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I was particularly struck by this part of Archbishop Rowan’s sermon in Canterbury Cathedral at the Christmas Eucharist today:

“This coming year we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer.  It has shaped the minds and hearts of millions; and it has done so partly because it has never been a book for individuals alone.  It is common prayer, prayer that is shared.  In its origins, it was meant to be – and we may well be startled by the ambition of this – a book that defined what a whole society said to God together.  If the question ‘where are you?’ or ‘who are you?’ were being asked, not only individual citizens of Britain but the whole social order could have replied, ‘Here we are, speaking together – to recognize our failures and our ideals, to recognize that the story of the Bible is our story, to ask together for strength to live and act together in faithfulness, fairness, pity and generosity.’  If you thumb through the Prayer Book, you may be surprised at how much there is that takes for granted a very clear picture of how we behave with each other.  Yes, of course, much of this language feels dated – we don’t live in the unselfconscious world of social hierarchy that we meet here.  But 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 downwards.  And the almost forgotten words of the Long Exhortation in the Communion Service, telling people what questions they should ask themselves before coming to the Sacrament, show a keen critical awareness of the new economic order that, in the mid sixteenth century, was piling up assets of land and property in the hands of a smaller and smaller elite.


The Prayer Book is a treasury of words and phrases that are still for countless English-speaking people the nearest you can come to an adequate language for the mysteries of faith.  It gives us words that say where and who we are before God: ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table’, but also, ‘we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of the everlasting kingdom’. It gives us words for God that hold on to the paradoxes we can’t avoid: ‘God… who art always more ready to hear than we to pray,’ ‘who declarest thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity, ‘whose property is always to have mercy.’  A treasury of words for God – but also a source of vision for an entire society: ‘Give us grace seriously to lay heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions’; ‘If ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution’


The world has changed, the very rhythms of our speech have changed, our society is irreversibly more plural, and we have – with varying degrees of reluctance – found other and usually less resonant ways of talking to God and identifying who we are in his presence.  If we used only the Prayer Book these days we’d risk confusing the strangeness of the mysteries of faith with the strangeness of antique and lovely language.  But we’re much the poorer for forgetting it and pushing it to the margins as much as we often do in the Church.  And it is crucial to remember the point about the Prayer Book as something for a whole society, binding together our obligations to God and to one another, in a dense interweaving of love and duty joyfully performed.


The Prayer Book was once the way our society found words to respond to the Word, to say who and where they were in answer to God’s question.  Those who prayed the Prayer Book, remember, included those who abolished the slave trade and put an end to child labour, because of what they had learned in this book and in their Bibles about the honour of God and of God’s children.  They knew their story; they knew how to give an answer for themselves, how to join up the muddle of their experience in a coherent pattern by relating it to the unchanging truth and grace of God.  That’s why the coming year’s celebration is not about a museum piece.”


Now those of you who know me will just say “It figures”. Now I’m not one of those who mutter that the “new” American Prayer Book, or Common Worship are heretical. I’ve used the new rites in parishes I have served and there’s much I think good. But I do think that they are in some ways inadequate.  Certainly, as +Rowan remarks the Prayer Book reflects a world and a society which is dead and gone, although not as throughly dead and gone than has been assumed. The rich and poor are with us still, and in the 16th Century a new class was already emerging, a class whose wealth was self-created, and whose power was emerging. There are powerful voices in our own society who champion wealth as a virtue and who look upon the poor as inadequate, people who should do better if only they had moral fibre. They don’t deserve our “charity”, let alone health care. Latimer’s sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, written as a class was dispossessing people from land and livelihood, speaks to us today. The poor man prays, “Give us this day our daily bread” and the rich benefit from the poor person’s prayer, and so we are to share that daily bread with him. His sermon caused fury. He went to the Tower of London as a prisoner because of his “class warfare”. Those who champion the poor and demand that the rich share their wealth were and still are derided for their “social engineering”.


Sin IS real. Yes the poor sin as well as the rich sin, yet their sin is not accompanied by power. The old familiar words of the Prayer Book, taken as serious prose and not merely old fashioned poetry, have the ability to bring us up short, to make us examine our lives, those of us who have been declared to be the children of God, heralds of that which God is about as he prepares for his coming again to renew heaven and earth, a new world in which wealth and poverty alike will be leveled and abolished, in which there will be but one “power”, the loving power of God, and God alone. Christmas in the old Prayer Book bids us let go of our idolatry of nation, political opinions or race, economic theory or class. Christmas tells us that in Jesus a new world is emerging and we who have been set apart in Baptism are its witnesses. We can’t create a new world, a just society, by our own deeds or philosophies, true. But God is about that new world, is doing his purpose to reverse Eden. That doesn’t mean that we are just called to a selfish grasping of eternal life above the bright blue sky. We are called not only to tell what God is about, but to show what God is about, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.”  We are to walk in God’s presence in God’s service, “in holiness and righteousness of life”, not so God will think us good, but by showing to our families, or work mates, our communities the very love and compassion which we see and experience in the life of Jesus, as he moves among us. God give us the grace to be reflections of “The Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us” as we “behold his glory, “full of grace and truth.”


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