1549, 1559, and 1662 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 240.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 239.

[9] Ibid., 240 and Joel 2:13.

[10] Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer and Psalm 51:3.

[11] Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 239.

[12] John Henry Blunt, DD, ed., The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, Being an Historical, Ritual, and Theological Commentary on the Devotional System of the Church of England (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1886), 181.

[13] Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, 239.

[14] Ibid., x–xxiii.

[15] Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 42.

[16] Cummings The Book of Common Prayer, xl.

[17] Maltby, Prayer Book and People in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England, 225.

[18] Cummings, The Book of Common Prayer, xl.

[19] Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing), 7.

[20] MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 187.

[21] Carruthers, The Craft of Thought, 265. My italics.

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Author:
Paul W. Gleason :
Paul W. Gleason is a PhD student in the University of Virginia religious studies department. He studies poetry, liturgy, hermeneutics, and ordinary language philosophy.
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  • George Waite

    If you don’t become more virtuous, why bother? What’s the point of gathering together “again and again” if not to get better? It’s like running twice as fast but you stay in the same place or taking medicine that has no effect on your health.