We were in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the gift shop of the Bruton Parish Church, mostly looking at nativity sets. As I am known to do, I wandered around and found a display case with two shelves of books.
And there it was – an Oxford University Press reprint of the 1928 edition of The Book of Common Prayer. And here I was, right in the middle of a manuscript that needed references from the 1928 edition, which is very similar to the 1789 edition (the one done after the American Revolution). It met my immediate need.
It also did something else. It came to be something I read from, with its litanies and orders of services, language for uses with rites like marriages and births, and the psalter. The book connected me to Henry VIII and the first edition published in 1549 as a result of the English Reformation.
But it’s the book’s wonderful language that’s the enchantment. To read (and read aloud) some of the litanies, and Gospel passages, and scripts for burial services is to sense the late 18th century scholars and theologians who revised the earlier edition and the language that seems to lift to God (I’m convinced that this is the language spoken in heaven). I’m not the only one who’s been taken by the language – Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists have borrowed from it for their prayer books as well.
What’s fascinating is to see the language actually work. I take a passage or section, written in paragraph form, and use the same words in poetic form, to give a sense of how to read the words and what the language actually sounds like. Consider this familiar passage, the paragraph rendered poetically:
I require and charge you both,
as ye will answer at the dreadful day
of judgment, when the secrets
of all hearts shall be disclosed,
that if either of you know
why ye may not be lawfully
joined together in Matrimony,
ye do now confess it.
For be ye well assured,
that if any persons are joined
together otherwise than
as God’s word does allow,
their marriage is not lawful.
The rite continues through the exchange of rings, finishing with this:
Bless, O Lord, this Ring,
that he who gives it
and she who wears it
may abide in thy peace,
and continue in thy favour,
until their life’s end;
through Jesus Christ,
This works in virtually every section of the book – the Bible readings, the language of the rites, and the psalter. The book contains a beautiful, almost poetic cadence and rhythm that lifts and inspires. The language comes from the language of the King James Version of the Bible, and even Shakespeare, and it continues to resonate.
We speak and write more practically today, emphasizing brevity, conciseness and more utilitarian language. We’ve gained speed and immediate effectiveness, if not understanding, but we’ve also given something up – the wonder of words and language that can lead to heaven.
Related: Copies of all of the various editions of The Book of Common Prayer can be downloaded as pdf files here.