Rock on which we’ve been built

24 January 2007

Donald Gray reads the history of the Prayer Book here and abroad


The Oxford Guide to The Book of Common Prayer: A worldwide survey
Charles Hefling and Cynthia Shattuck, editors

THIS substantial volume undertakes three tasks, and generally succeeds in its aims. First, it revisits the history of the Book of Common Prayer in England and Wales, bringing together scholars who reassess the significance of well-known facts about its birth and development in its classical period.

Newer ground is tilled in exam-ining what is termed “the social and cultural life of the Prayer Book”. So, for instance, the late James White surveys Prayer Book architecture, while Kenneth Stevenson considers the Prayer Book as “sacred text”.

The second theme is the development of the Prayer Book outside England, and in other traditions. Karen Westerfield Tucker writes on John Wesley, the Prayer Book and Methodism. Carl Scovel describes the Bostonian and Unitarian phenomenon the King’s Chapel, where they adapted the Prayer Book so that “the Trinitarian, the Unitarian, the Calvinist, the Arminian will read nothing in it which can give him any reasonable umbrage.”

As the Archbishop of Canterbury says in a typically finely nuanced foreword, for more than 100 years the Prayer Book has undergone reconceiving and revision across the Anglican Communion. Tackling the huge subject of the modification and development of Anglican worship worldwide is the third task.

The editors recruited those who were involved in the work, so guaranteeing the authenticity of their commentary. Of course, they can give only a taste of what has been achieved. There is no room for the full detail of rites — for these, we still need to turn to Wigan or Buchanan. A neat typographical device, however, intersperses examples of liturgical material from the various provincial revisions.

It is tempting to believe that The Oxford Guide will displace Lowther Clarke’s Liturgy and Worship, which described itself as a “Companion to the Prayer Books of the Anglican Communion”. First published in the 1930s, this was kept in print by SPCK for more than 20 years, but now sadly sits (not often consulted) on many bookshelves. But it would be wrong to discard it too quickly. It contains many important chapters not rendered redundant by this new compendium.

Significantly, the Guide is pub-lished by Oxford University Press — but in New York. Most of the contributors, apart from those describing their provincial revisions, are from North America. Thus the Guide reflects the paucity of liturgical scholarship in the Church of England at the present time. It is certainly the Cinderella of depart-ments of theology and religious studies and, disgracefully, of even our theological colleges and ordination courses.

Some of the usual (English) suspects are contributors: Colin Buchanan (a member of the edit-orial board), Gordon Jeanes, Trevor Lloyd, Kenneth Stevenson, and a scholar in exile in New England, Bryan Spinks. They are joined by two distinguished historians, Judith Maltby and Jeremy Gregory — but where are the younger students of liturgy from this country? The fact that a “worldwide survey” of the Book of Common Prayer has so few English contributors is surely a criticism of current academic priorities in the Church.

This is a valuable book, which affords the latest overview of An-glican worship across the world, and reveals its rich diversity. There is no one “sacred text”, as the Bishop of Portsmouth terms it — but he believes that, remarkably, there is in Anglican liturgy the possibility of “a new kind of stability, a new measure of Communion, a new culture of diverse but coherent prayerfulness”.

Canon Gray is the Chairman of the Alcuin Club, and President of the Society for Liturgical Study.

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To place an order for this book, email details to CT Bookshop

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