The Book of Common Prayer and Anglican patrimony

How important is The Book of Common Prayer for Anglican patrimony?  Right now, at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a Catholic parish of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, we still use the red 1962 Book of Common Prayer for public celebrations of Mattins, Evensong and for private devotions.Yet, most of the Anglican world moved on from these books some time ago, for the more contemporary Book of Alternative Services.

In a subsequent post, I will share here what is going on to replace the Book of Common Prayer for the Ordinariates. I trust that like our beautiful Divine Worship Missal, it will be faithful to the best of the Prayer Book tradition within the context of the Catholic Church.

That said, I came across this marvelous piece today:  God, Gallup, and the Episcopalians by Cleanth Brooks about the move to replace the Book of Common Prayer in the United States with contemporary language versions.  The article was originally published in 1983, but I believe still has some relevance for those of us concerned about Anglican patrimony and the Prayer Book’s influence.

The rejection of the old Prayer Book was something like the demolition of a historic building. For over four centuries it has been regarded as a monument of great prose. It has influenced the English language with memorable images and phrasing. Only the King James trans­lation of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare have affected our language so much. Why did the Episcopal Church discard this precious inheritance? Various people have asked the question publicly, including Roman Catho­lics, Protestants, and many who profess no Christian faith at all. A man of letters of international stature has more than once asked me: “Why in the hell has your church discarded the one thing it has that could seriously attract people who value language of beauty and power? I just can’t understand it.”

Interestingly, the author describes the change to contemporary language as a top-down exercise that a Gallup poll taken at the time showed was not all that popular with the people in the pews.

Go and read the article for gems like this:

Therefore, the more we learn about language, the sillier it becomes to think that we can determine, by referring to the publication date, whether some works—poetry or prayer books—are worn out. Our language itself is old. Moreover, some of the newest fabrica­tions of language are the least effective. . . .

Dorothy Mills Parker, in her excellent pamphlet The Prayer Book Issue, cites typical infelicities. In the old Prayer Book, verse 1 of Psalm 69 reads: “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.” The 1979 Prayer Book renders it thus: “Save me, O God, for the water has risen up to my neck.” We move from austere grandeur to awkward literalness. The cry sounds like that of a careless bather who has let himself be caught offshore by the in­coming tide. The reader will exclaim, “Save me, O God, from such a translation.”

1 thought on “The Book of Common Prayer and Anglican patrimony

  1. The relevant question here is to what extent a language can evolve before the old usage becomes incomprehensible to the general population. In the Roman Catholic Church, we saw what happened when liturgical language failed to evolve with secular use: the liturgy remained in Latin while the language of the people evolved into Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and other modern “Romance” languages. When the liturgy became incomprehensible to the people, the people lose the ability to participate fully in the liturgy. If you don’t believe this, go to a mass celebrated in a language that you don’t speak!

    Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. The proper question is how frequently liturgical language needs revision to reflect contemporary usage so that the people in the pews continue to understand it correctly. I would prefer more frequent updates, as they would be a less radical than less frequent updates.



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