The birthday of the Book of Common Prayer

This is an edited version of a sermon celebrating the anniversary of the first English Book of Common Prayer. The anniversary falls on June 9th, but it “is properly celebrated on a weekday following Pentecost,” (Lesser Feasts and Fasts) and my calendar marks it for tomorrow. The links between Pentecost, language, and prayer, common or otherwise, are poignant. This sermon is less so, but I offer it as a humble reflection.

The Gospel lesson is from John 4:21-24:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

When I entered the church as an English child in Wales in the seventies, at the height of Welsh nationalism, language was such an important part of self-expression in that country and in that time; it was a test of identity. But I did not speak Welsh, and, ironically, it was rarely spoken around me in the southern coastal town where I lived. I attended worship in English in our parish church, speaking many of the prayers which had followed our church through the centuries all the way from 1549. At my Confirmation I was presented with a Book of Common Prayer whose pages mirrored one another in English and in Welsh, so that in theory you could switch seamlessly from one to the other (and the Archbishop of Wales will sometimes do just that), weaving a net of shared language and shared worship to draw the divided English and Welsh and anyone caught between them into the fellowship of the Lord’s Table together.

The Gospel reading for this day speaks of worship in spirit and truth. The creations of temple and the city and the mountain are superseded by God’s own spirit and truth. Salvation comes from the Jews, embodied in Jesus; and it is for all people. God reaches out to us, to the whole of God’s creation, in spirit and truth, and we can respond only by the grace of God’s own self.

We read only a part of this story today. In its fuller form, it is the story of the woman at the well, who had had five husbands; a Samaritan. When Jesus met the woman, he spoke to her in language she could understand: “give me a drink of water”. It was completely appropriate for the time and place and context: they were at a well; he asked for water. But this simple request led to a great revelation, that this man, Jesus, was in fact the Messiah. It led to evangelism, as the woman ran back home to share her story with her people, in her language, about the man she had met who told her everything about herself, who understood her, who spoke to her in words she could understand.

In today’s service we are using language which has fallen largely into disuse in our churches, language which is a closer and more direct descendent than we usually hear of the words which Thomas Cranmer gave us in 1549. He would, no doubt, be appalled. After all, one of Cranmer’s priorities in introducing a Book of Common Prayer was giving the people a liturgy that they could understand, written in their own language, which they could read together, if they could read, which they could certainly speak together, and which would furnish them with a resource not only for public worship but for private devotions. And here I am, speaking in language which we never use these days, in order to celebrate his work. Isn’t it ironic?

The first Book of Common Prayer replaced regional rites which could be quite different from one county to the next with this one standard, not because it was necessarily the best, or the most true, or the most spiritual. It regularized worship not because there is one true and right way or place to worship God. It did it to bring the Church of England and its people together in worship and in fellowship and in the prayers, celebrating their unity in the baptism which they shared in Christ Jesus. It did so to draw Christian people closer to one another, so that by loving neighbor, they may come closer to loving God.

That’s why I thought it might be a good idea for us to revisit the words of our spiritual and ecclesial ancestors today, to celebrate their achievements and insights, and to acknowledge that we are bound together – although not by the words in a Book of Common Prayer. The words of this book are beautiful, and timeless, and spiritual, and they ring true even today; but their purpose is not to worship God on the mountain, or in Jerusalem, but to point us to the Word of God himself, who draws all peoples to himself, whose sign to his apostles was baptism, whose comfort to them was fellowship and the prayers, and the holy meal; who continues to speak words of challenge and love and invitation and forgiveness to us all, each in our own language. …

Amen.

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One Response to The birthday of the Book of Common Prayer

  1. Ken Ranos says:

    Isn’t it funny that every new contemporary element in church is immediately codified as tradition, immovable and unchangeable? It’s why the continued use of the KJV is so amusing to me–translated to be in the everyday language of the people, it hasn’t changed in centuries. Or when people want to start a “contemporary” worship service, they start pulling up music from the 70’s… decades ago.

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