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Follow the service

11 July 2014

Bridget Nichols looks at the way common prayer is experienced

Reading the Liturgy: An exploration of texts in Christian worship
Juliette J. Day
Bloomsbury £16.99
Church Times Bookshop  £15.30 (Use code CT954 )

THE Preface to the First Prayer Book of Edward VI (1549) is a magnificent marketing document that promotes the convenience and benefits of a single all-in-one service book for the whole realm. It contrasts the logical arrangement of the new Prayer Book with the complex instructions it has replaced: "the number and hardness of the rules called the pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause, that to turn the book only was more business to find out what should be read, than to read it when it was found out."

While it does not hide the fact that the new book expects its users to persevere with its unfamiliar vernacular content, it assures them that "the profit in knowledge, which daily they shall obtain by reading upon the book" will amply repay the "pain" that this involves.

Juliette Day, as the title of her study makes clear, takes just as seriously as Cranmer and his colleagues the fact of the liturgical text, and the act of reading as the way its readers engage with it. Her eight chapters - on "text", "authorship", "genre", "narrative", "intertextuality", "language", "paratext", and "worship" - apply the latest theoretical approaches to suggest what might be going on when worshippers and those who lead worship confront in printed form the words they will pray and the instructions about how they will do this.

Some striking realisationsemerge out of this method of analysis, in particular, the amount of sub-conscious processing expected of the reader-worshipper, and the layered complexity of the liturgical text as an entity surrounded by "paratexts" and drawn, by quotation and allusion, into "intertextual" relationships with other texts.

The point of articulating the workings of the reading process and the creation and character of the text so explicitly is, in large part, an exploration of how worshippers find meaning in liturgy. Day refers to the work of Martin Stringer, who has argued that meaning cannot be objectively located in the liturgical text, and that there may be as many meanings as there are worshippers. The categories she employs do not overlap with Stringer's, but she is finally sympathetic to his conclusions.

Her wider audience may not necessarily find these categories a wholly good fit for the activity that is liturgy, and it is not explained how they might apply to the increasingly usual provision of key pieces of text on screen rather than in book-form. But, whatever the medium, Day has valuably shown us something of the uncommonness of common prayer.

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain to the Bishop of Ely.

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