C.S. Lewis on Prayer Book Revision

Source: Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

And that brings me back to my starting point. The business of us laymen is simply to endure and make the best of it. Any tendency to a passionate preference for one type of service must be regarded simply as a temptation. Partisan “Churchmanships” are my bête noire. And if we avoid them, may we not possibly perform a very useful function? The shepherds go off, “every one to his own way” and vanish over diverse points of the horizon. If the sheep huddle patiently together and go on bleating, might they finally recall the shepherds? (Haven’t English victories sometimes been won by the rank and file in spite of the generals?)

As to the words of the service—liturgy in the narrower sense—the question is rather different. If you have a vernacular liturgy you must have a changing liturgy; otherwise it will finally be vernacular only in name. The ideal of “timeless English” is sheer nonsense. No living language can be timeless. You might as well ask for a motionless river.

I think it would have been best, if it were possible, that necessary change should have occurred gradually and (to most people) imperceptibly; here a little and there a little; one obsolete word replaced 15 in a century—like the gradual change of spelling in successive editions of Shakespeare. As things are we must reconcile ourselves, if we can also reconcile government, to a new Book.

If we were—I thank my stars I’m not—in a position to give its authors advice, would you have any advice to give them? Mine could hardly go beyond unhelpful cautions: “Take care. It is so easy to break eggs without making omelettes.”

Already our liturgy is one of the very few remaining elements of unity in our hideously divided Church. The good to be done by revision needs to be very great and very certain before we throw that away. Can you imagine any new Book which will not be a source of new schism?

Most of those who press for revision seem to wish that it should serve two purposes: that of modernising the language in the interests of intelligibility, and that of doctrinal improvement. Ought the two operations—each painful and each dangerous—to be carried out at the same time? Will the patient survive?

What are the agreed doctrines which are to be embodied in the new Book and how long will agreement on them continue? I ask with trepidation because I read a man the other day who seemed to wish that everything in the old Book which was inconsistent with orthodox Freudianism should be deleted. 16

For whom are we to cater in revising the language? A country parson I know asked his sexton what he understood by indifferently in the phrase “truly and indifferently administer justice”. The man replied, “It means making no difference between one chap and another.” “And what would it mean if it said impartially?” asked the parson. “Don’t know. Never heard of it,” said the sexton. Here, you see, we have a change intended to make things easier. But it does so neither for the educated, who understand indifferently already, nor for the wholly uneducated, who don’t understand impartially. It helps only some middle area of the congregation which may not even be a majority. Let us hope the revisers will prepare for their work by a prolonged empirical study of popular speech as it actually is, not as we (a priori) assume it to be. How many scholars know (what I discovered by accident) that when uneducated people say impersonal they sometimes mean incorporeal?

What of expressions which are archaic but not unintelligible? (“Be ye lift up”). I find that people re-act to archaism most diversely. It antagonises some: makes what is said unreal. To others, not necessarily more learned, it is highly numinous and a real aid to devotion. We can’t please both.

I know there must be change. But is this the right moment? Two signs of the right moment occur to me. One would be a unity among us which enabled 17 the Church—not some momentarily triumphant party—to speak through the new work with a united voice. The other would be the manifest presence, somewhere in the Church, of the specifically literary talent needed for composing a good prayer. Prose needs to be not only very good but very good in a very special way, if it is to stand up to reiterated reading aloud. Cranmer may have his defects as a theologian; as a stylist, he can play all the moderns, and many of his predecessors, off the field. I don’t see either sign at the moment.

Yet we all want to be tinkering. Even I would gladly see “Let your light so shine before men” removed from the offertory. It sounds, in that context, so like an exhortation to do our alms that they may be seen by men.

Omissions from the Book of Common Prayer

Someone pointed out some alterations to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) that made it depart from the tradition of the Church in what seems like inexplicable ways. This was news to me, but when I looked into it, I found it to be true. The changes noted are:

[1] The text of the Sanctus was altered from what the Church has always used. The traditional Sanctus runs as follows (taken from the Sarum Missal in English): “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.”

This last bit from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘in the Name of the Lord’ is known as the Benedictus and it is absent from the BCP from 1552 until recently. The Benedictus was included in the 1549 edition and removed in the 1552 edition. Here is the 1552 text:

Holye, holye, holye, Lorde God of hostes: heaven and yearthe are full of thy glory: glory be to thee, O lord, most high.

Even the venerable 1928 edition preserves this change. So why was it made? I dug through some old books looking for an answer and this what I found: It may have been removed due to a Medieval abuse or simply because it is not a part of the Angelic chant from the Bible – it is a mashup in other words. I found this in “The Annotated Book of Common Prayer,” edited by Rev. John Henry Blunt, Rivingtons, London, 1866, pages 183-184:

In the Primitive and Mediaeval Liturgies the Sanctus concluded with the words, “Hosannah in the highest, blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord, Hosannah in the highest.” In translating it for the Office of our Prayer Book, the four later words were changed to “Glory to Thee, O Lord, in the highest;” and the present termination was substituted in 1552, thus displacing the Hosannah altogether.

No reason can be assigned for this deviation from ancient custom. But there was, perhaps, some popular superstition, now lost sight of, which made it seem desirable to drop the words in question. The Mirror of our Lady [A.D. 1530] comments upon the Sanctus as then used in the following words: “This song Sanctus is the song of Angels, and it is said to the Blessed Trinity, as is said before in the hymn Te Deum at Matins. The second part thereof, that is, Benedictus, is taken from the Gospel, where the people on Palm Sunday came against our Lord Jesus Christ, and said to Him the same words in praising and joying of His coming. And so they are sung here in the mass, in worship of our Lord’s coming in the Sacrament of the Altar. And therefore at the beginning of Benedictus ye turn to the altar and make the token of the Cross upon you in mind of our Lord’s Passion, which is specially represented in the Mass.” [Mirror, f. cixxxviii.] It is not unlikely that the last period of this comment gives an indication of the reason why the change was made. A more satisfactory explanation that may be given, however, is that the Benedictus is not part of the song of the angels, and is therefore inconsistent, strictly speaking, with the words of the Preface.

So these are two conjectures that seem plausible as to why it was removed. For all the problems with the 1979 edition, it does restore the Benedictus in both Rite I and II. The AMiA/Peter Toon “An Anglican Prayer Book” also restore the Benedictus, although in a more marginal fashion. This leads to the second omission:

[2] The BCP omits the holiness of the church in the Nicene Creed. Where the Creed says: “And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church” the BCP drops the word “holy.” The 1559 says: “And I beleve one Catholike and Apostolike churche.” From 1549 on it is the same. Why did this happen? Well, it appears that Archbishop Cranmer and the other revisers believed the word holy to be an addition to the earliest forms of the Creed based on manuscripts available in their day and so removed it. From “The Nicene Creed,” by the Rev. A.E. Burn, Edwin S. Gorham, New York, 1909 pages 47-48:

Bishop Gibson suggests that Cranmer inserted ‘I believe’ before ‘one catholic and apostolic church’ to make a distinction between believing in the Holy Ghost and believing the Catholic Church, i.e. believing that there is such a Catholic Church. Rufinus and other Latin writers often draw this distinction between believing in Divine Persons and believing about their work in the Church or in the remission of sins, etc. Cranmer himself in his Annotations upon the King’s Book writes, ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, and that there is a holy Catholic Church.’

That he should insert the word ‘holy’ when quoting from the Apostles’ Creed, makes it more noticeable that he omits the word in the Nicene Creed. There can be no question that this was due to the omission of the word in the texts of the Creed given in early editions of the Councils, which he consulted. We are now in a position to prove that the omission was characteristic of the old Latin text both of Spain and Rome, and also, apparently, of the text used in the Church of Constantinople. Why it should thus differ from the text of the Jerusalem Creed of S. Cyril, and the Creed of S. Epiphanius, has not yet been discovered. The Reformers followed the best text which they could find, but the omission is none the less to be regretted, since ‘holy’ was a note of the Church in the Baptismal Creed from the earliest times.

An article on the subject is found in this collection.

An Anglican Prayer Book

I am creating a version of the Anglican Prayer Book published by Peter Toon and the Prayer Book Society. I hope to shop it around and see if it can be published in leather and India paper. If nothing else, I’ll have a nice PDF! Let me know if you are interested and I’ll send you a sample at some point, God willing.

Americans hate ritual

Reviewing a book by Lori Branch in Touchstone magazine, Peter Leithart writes:

English Protestants attacked the ceremonies of the Catholic Church and the remnants of ceremony in Prayer Book liturgies because they thought these ceremonies lacked biblical support but also because they believed that set liturgical forms were, in themselves, inimical to religious sincerity. This had the effect of detaching believers from communal actions. Medieval Christians were participants in rituals; after the Reformation, Christians began to see themselves as detached individual selves, desperately ginning up religious passion.
For many Protestants, sacramental rites could not accurately represent or effectively communicate the grace of God. Faced with this “crisis of representation,” Christians looked inward to find a place of communion with God. Not just any experience would do, however. Sincere religious expression had to be the product of the Spirit working on the human soul. Genuine prayer arose from agony, pressed, in Bunyan’s phrasing, from the solitary soul as “blood is forced out of flesh.”

Martin Bucer on the Book of Common Prayer

The famous reformer, Martin Bucer, reviewed the Book of Common Prayer at the request of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. He provided what we would call “feedback” in our day. Some of his thoughts are summarized by Arthur Roberts as follows:

He then declares it as his opinion that so great a separation of the chancel (chori) from the rest of the church, as that that should be the place where the sacramental rites are to be exclusively performed, which belong nevertheless to all the laity as well as the clergy, is Antichristian. He states (what appears to be the fact) that the object intended to be answered by this separation of the chancel was the exaltation of the clergy, as if they were a class of men who, irrespective of their characters, and merely by reason of their order and place, were to be regarded as nearer to God than the laity, and able, by virtue of their opus operatum, to appease Him on their behalf….He asserts that, in the most ancient Churches, the clergy officiated in the centre of the building; (the churches being mostly circular,) inasmuch as that was the place where they would best be heard and understood.