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Hallo again to all.

Title page of 1614 Book of Common PrayerRecently there came into our possession a tattered and heavily-used copy of the 1559 Booke of Common Prayer that was printed in 1614 and has seen heavy use ever since. It shares a binding with a Geneva Bible.

Printed on the best paper of its age, stitched into signatures with calf gut, and bound in covers of red oak wrapped in leather, it has managed to survive into this century without being relegated to a showcase or a dustbin. The edges of the pages are rough and black with the grime from the fingers of a thousand hands; the leather cords tying it all together have stretched but not broken. Only three of the hundreds of unnumbered pages have come loose, but many more are just hanging on by a thread. The first page proudly announces, just below a coal smudge,

Imprinted at London by ROBERT BARKER, Printer to the King's most Excellent Majestie, ANNO 1614. cum privilegio

The day it arrived, we asked our priest if he would be willing to celebrate that evening's Eucharist with this new-but-old book. After we talked him through his fear of damaging an ancient book, he bravely agreed, and the Wednesday-night congregation joined in a celebration of 'The order for the adminiftration of the Lord's Supper, or holy Communion' from a book printed about 400 years ago. During the service we felt not only a link with Jesus but also a link to the hundreds of priests who had celebrated from that book and the many thousands of souls who had been present. This tangible link to the earliest days of English-language worship was so powerful that hardly any of us could speak afterwards; we all shuffled off into the night to reflect on what we had just seen and felt.

Close-up of prayer book bindingAlthough it was a magnificent experience, it is not one that we'd welcome on a weekly basis. It is tempting to think that we're better serving God's purpose by imitating our ancestors, by recovering in some manner the purity we believe was more widely found in the Church in those 'simpler' and 'more moral' days. Why use our current prayer book or worship book? Why not use the original, unaltered, Booke of Common Prayer, with the Pfalter or Pfalmes of David, Of that Tranflation which is appointed to be vfed in Churches, of our forebears?

Therein lies the riddle of books, especially prayer books. For its time, the Booke of Common Prayer was a radical innovation: liturgy written in a language that the worshippers could understand, accompanied by a Bible written in the same language. It was available for inspection by any parishioner who could read. The Service of the Word and the Service of the Table were demystified, made accessible, made vernacular, by writing them down. Its genius was not that it potted the Old Ways in a book to preserve them, but that it promulgated a liturgy in the vernacular, in the spirit of the day. They only became the Old Ways when the book outlasted the people who wrote it.

But once something is published, it becomes an artifact in its own right, something to be venerated for what it is, and not what it says, or why. We smile at the notion that many groups favouring old ways over new ways call themselves 'prayer book societies', since a prayer book such as the one here at our desk was a leap into the future and not an anchor to the past. This prayer book was part of a process of major change, even managing to get its principal author burnt at the stake. The perennial challenge of the Church is to survive to the next generation, and olde prayer bookes, despite their beauty and presence, are, like gravestones, markers of what was once alive and are now respectfully remembered.

If all liturgy were slide shows and powerpoints instead of leatherbound books, the ephemeral nature of the form would reduce the chance that, three generations from now, Anglicans would be worshipping the liturgy or the powerpoints, rather than God. But despite the dangers of trying to contain God between the covers, we'll take a prayer book over powerpoints any day. We'll just be careful to remember that our infallible God isn't distilled into an infallible book.

See'st thou this day sennight.

Cynthia's signature
Brian's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 6 March 2005

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