Last week I was the guest speaker at the semi-finals of the Book of Common Prayer recital contest in Kent. Even one of the participants said to me, “This is a bit eccentric, isn’t it?”
I’d been invited to give a talk on “my relationship with the Book of Common Prayer.” I didn’t think I had one, so I was minded to decline – except that the lady organising the event was so nice and persuasive that I gave in. She wrote that she couldn’t offer me payment “but I can guarantee you a parking space”. That was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
The contest was for secondary school children: each pupil recited two passages from the Book. When the judges retired to compared notes on diction etc, I gave my little speech, beginning by saying how really very good the recitals were. Church reading isn’t easy. You need to bring the passage alive but don’t want to ham it up: the focus must be on the text, not you, and the Book speaks for itself because it’s quite simply one of the greatest achievements in the English language. Compiled by Thomas Cranmer in the middle of the English Reformation, it is the beating liturgical heart of Anglicanism.
I was a member of the Church of England myself once, but only very briefly – so I didn’t get to fully appreciate Cranmer’s intelligence and poetry. Recently though I’ve become heavily involved with the ordinariate – that happy band of ex-Anglicans who have joined the Catholic Church, bringing with them some of the best of the Anglican tradition, including its magnificent thees, thys and thous. Before distributing Holy Communion, ordinariate priests recite Cranmer’s “Prayer of Humble Access”: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” It’s a profound moment when everyone stops to contemplate just how awesome Christ’s sacrifice is, and it helps explain the emphasis upon reverence in sacramental worship. If you believe that this really is the Body and Blood of Christ, if you are in front of the actual King of Heaven, why wouldn’t you fall to your knees? “We are not worthy,” says the Book, “so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.”
Now, as I said all of this I was aware that I was speaking to an overwhelmingly Anglican crowd, and the ordinariate is controversial in the CofE because some see it as having stolen their priests. But, I said, isn’t the ordinariate rite a breathtaking example of real ecumenism? Could Cranmer – a man murdered by Mary I – ever have imagined that 500 years later, his words would be spoken by Roman Catholics here in England? It’s a demonstration of the power of beauty to cross boundaries and unite Christians around what really matters. The concern for eternal truths should bring Catholics and Protestants together; it’s a lot more important than the specifics that separate them.
The specifics matter, of course: they’re why I made a positive choice to be a Catholic rather than an Anglican. But we are sprung from the same tradition and we are all engaged in the same fight to save Christianity from the forces of nihilism and unbelief. And when I hear the truth spoken with such elegance – be it in a Catholic Mass or at a Book of Common Prayer recital in a school hall – my heart is glad.
I should’ve mentioned that I actually attended this particular school as a child. I was very nervous about going back. I didn’t have a good time at school: in fact, I did my best to avoid it and when I did show up, they suspended me for refusing to sing the National Anthem. There was an oddly rebellious thrill about using the staff toilet.
The site has metastasised, sprouting up gyms and science blocks, but the old hall is still comfortingly small, Victorian and austere, with an enormous painting of the founder looking down on us like a Dickensian tyrant. I sneaked away and had a look in my former history room, and was overjoyed to find they’re still using the same textbooks, 20 years on.
The socialists would say it’s a sign of criminal underfunding, but the ability of school textbooks to survive a nuclear war with some sellotape and brown paper is marvellous.
Maybe, I thought, England’s not so bad. Maybe outside London it hasn’t all fallen away, and people are still going about thinking the way they always did and doing the things they’ve always done – like a Book of Common Prayer recital. If that’s true, it shows how entirely out of proportion the attention paid to the metropolis is. London isn’t England, like New York isn’t America. Beyond the walls of the capitals, things are still pretty much meet and right.
Tim Stanley is a journalist, historian and Catholic Herald contributing editor