Alan Jacobs. The Book of Common Prayer. Princeton University Press, 2013
Princeton University Press are continuing with their excellent series of ‘Lives of Great Religious Books’. These are not so much about the books themselves, as about their reception and the commentaries that have been made on them over the centuries.
For those unaware of the narrative, The Book of Job in the Old Testament begins with a prose section with a dialogue between God and Satan. God says that Job, who lives in the land of Uz – wherever that may have been – was “a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil”. Satan retorts that Job is very rich in flocks and herds, and has ten children (in those days offspring were regarded as a kind of wealth), but if he lost these “he will curse thee to thy face”.
God gives Satan permission to put this to the test. Accordingly, one day Job is informed by a succession of messengers that his oxen have been slain by Sabeans, his sheep by fire from heaven, and that further calamities have killed his other animals and his children. He merely remarks: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: blessed be the name of the Lord.” Satan goes on to smite him with boils, but he remains equally calm.
The rest of the book, mainly in verse, consists of dialogues between Job and four unsympathetic friends. These revolve around such questions as whether suffering is a punishment for sin, and how a just God can allow it. In the end, God himself appears, and tells Job that he did not know what he was talking about, but nonetheless restores him to his former riches, including ten new children.
The first question is that of date, and this is unlikely ever to be settled. Robert Lowth, writing in 1767, thought that it was the oldest text of the Bible, written by Moses. References to historically datable events, such as Sabean raids and the gold of Ophir, indicate “the latest the book – or at least the passages in which they appear – could have been written.” This is surely a misprint for the earliest date. Disappointingly, Larrimore only gives a few pages to the findings of the textual critics, though I suppose that one would need the Patience of Job himself to digest them all.
It has often been thought that the opening two prose chapters, were the work of a different author to the verse bulk of the text, but even this has been doubted. There is an indication, though, from the varying vocabulary: the word for God in the prose is Elohim, but in the verse, the word used is Eloah. Likewise, the prose uses ish for man; in the verse, the words for man are gaber, anosh, and adam.
Larrimore thinks that chapter 28, which he terms the ‘Hymn to Wisdom’, may be a later addition, and this receives some support from the fact that it reverts to using Elohim for God. The speech of Elihu (chapters 32-37) “seems a tedious intrusion”. There is also reason for thinking that some passages in the original may have gone missing.
Job has inspired many subsequent authors, beginning with the Testament of Job, apparently the work of Egyptian Jews, in which he became Jobab, the king of all Egypt. In the fourteenth century there was Griselda, a female Job whose story was told and retold by Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer. The prologue to Goethe’s Faust, which features a dialogue between God and Satan, clearly has the same inspiration.
For many centuries, Biblical literalism, that is the belief that every word of the Bible is true, was generally accepted. Perhaps the first challenge to this was the twelfth-century thinker Maimonides, who, with the rise of Aristotelian philosophy, realised that the latter could not easily be reconciled with the Bible. His principal response was that parts of the Bible were allegory rather than literal truth. (His Guide for the Perplexed is now regarded as a Jewish classic, but when it first appeared it was considered heretical.) Maimonides considered the Book of Job to be one of the parables, remarking that Uz, whilst it might have been a real place, is also “the imperative of a verb meaning to reflect and meditate”, so that you should “Meditate and reflect on this parable.”
Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, regularly spoke and wrote about Job, probably because he took him as a model in his adversity. A great deal of recent commentary, however, has been on the textual analysis of the book. Here is just one problem: three times Larrimore quotes Job’s words after God has spoken to him: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.” (42:5) It is difficult to reconcile this with Exodus 33:20, where God says to Moses: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”
There are phrases from the Book of Common Prayer that anyone would recognize: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here . . “ and, on a sadder note, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. It now seems as English as cream teas and cricket. One would not easily guess that is contents have been so contentious as to have led to people being put to death over them.
(I had it in my mind for years that, at a baptism, the parents were asked; “How nameth you this child?” But this is grammatically incorrect, and actually all the text says is “Name this child”. Perhaps I was misled by some television programmes.)
The book was primarily the work of Thomas Cranmer, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1533. Initially it was, Jacobs says, “an instrument of social and political control. In other words, introducing a nationwide unity of worship would have more general consequences.
|THE EXECUTION OF WILLIAM TYNDALE|
Cranmer at first worked discreetly, because Henry VIII was vacillating in his theological views. Thus, in 1536 William Tyndale was executed by the king’s agents because he had been translating the Bible into English (forbidden by the Catholic Church), yet just five years later the Bible was printed in English on the king’s own orders, in a version based upon Tyndale’s, and it was commanded that this be displayed in every church. But in the 1540s Cranmer’s version of the liturgy came into use, though English replaced Latin (the principal alteration) only gradually.
After Henry died in 1547, the throne descended to Edward VI, who was still a boy, so that effective power was in the hands of a committee of regents who approved of reformation. So, in 1549 the whole English prayer-book was printed by Edward Whitchurch. Not everyone appreciated it: some said that, when the ceremony was in a language that most people did not understand, they could silently make their own supplications to God. In Devonshire there were actually riots in which people burnt every copy of the new book that they could find. Later, in Scotland, when Bishop Whitford said his first service in English, as a precaution he had two loaded pistols displayed prominently on the desk before him.
In 1553 Edward died, still in his teens. His successor, Mary, was a Catholic, and though not restoring the authority of the pope, she did force the nation to revert to the Latin liturgy. Among her counter-reforms she had Cranmer burnt at the stake; his widow then married the printer Whitchurch.
Mary died in 1558, and Elizabeth I made clear her views at her coronation, at which the Litany and Communion were in English. The prayer-book of 1559 became standard for decades, but then it met new opposition from the other side: Catholics, or Anglo-Catholics, had though it too ‘low church’, but the Puritans thought it too ‘high church’. They considered that there should be more extemporization in the service, rather than a set text, especially since the book was for the most part based upon the Roman Liturgy. In the Civil War this faction came to power, in 1645 it was banned, and Archbishop William Laud, who had insisted upon its retention, was beheaded on Tower Hill.
Another vexed question was whether Communion should be taken kneeling or standing. In 1633 Enoch ap Evan of Clun, Shropshire, got into an argument about this with his mother and brother, which became so heated that he ended it by killing them both. In Victorian times the matter was finally declared to be adiophora, that, is, optional.
After the Restoration, the 1662 edition became standard for centuries. One thing that is not generally realised is that, in the sixteenth century, Communion was only held a few times a year, in many churches only once a year. But in Victorian times it finally came to be held every Sunday. Such was the Book of Common Prayer’s popularity in those days that the Cunard cruise line and Boots the Chemist printed their own editions, with their company imprint prominently displayed. I have a copy, given to my mother as a school prize in 1937, which more reasonably was specially printed to commemorate the coronation of George VI, and included a photograph of the present queen as a girl.
Jacobs points out that “versions of it are used today in Christian churches all over the world, as far from England as South Africa, Singapore, and New Zealand. That book’s rite of marriage has become for many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, the means by which two people are joined . . ."
(According to Dana Howard, it spread even further afield. In her 1954 book, My Flight to Venus, she claimed that fifteen years earlier she had flown to the Morning Star, and married a Venusian before her return to Earth. The oaths they spoke were identical to those in the Book of Common Prayer.)
Inevitably, though, arguments sprang up again, and even in the nineteenth century some priests were imprisoned for making their services too ‘high’. The Anglo-Catholics wanted to remove items which, they felt, were purely patriotic, such as the Thanksgiving for the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and, in fact, these are not normally now included. I have somewhere read that in one edition this was accompanied by an engraving that showed Doctor John Dee (who had selected a astrologically auspicious date for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation) detecting the plotters in a crystal ball, but without knowing precisely what edition this was, it is impossible to verify.
Others felt that the language was now too archaic, objecting to the ‘thees and thous’, though surely anyone knew what these meant. A more serious problem was where words had changed their meaning, such as the general prayer that magistrates might “indifferently administer justice”, implying that the should not care if their judgements were correct or not. This was eventually amended to ‘impartially’, but the conservatives objected even to this, C. S. Lewis complaining that he knew a country sexton who knew what indifferently meant, but not impartially.
In 1922, the Anglicans of Canada issued a new version, as did the American Episcopalians in 1928. The revisions were mostly minor: the Americans cut from the wedding service the promise of the bride “to obey”. They later introduced what has been termed the ‘Star Wars prayer’: “At your command all things came to be; the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.”
Jacobs only briefly mention the introduction of the Alternative Service Book in Britain in the 1970s, which also aroused controversy, though fortunately not violent this time. It was felt to be a monument of insipid English, and provoked a collection of essays entitled Ritual Murder, that is, that the rituals had been murdered The editor, Brian Morris, noted that contemporary advertisements on London tube trains for Ratner’s showed a loving couple with the caption: “With this ring I thee wed”. As he pointed out, the ASB version, “I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage”, would not have sold jewellery.
To sum up briefly, both Larrimore and Jacobs have managed to condense a vast amount of material into handy-sized compendiums. - Gareth J. Medway