Devoted dissent

The Book of Common Prayer is a political work, writes Daniel Swift.

A dog-eared edition of the Book of Common Prayer.
A dog-eared edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Photograph: Getty Images

On a windy day not long ago, I went to Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s residence, which sits on a noisy road by the river and opposite the Houses of Parliament. As everywhere in London, there was a little bunting fluttering in the drizzle. A friendly volunteer showed me into the hush of the library and pointed to the end of the churchly room. “There’s the star of the show,” she said.

Inside a case was a grand folio copy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. This year of royal celebration includes one further anniversary: 350 years since this edition of the prayer book that sets out the permanent liturgy of the Church of England. Beside the folio was a royal warrant. “Charles II explained his own personal feelings about the liturgy in his ‘Declaration to his loyal subjects’,” a note said, and quoted the king as saying the edition was “the best we have seen”.

It seemed an oddly lukewarm endorsement, made more striking by its presence in this display at Lambeth Palace. The exhibition “Royal Devotion” was dedicated to English royalty’s proximity to the prayer book. A panel listed the history. Under Henry VIII, “Thomas Cranmer becomes Archbishop of Canterbury”; and under Edward VI, in 1549, came the first issue of the book, largely written by the archbishop. A second edition followed in 1552, and then under Mary I, “abolition of Book of Common Prayer”, followed by “Burning of Thomas Cranmer at Oxford”. It was restored by Elizabeth I, abolished by Cromwell and restored by Charles II in 1662. In 1897 Victoria’s diamond jubilee is celebrated with prayer book services and then, in 2012, comes Elizabeth II’s own jubilee. Monarch and prayer book are presented as twin pillars of the English past and state.

The exhibition was a little reminiscent of the mock-history textbook 1066 and All That: good kings and bad kings, the past as a procession of great moments. In this vision of history, the prayer book is a Good Thing, and thus its anniversary celebrations have been marked by comfortable royalism. Prudence Dailey is the chairman of the Prayer Book Society, and has edited a celebratory volume called The Book of Common Prayer: Past, Present and Future (Con - tinuum Books, £12.99), with a foreword by the Prince of Wales. Another book celebrates the liturgy’s language – Penguin is issuing a deluxe edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with an introduction by the literary critic James Wood (to be published October, £12.79). There have been lectures at cathedrals and articles in the more conservative newspapers, all paying dutiful respect to this English institution.

It would therefore appear counter-intuitive or merely naive to take this occasion to ask: might there be a revolutionary politics of the prayer book? Unlike America, there is in England no established tradition of progressive or radical Christianity in which the extremes of left and right use biblical language to voice political appeal. It is a common political language, but the English history of the prayer book has been a story of exclusion and repression.

After the first edition appeared, there were riots by those who wished to preserve the traditional Catholic Mass. In July 1549, about 5,000 rebels besieged Exeter and were brutally put down by the king’s army. The 1552 prayer book was even more starkly Protestant: “drastic in the extreme”, according to the church historian Eamon Duffy. The discontent continued. When King James assumed the throne after the death of Elizabeth, he was petitioned by a thousand ministers of the Church of England who described themselves as “all groaning under a common burden of human rites and ceremonies”. James replied: “I shall make them conform themselves, or I will harry them out of the land, or else do worse.” Following the restoration of Charles II, every clergyman in England was forced to swear an oath – “I do here declare my unfeigned assent and consent to all and every thing contained, and prescribed, in and by the book” – and 2,000 reluctant ministers were deprived of their positions in the Church.

Liturgy, by its nature, looks authoritarian, as it sets a script for many to follow. Yet precisely because it requires the assent of the congregation, who must say the words aloud, it is always vulnerable to the dissenting voice. The best modern edition of the Book of Common Prayer has been edited by Brian Cummings (Oxford University Press, £16.99) and this volume offers not one but three separate versions: the books of 1549, 1559 and 1662. As Cummings writes in his excellent historical introduction, the “misconception which this edition seeks to transform is the sense that this is a single book”. The successive versions clash with one another on points of theology and doctrine.

Cummings’s edition emphasises that this is a deeply unstable text with a long and tangled history of contestation and resistance. The book has been fought over precisely because it matters; it provides not only a record of royal power, but also the vocabulary with which to resist any worldly authority. You could read the liturgy, like the New Testament, as a manifesto. It appeals to transcendent standards of value, and the kingdom prayed to is spiritual and not worldly. In the prayer for the king from 1662, all appeal that God may correct the ruler: “so replenish him with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that he may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way”. A special prayer written for the Queen’s jubilee thanksgiving service at St Paul’s on 5 June this year reminds us of her function and of her role as servant. “Grant her your gifts of love and joy and peace,” the prayer asks, “as she continues in faithful obedience to you, her Lord and God, and in devoted service to her lands and peoples.” The Communion service insists on the duty of charity; the baptismal rite emphasises the bonds between all elements of human society.

The Church of England’s social conservatism has perhaps masked the liturgy’s potential for political or economic radicalism. Yet in this anniversary year an alternative reading of liturgy has emerged from an unlikely source. Last year, preaching his Christmas sermon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said: “Before we draw the easy and cynical conclusion that the prayer book is about social control by the ruling classes, we need to ponder the uncompromising way in which those same ruling classes are reminded of what their power is for, from the monarch downward,” he said, and he cited the Communion rite as a warning against an economic order that accumulates “assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite”. In late June, it was reported that the archbishop’s new book, Faith in the Public Square, to be published by Bloomsbury after he steps down from his post, contains an attack on David Cameron’s vision of a “big society”, which the archbishop describes as “aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable”. These are at least a reminder, in the year of the 350th anniversary of our Book of Common Prayer, that “common” is, or should be, the most political word in the English language.

Daniel Swift is the author of “Shakespeare’s Common Prayers”, which will be published in November by Oxford University Press