T.S.Eliot, widely regarded as the greatest poet of the twentieth century, wrote:
Words after speech, reach
Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
People do not get religious faith in the same way they get knowledge. In reality, faith is not something one gets but is something one receives. Our Lord said, “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you.” (John 15:16). Christian worship is the heart’s response to this calling. This faith does not come alone; it comes amid things which make it sacred – the beauty of poetry or music, the love of family and friends, the sacrificial behaviour of a stranger or the example of a saint. Faith is always received in a historical context – a family, or a society, or a denomination; an environment which gives symbols their context and meaning.
At a time when the Church and state were in turmoil, dominated by a tyrannical and demanding monarch, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury produced the Book of Common Prayer. First published on 7th March, 1549, the book replaced the numerous complicated Latin service books with a single English text to be the only Use throughout the land. The Book was both scriptural and inclusive: continual reading of the Bible was the basic pattern of Protestant worship and the congregation were participants. They are required to respond and to say or sing certain parts of the service. It returned to the ancient pattern, still observed in the East, that Liturgy (the people’s work) is just that.
Much has been written by scholars extolling the beauty and suitability of the language, but worship is more than literary appreciation. Worship is the heart’s response beautifully expressed in Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart). For more than four centuries Cranmer’s prayers and collects have been the means of devotion for millions, rich and poor, from the Monarch to the funeral of a homeless unfortunate, simply because they are so ‘fit for purpose’; in Cranmer’s words, “the means of grace.”
The language is early modern English purposely written stylistically, to detach worship from everyday speech. The genius is that it is so memorable and repeated use etches it onto the mind and it becomes known by heart, in the heart: what is not memorable cannot be fed upon ‘in the heart by faith with thanksgiving.’
Featured Image and images of the Book of Common Prayer © Meres and Meadows Messenger.
Other images are Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.