Monday, February 20, 2012

Common Prayer, Uncommon Beauty

By Jonathan Aitken
from the February 2012 issue

The magnificent Book of Common Prayer has been going strong for 350 years.

Last year, this column and the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. This year brings the 350th birthday of another magnificent monument of early modern English—the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP). All who savor the riches of our common linguistic heritage should rejoice in its commemoration. For the BCP's combination of spiritual wisdom and literary beauty gives it a following far beyond the ecclesiastical frontiers of Anglicanism, Episcopalianism, and the Church of England that originally commissioned it.

The BCP was the creation of Thomas Cranmer, a Tudor statesman blessed with a genius for the writing of prose bordering on poetry. A court favorite of King Henry VIII, who made him Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer compiled the various prayers, collects, and orders of worship that eventually emerged as the 1662 prayer book. However, before it could be published in its final form its principal author was burned at the stake for his Reformist sympathies during a period of Catholic repression.

Although these power struggles have long since been forgotten, Cranmer's majestic command of the English language lives on. In the words of his leading biographer, Diarmaid MacCulloch: "Millions who have never heard of Cranmer or of the muddled heroism of his death have echoes of his words in their minds."

These echoes of Cranmer's gift for language ring down the centuries because he had a perfect ear for cadences that are both beautiful and eternal. He wanted "a mere ploughboy" to be able to remember the BCP's most powerful phrases. He did not hesitate to borrow from the finest spiritual writers of his time such as Miles Coverdale, an early translator of the Psalms, and Archbishop Reynolds, who authored the prayer of General Thanksgiving. the rest  image


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