Saturday, May 08, 2004

The Book of Divine Worship

A recent number of Latin Mass Magazine had an article which found the The Book of Divine Worship, the liturgical book for the Anglican Use, to be a problem because of its roots in the Book of Common Prayer. It seems to me that Fr. Joseph Wilson answered the objections very ably in that issue. The following thoughts on the BCP from G.K. Chesterton - perhaps on Fr. Wilson's side of the ledger - arrived in my e-mail in box this morning. [Now I find that it also appears here and was referenced here and here. I have always known I was a dollar short and now I find I am even more than a day late.]


The Book of Common Prayer is the masterpiece of Protestantism. It is more so than the work of Milton. It is the one positive possession and attraction; the one magnet and talisman for people even outside the Anglican Church, as are the great Gothic cathedrals for people outside the Catholic Church. I can speak, I think, for many other converts, when I say that the only thing that can produce any sort of nostalgia or romantic regret, any shadow of homesickness in one who has in truth come home, is the rhythm of Cranmer's prose. All the other supposed superiorities of any sort of Protestantism are quite fictitious. Tell a Catholic convert that he has lost his liberty, and he will laugh. A distinguished literary lady wrote recently that I had entered the most restricted of all Christian communions, and I was monstrously amused. A Catholic has fifty times more feeling of being free than a man caught in the net of the nervous compromises of Anglicanism; just as a man considering all England feels more free than a man obeying the Whips of one particular party. He has the range of two thousand years full of twelve-hundred thousand controversies, thrashed out by thinker against thinker, school against school, guild against guild, nation against nation, with no limit except the fundamental logical fact that the things were worth arguing, because they could be ultimately solved and settled. As for Reason, our monopoly is practically admitted in the modern world. Except for one or two dingy old atheists in Fleet Street (for whom I have great sympathy), nothing except Rome now defends the reliability of Reason. Much stronger is the appeal of unreason; or of that beauty which perhaps is beyond reason. The English Litany, the music and the magic of the great sixteenth-century style­ that does call a man backwards like the song of the sirens; as Virgil and the poets might have called to a Pagan who had entered the Early Church. Only, being a Romanist and therefore a Rationalist, he does not go back; he naturally does not forget everything else, because his opponents four hundred years ago had a stylistic knack which they have now entirely lost. For the Anglicans cannot do the trick now, any more than anybody else. Modern prayers, and theirs perhaps more than any, seem to be perfectly incapable of avoiding journalese. And the Prayer-Book prose seems to follow them like a derisive echo. Lambeth or Convocation will publish a prayer saying something like, "Guide us, 0 Lord, to the solution of our social problems"; and the great organ of old will groan in the background…. "All who are desolate and oppressed." The first Anglicans asked for peace and happiness, truth and justice; but nothing can stop
the latest Anglicans, and many others, from the horrid habit of asking for improvement in international relations.

But why has the old Protestant Prayer-Book a power like that of great poetry upon the spirit and the heart? The reason is much deeper than the mere avoidance of journalese. It might be put in a sentence; it has style; it has tradition; it has religion; it was written by apostate Catholics. It is strong, not in so far as it is the first Protestant book, but in so far as it was the last Catholic book.

G. K. Chesterton

Another book which owes something to the old BCP is Jeff Culbreath's new family prayer book which you can obtain from him for a modest fee. Look here.