Friday, December 16, 2005

Tossing the Prayer Book in the Church of England

You may remember that when I visited Canterbury Cathedral, I was repelled by the liturgy there – Advent collects omitted, the Lord’s Prayer so tampered with I couldn’t recite it even while looking at the words in front of me, and more.

Well, as noted over on titusonenine, I’m not the only one appalled by the state of the liturgy in England. I unfortunately missed it while I was there, but the Telegraph ran a column denouncing the Church of England’s wholesale tossing of the Book of Common Prayer.

May I remind the reader that the 1662 BCP is still the official prayer book of the Church of England. Well, Canterbury sure doesn’t act like it. And it’s far from alone.

Now I’ll try to be charitable and say replacing the BCP with Common Worship is probably well meaning. One motive is surely to be more inclusive and make the liturgy more accessible to people.

But the effect is the opposite. It’s divisive. It divides the generations. Older folks used to the real BCP (and traditionalists like myself) fumble along in modern liturgy services. And even once they get used to modern liturgy, a lot of them flat don’t like it. They sure don’t get included much. It divides us further from our spiritual ancestors, taking our prayers further and further away from the prayers they prayed.

And it risks dividing us from the truth. Think about that old childhood game of whispering a message around a circle. By the time the message comes back around, it’s mangled. Excessive tampering with the liturgy risks the same thing. That’s the nature of language. Certainly, in omitting wonderful collects, the Canterbury priests were omitting at least a portion of their truth. (I noticed sloppiness about collects elsewhere in England, but Canterbury was the worst.)

And remember I attended more prominent places of worship. If they played fast and loose with the liturgy, what does that say about the Church of England as a whole?

An aside: there is a strong force in the Church of England that preserves traditional liturgy to some extent – choral music. All the great choral church pieces use the good old BCP.* So if you go to Choral Evensong in England, you are guaranteed to get good traditional liturgy . . . at least while the choir is singing.

*Later, it occurred to me that's not quite correct. But the point remains that choral music encourages sticking to the BCP.

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