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Angela Tilby: Prayer Book gives me all I need

24 March 2023

Prayer Book Society

HAVING celebrated Thomas Cranmer this week, I have been thinking about the Prayer Book Society (PBS), which I joined in 2020, after I had been invited to give one of four talks on Zoom on the Advent collects. I was astonished at the numbers participating, some from the United States and other parts of the Anglican world. The afternoon was an experience of the kind of focused, orthodox, theologically informed conversation that I crave, and rarely find.

Few would have guessed what the PBS has become since it started in 1972 as a protest group against attempts to ban the Prayer Book in favour of contemporary liturgies. (The Church of England was, at the time, ploughing its way through Series 1, 2, and 3, and then the ASB, before the arrival of Common Worship in 2000.) At that point, many thought of the society as no more than a bolthole for an eccentric group of traditionalists. But those traditionalists turned out to surprisingly militant in their affection for what many had come to regard as a long-outdated set of rites.

To its credit, society members, after fighting hard to ensure that the Prayer Book would continue to be legal, sensibly transformed themselves into an organisation devoted to the study and celebration of the Prayer Book as the key historical element in the liturgical and cultural traditions of the Church of England. There is now a long-term vision to ensure that the Prayer Book and what it stands for remain available for generations to come.

And that is, in essence, the principle of the Anglican via media: the liturgy offering common ground that could never have been achieved by statements of doctrine, or even by canon law. Within the covers of the Prayer Book are spiritual resources not only for communal worship, but for the whole of life, and for everyone in the English Church, lay or ordained. As I look at the nine Common Worship books on my own shelves, I am grateful to the society for keeping this ideal alive.

Today, there is a reassuring professionalism about the society’s profile and its publications. It was quick to recognise the opportunities of the digital age, offering online tutorials as well as study and conversation, founding diocesan groups, and supporting the next generation in offering awards for public reading and study. Gifts, books, booklets, Christmas cards, website are all beautifully produced without a hint of Comic Sans.

And there’s a bonus. I would have no problem choosing my third book after the Bible and Shakespeare on Desert Island Discs. With the Prayer Book, I would have all I need to say the divine Office, celebrate holy communion, marry, baptise, and bury anyone on that remote shore who might require me to do so. Thank you, Prayer Book Society.

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