Devoted Dissent: The Book of Common Prayer Is a Political Work, Writes Daniel Swift

Article excerpt

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 IT'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 (Continuum Books, [pounds sterling]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, [pounds sterling]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 155z 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. …