The Excellent Liturgy
Some further notes on the Book of Common Prayer:
In the addendum to my article on the Book of Common Prayer, which appeared in the first issue of ‘The Clarion,’ I said that, “the Prayer Book has a future because the Anglican Church has no future without it.” The historical notes which follow, will, I hope, serve to reinforce that statement.
On the Feast of St. Mark, 25th April, 1797, at St. Mary-le-Bow, London, the Rector, William Van Mildert, later Bishop of Durham, preached a sermon entitled ‘The Excellency of the Liturgy, and the Advantages of Being Educated in the Doctrine and Principles, of the Church of England,’ in which he praised the 1662 Book of Common Prayer “for preserving the happy medium between extremes, and for being distinguished by the spirit of piety as well as perspicuous and beautiful simplicity” (p. 11). He declared:
“Our Liturgy, indeed, in its present state, is a most valuable repository of Christian knowledge. It serves as a manual of faith and practice; nor can any person be thoroughly conversant in it, without finding his understanding enlightened, his thoughts spiritualized, and his heart improved” (p. 13).
Setting aside the appeals for the removal of errors and corruptions and for a shortened form, he stated:
“Upon the preservation, therefore, of our excellent Liturgy in its present improved state, must depend, in a great measure, the preservation of the Church of England” (p. 15).
Van Mildert held the Prayer Book in great esteem, an esteem, which was repeated by others throughout the nineteenth century. In 1802, Thomas Rogers gave a series of lectures in the Parish Church of Wakefield and published in 1816, on the service of Morning Prayer, which were intended to impress upon the minds of the recipients “a due sense of the excellency and utility of the Liturgy of our Church” (Lectures, 1816, p. 11). He urged:
“These excellent compositions of the Common Prayer, have a strong claim to your serious attention, not only for the plainness and simplicity of their style, and the admirable order in which they are arranged, but for their direct tendency to produce and establish in you that humility and spirituality of mind which every real Christian would wish to possess, when approaching the throne of Grace … Suffer me to exhort you, as members of the Established Church, to hold fast the form of sound words” (Lectures, pp. 4-5).
Published in 1812 and entitled The Excellency of the Liturgy in Four Discourses, the acclaimed Cambridge Evangelical, Charles Simeon, similarly preached on the Book of Common Prayer. He wrote:
“As one of the highest excellencies of our Liturgy, that it is calculated to make us wise, intelligent, and sober Christians; it marks a golden mean; it affects and inspires a meek, humble, modest, sober piety, equally remote from the coldness of a formalist, the self-importance of a systematic dogmatist, and the unhallowed fervour of a wild enthusiast. A tender seriousness, a meek devotion and an humble joy, are the qualities which it was intended, and is calculated, to produce in all her members” (Excellency of the Liturgy, p. 54).
Simeon defended what he termed the “unrivalled excellence” of the Book of Common Prayer (p. 23).
The Rector of Camerton, Somerset, John Skinner, said that “even those who could not read might easily join in the excellent Liturgy of the Church” (Journal of a Somerset Rector 1803-1834, p. 269). Whilst the Bristol newspaper publisher, Joseph Leech, recorded in his Rural Rides of the Bristol Churchgoer, 1845, this, from a clergyman travelling to preach at Iron Acton:
“One page of our beautiful liturgy, uttered in the spirit that God requires, and the Church directs, ‘with a lowly, penitent, and obedient heart,’ would fall like refreshing dews on the soul, and leave us in a holier, happier frame of mind than a hundred discourses. The best and most elaborately prepared sermon is to my mind a poor, bald, and meagre composition, compared with the touching beauty and true piety of a single sentence of the Liturgy” (Rural Rides, pp. 171-2).
The Reverend Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72), Professor of Theology at King’s College, London, said that “the Liturgy was there to be used” (Sermons, 1848) and, together with many other nineteenth-century churchmen, regarded the Book of Common Prayer to be at the heart of English national identity and of English morality, regarding the liturgy as essential to the English Church.
The total impact of the Book of Common Prayer liturgy belies everything that is transitory, ephemeral and tentative, and a book, by divine providence, given as an anchor for the soul. Its thrust defies the very notion of change, even though it was conceived in that context, as the Preface points out. Perhaps that is why ‘modern’ churchmen find it unacceptable; their estimate of the value of change is at variance with that of the Book of Common Prayer. Though it was composed at a particular time, in a particular place, it is bedecked with the lineaments of classical stature. We have before us the cumulative momentum of the Church’s liturgical experience given expression with classical elegance. The book has commanded respect for this very reason so that we can come to it as something akin to the Bible (with which it shares much common ground) for comfort and edification.
Such qualities make it impervious to unending change; it has the capacity to point the mind and heart to what is unchangeable, which is, after all, the prime quality of religion. There are many both inside and outside the Church weighed down by the riddle of mortality who, positively yearn for a personal faith in what is eternal, unchangeable and, therefore, true. St. Augustine’s words: “That alone is truly real which abides unchanged” (Confessions, Bk. VII, Ch. XI), apply equally to the ‘Excellent Liturgy.’
Platten, S. & Woods C. ed.: Comfortable Words: Polity, Piety and the Book of Common Prayer, SCM Press, 2012.
Rosendale, T.: Liturgy and Literature in the Making of Protestant England, CUP, 2007.
Spinks, B.: Liturgy in the Age of Reason: Worship and Sacraments in England and Scotland 1662-c.1800, Farnham: Ashgate, 2008.
Rev’d. Geoffrey E. Andow