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Hallo again to all.

Perhaps a very long hot summer is to blame for our general mental addledness, but once again we've got two lines from a 19th-century poem rattling round in our heads. From the poem for St John's Day in John Keble's The Christian Year, the morally instructive couplet is:

When the shore is gained at last
Who will count the billows past?

If we were writing in 1855 instead of 2005, we'd not be the only people who had lines from Keble running round in their heads. The Christian Year, published in 1827, sold an average of 10,000 copies per year during the first 50 years it was published. It was commonly given as a school prize book and was so commonly quoted in Victorian England that one person would often begin a line and another end it. So ubiquitous was The Christian Year in the Victorian home that Oscar Wilde once suggested that substituting Baudelaire for Keble might be a worthwhile activity. Not only omnipresent in real life, The Christian Year often made an appearance in contemporary novels. In George Gissing's The Odd Women, there is this exchange:

Late in June, Monica would complete her twenty-first year; the elders ... talked much about her as the time approached, devising how to procure her a little pleasure on her birthday. Virginia thought a suitable present would be a copy of The Christian Year.

'She has really no time for continuous reading. A verse of Keble — just one verse at bedtime and in the morning — might be strength to the poor girl.'

Alice assented.

Given the sales figures, many more than Alice assented. As we mused on the enormous popularity of TCY, we wondered whether there is anything at all remotely similar in our time. One reads of the great popularity of slick self-help 'theological' bestsellers in the States, such as The Purpose Driven Life or the rapture-based publishing phenomenon of the Left Behind series. But sweeping aside the non-Anglican for the moment and focussing exclusively on our own patch, we're at a loss to think of any literary work — poetry or prose, and more or less pointedly Anglican — that commands the place once held by The Christian Year.

We suspect this is owing to a number of things: the absence of a common Anglican literary culture (identified, accurately or not, with the British Empire), the rise of indigenous literature, and the decline in reading in general. One can thrash round and assert that TS Eliot's poetry, say The Four Quartets, might hold a weakly similar position to Keble, but raw sales figures and cultural 'market penetration' would put that to rest. We can't imagine someone quoting a few lines of, say, 'East Coker' and having the next lines picked up by someone else at a coffee hour. (If you can, do tell us about your parish.)

The question of commonality doesn't end, of course, with prose and poetry. It extends to what is an identifying mark of the Anglican Church: the Book of Common Prayer. The beloved 1662 edition is still used, of course, here and there, mostly 'in quires and places where they sing', but its strict derivatives, such as the US 1928 Book of Common Prayer, have now mostly faded. With a proliferation of national-church-specific liturgical texts, such as Common Worship*, A New Zealand Prayer Book, and A Prayer Book for Australia, in the last 50 years, it's become far less likely that one will worship with common words in churches throughout the Anglican Communion. This may be a good thing or a bad thing, but however one falls on the question, it is a different thing. Literary and liturgical fragmentation raise questions of identity and commonality that we see affecting our beloved communion in a variety of ways — and we don't yet know the end of the story. We'll watch, wait, and see.

See you next week.

And help us, each and every day
<All> To live more nearly as we pray.

Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 18 September 2005

*Yes, we are aware that in some Provinces the Book of Common Prayer is still the legally authorised text. But we're not speaking of canons here, but of the reality of worshiip 'on the ground', so to speak.


A thin blue line
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