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Characteristics of the Prayer Book








Sunday Evening November 24, 1878





One generation passeth away; another generation cometh.—Eccles. i. 4.

AGAINST the background of this sombre fact of change, whatever there is in life that is stable stands out with a sharpness that compels notice. Just because the world is so full of variableness, our hearts' affections fasten with the tighter grip upon anything that seems to have the guarantees of permanence. The Book of Common Prayer appeals to us on this score, precisely as the Bible, in its larger measure, does; it is the book of many generations, not of one, and there is "the hiding of its power." We have received the Prayer Book from the generations that are gone; we purpose handling it on when "another generation cometh;" we hold it for the use and blessing of the generation which now is.

Our thoughts about the book, therefore, if we would have the thinking rightly done, must take hold upon [5/6] [5/6] the past, the present, and the future, a breadth of topic covered well enough perhaps by this phrase, The Permanent and the Variable Characteristics of the Prayer Book.

I make no apology for asking you to take up the subject in so grave a temper. Now, for more than three hundred years, the Common Prayer has been the manual of worship ‘in use with the greater number of the people of that race which, meanwhile, in the Providence of God, has been growing up to be the leading power on earth. Everywhere the English language seems to be going forth conquering and to conquer, and whithersoever it penetrates it carries with it the letters and the social traditions of a people whose character has been largely moulded by the influences of the Prayer Book. Africans, Indians, Hindoos are to-day, even in their heathenism, feeling the effects of waves of movement which throb from this centre. Men in authority, the world over, are living out, with more or less of consistency and thoroughness, those convictions about our duty towards God, and our duty towards our neighbor, which were early inwrought into their consciences through the instrumentality of these venerable forms. Surely no one can afford to think or speak otherwise than most seriously and carefully with regard to a book which has behind it a history so worthy, so rich, so pregnant with promise for the future.

Look first, then, at the power which the Prayer Book [6/7] draws from its affiliations with the past. It is a common remark, so common as to be commonplace, that our liturgy owes its excellence to the fact of its not having been the composition or compilation of any one man. So much is evident enough, upon the face of it; for a form of worship devised off-hand by an individual, or even put together by a committee sitting around a table, could scarcely be wholly satisfactory to any save the maker or the makers of it. But it is more to the purpose to observe that not only is the Prayer Book not the result of any one man’s or any one committee’s labors; it is not the work even of any one generation, or of any one age.

The men who gradually put the Prayer Book into what is substantially its present shape, in the days of Edward VI. and of Elizabeth, were no more the makers of the Prayer Book than were the men who, in a later reign, set forth what we call “the authorized version” of the Holy Scriptures, the first translators of the Bible. In both cases the work done was a work of review and revision. A much more severe review, a vastly more sweeping revision in the case of the Prayer Book than in the case of the Bible, I grant; but still, mainly a work of review and revision after all. “Continuity,” that characteristic so precious in the eye of modern science, continuity marked the whole process.

The first Prayer Book of the Reformed Church of England was a condensed, simplified, and purified [7/8] combination of formularies of worship already in use in the National Church. A certain amount of new material, some of it home-made, some of it drawn from foreign sources, was added; but the great bulk of the new service-book had been contained in one or other of the older manuals. The Reformers did but clip and prune, with that exquisite taste and judgment which belong by tradition to English gardeners, the overgrowth and rank luxuriance of a too long neglected, “careless ordered” garden. But whence came the earlier formularies themselves, from which Cranmer and the rest quarried the stone for the new building?—to change the metaphor as Paul, you remember, does so suddenly from husbandry to architecture.” Whence came missal, and breviary, and book of offices—the best portions of which were merged in the English Common Prayer? From the far past; the missal from those primitive liturgies or communion services, some of which we trace back with certainty to the later portion of the ante-Nicene age, and by not unreasonable conjecture to the edge of apostolic days; the breviary or daily prayers from the times when Christians first took up community life; the offices from periods of uncertain date all along the track of previous church history. But what advantage, asks some one full of the modern spirit, what advantage has the Common Prayer in that it can trace a genealogy running up through ages of such uncertain [8/9] reputation? Have we not been accustomed to regard those times as hopelessly corrupt, impenetrably dark, universally superstitious? Ought we not to be mortified, rather than gratified, to learn that from the pit of so mouldy a past our book of prayer was digged? Would not a-brand-new liturgy, modernized expressly to meet the needs of nineteenth century culture, with all the old English idioms displaced, every rough corner smoothed and every crooked place made straight,—would not that. be something far worthier our respect, better entitled to our allegiance, than this book full of far-away echoes, and faint bell-notes from a half-forgotten past?

Yes, if modern man were only modern man and nothing more, such reasoning would be extremely cogent. But what if modern man be really, not the mere creature of the century in which he lives, but the gathered sum and product of all that has preceded him in history? What if you and I, from the very fact that we are living now, have in the dim groundwork of our nature something that would not have been there had we lived one, three, twelve hundred years ago? What if there be such a thing as cumulative acquirement for the race of men, so that a new generation starts with an available capital of associations and ideas of which the generation last preceding it owned but a part? Take such words as “feudalism,” “the crusades,” “the renaissance,” “the printing press,” consider how much they mean to us, and then [9/10] remember that to a man of the third century they would have been empty sounds conveying absolutely no meaning. What all this goes to show is that human nature is a map which is continually unrolling. To say that the entirety of it lies between the two meridians that bound the particular tract in which our own little life happens to be cast is stupid. The whole great past belongs to us,—river and island, ocean, forest, continent, all are ours. You and the man in armor, you and the Venetian merchant, you and the cowled monk have something, be it ever so little, something in common. That which was in the foreground of their life is now in the background or in the middle distance of yours. It has become a part of you.

So then, if we would have a liturgy that shall speak to our whole nature, and not to a mere fraction of it, it must be a liturgy full of voices sounding out of the past. There must be reminders and suggestions in it [10/11] of all the great epochs of the Church’s story. Yes, echoes even from those very ages which we call dark (perhaps as much because we are in the dark about them, as on account of any special blackness attaching to the times themselves), some echoes even from them may, have a rightful place in the worship which is to call out responsively all that is in the heart of the most modern of modern men.

As there were heroes before Agamemnon, so were there holy and humble men of heart before Cranmer and Luther, yes and before Jerome and Augustine. If any cry that ever went up from any one of them out of the depths of that nature which they share with us and we with them, if any breath of supplication, any moan of penitence, any shout of victory that issued from their lips has made out to survive the noise and tumult of intervening times, it has earned by its very persistency of tone a prima facie title to be put into the Prayer Book of to-day. [“Parliaments, Prelates, Convocations, Synods may order forms of prayer. They may get speeches to be spoken upwards by people on their knees. They may obtain a juxtaposition in space of curiously-tessellated pieces of Bible and Prayer Book. But when I speak of the rareness and preciousness of prayers, I mean such prayers as contain three conditions—permanence, capability of being really prayed, and universality. Such prayers Primates and Senates can no more command than they can order a new Cologne Cathedral or another epic poem.”—The Bishop of Derry’s Bampton Lectures, Lect. IV.] And this is why a prayer book may survive the wreck of many systems of theology. [11/12] A prayer book holds the utterance of our needs; a theological system is the embodiment of our thoughts.

Now our thoughts about things divine are painfully fallible and liable to change with change of times; but a want which is genuinely and entirely human is a permanent fact; the great needs of the soul never grow obsolete, and though the language in which the lips shall clothe the heart’s desire may alter, as tastes alter, yet the substance of the prayer abides, and in some happy instances, the form also abides.

To an eye that looks wisely and lovingly on such sights, there is the same keen sense of enjoyment in finding here and there in the Prayer Book suggestions of forgotten customs, reminders of famous persons and events, that there is in detecting in the masonry of an old castle or minster tell-tale stones which betray the different ages, the “sundry times and divers manners” which the fabric represents. Who, for instance, that has traced the history of that apostolic ordinance “the kiss of peace” down through the liturgical changes and revolutions of eighteen hundred years, can fail to be interested in finding in a single clause of one of the exhortations of our communion service that which corresponds to the literal kiss of primitive times, as well as to the petrified symbol of the original reality, the silver, ivory, or wooden “osculatory” of the mediaeval church. So with “Ash [12/13] Wednesday,” a single syllable opens a whole chapter of church history. Again, the Latin headings to the psalms of the Psalter; with what an impatient gesture can we imagine a spruce reviser brushing these away as so much trash! They are not trash, they are way-marks that tell of times when devout men loved those catch-words, as we love the first lines of our favorite hymns. A few of the headings, such as “De Profundis” and “Miserere,” [13/14] still possess such associations for ourselves. There was a time when very many more of them meant to men now dead and gone, as much as “Rock of Ages,” or “Sun of my Soul,” or “Lead, kindly Light,” can mean to you or me.

Then, too, the monuments of specially revered heroes of the faith that clot the paths of the Common Prayer, how precious they are! We like to think of Ambrose as speaking to us in the lofty sentences of the Te Deum. It is pleasant to associate Chrysostom with the prayer that bears his name, and to know that he who swayed the city’s multitude still prized the Master’s promise to the “two or three gathered together” in His name. So also, in our American book, Jeremy Taylor, the modern Chrysostom, meets us in the Office for the Visitation of the Sick, in that solemn prayer addressed to Him “whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered.” All these things help to make the Prayer Book the large-hearted, wide-minded book [14/15] we all of us feel it to be, so like a friend whom we revere because he is kindly in his tone, generous in his judgments, quick to understand us at every point.

So much for the past of the Prayer Book. We have touched it in no image-breaking mood, but with reverence. “One generation passeth away, another generation cometh,” and it has been the peculiar felicity of this book to stand

“A link among the days, to knit
The generations each to each.”

We pass on to consider the present usefulness of the Prayer Book and the possibility of extending that usefulness in the future. And now I shall speak wholly as an American to Americans, not because the destinies of the Prayer Book in the new world are the more important, though such may in the end turn out to be the fact, but simply because we are at home here and know our own wants and wishes, our own liabilities and opportunities, far better than we can possibly know those of other people. As a Church we have always tied ourselves too slavishly to English precedent. Our vine is greatly in danger of continuing merely a potted ivy, an indoor exotic. The past of the Common Prayer we cannot disconnect from England, but its present and its future belong in part at least to us, and it is in this light that we are bound as American Churchmen to study them. Let us agree then that the usefulness of [15/16] the book here and now lies largely in the moulding and formative influence which it is quietly exerting, not only on the religion of those who use it, but also largely on the religion of the far greater number who publicly use it not. It has interested me, as it would interest almost any one, to learn how many prayer books our booksellers supply to Christian people who are not Churchmen. Evidently the book is in use as a private manual with thousands, who own no open allegiance to the Protestant Episcopal Church. They keep it on the devotional shelf midway between Thomas a Kempis and the Pilgrim’s Progress, finding it a sort of interpreter of the one to the other, and possessed of a certain flavor differencing it from both. This is a happy augury for the future. Much latent heat is generating which shall yet warm up the chillness of the land. The seedgrain of the Common Prayer will not lie unproductive in those forgotten furrows. The fitness of such a system of worship as this to counteract some of the flagrant evils of our popular religion, can scarcely fail to commend it to the minds of those who thus unobserved and “ as it were in secret,” read and ponder. Much of our American piety, fervid as it is, shows confessedly a feverish, intermittent character which needs just such a tonic as the Prayer Book provides in what Keble happily called its “sober standard of feeling in matters of practical religion.”

Then, too, there is the constantly increasing interest [16/17] which it is such a pleasure to observe among Christians of all names in the order of the ritual year, in Christmas and Easter, Lent and Good Friday—who can tell how much of this may not be due to the leavening influence of the Prayer Book, over and above what is effected by the public services of the Church? “I wonder,” said a famous revivalist to a friend, a clergyman of our Church, “I wonder if you Episcopalians know what a good thing you have in that year of yours. Why don’t you use it more?”

And true enough, why do we not? That we might learn to do so was a wish very near the heart of that holy and true man who, if any one, deserves the title of the saint among our priests, the late Dr. Muhlenberg, the man who twenty-five years ago headed the not wholly abortive movement known as the “Memorial.” [17/18] One fruit of that movement is perhaps to be seen in the earnest desire now prevalent throughout the Church to [18/19] see the scope of the Prayer Book’s influence enlarged. In General Conventions and Church Congresses now-a-days no topic excites greater interest than the question how better to adapt the services of the Church to the present needs and special conditions of all classes of the population. To be sure, the apparent impotence of the governing body to find or furnish any lawful way of relief is a little discouraging, but it is something to see an almost universal assent given in terms, to the proposition that relief ought to be had. What we have to fear is that during the long delay which puts off the only proper and regular method of giving more elasticity to the services, there may spring up a generation of Churchmen from whose minds the idea of obligation to law in matters of ritual observance will have faded out altogether.

There is a conservatism so conservative that it will stand by and see a building tumble down rather than lay a sacrilegious hand on a single stone, will see dam and mill and village all swept away sooner than lift the flash-boards that keep the superabundant water from coming safely down. It is among the things possible, that for lack of readjustment and timely adaptation of the laws regulating worship, just such a fate may befall our whole liturgical fabric.

The plausible theory of “the rubric of common sense,” about which we have heard so much, a theory good within limitations, is threatening, by the wholesale [19/20] application it receives, presently to annul all other rubrics whatsoever. When, by this process, uniformity and even similarity shall have been utterly abolished, when it shall have become impossible for one to know beforehand of a Sunday whether he is going to mass, or to meeting, or to church, the inquiry will be in order, What has conservatism of this sort really conserved?

“The personal liberty of the officiating clergyman,” I fear will be the only answer; certainly not “The liberty of the worshipping congregation.” The straight and only honest way out of our embarrassment will, some clay or other, be found, I dare not believe very soon, in a careful, loving, fair-minded revision of the formularies; a revision undertaken not for the purpose of giving victory to one theological party rather than to another, or of changing in any degree the doctrinal teaching of the Church, but solely and wholly with a view to enriching, amplifying, and making more available the liturgical treasures of the book.

“One generation passeth away, another generation cometh.” As we have seen in these words an argument in favor of not breaking with the past, so let them also speak to us of our plain duty to the present. True, the great needs are, as I have said, common alike to all the generations, to those that pass and those that come; but the lesser needs are variable, and unless we are prepared to take the ground that because “lesser” they may be disregarded altogether, we are bound, with the [20/21] changed times, to provide for the new wants new satisfactions. Take, simply by way of illustration, the need we stand in of an appropriate form of third service for use on Sundays in city churches, when Morning and Evening Prayer have been already said according to the prescribed order.

Why have we no such service?

Simply because no such need existed in our American cities when the Prayer Book, as we have it now, was taking shape, at the close of the last century. Just as no form for the administration of Adult Baptism was put into Queen Elizabeth’s Prayer Book, simply because the usage of Infant Baptism was universal in that day, and there were no unbaptized adults; but such service was inserted at the Restoration to meet the need that had sprung up under the Puritan regime; so was it unnecessary in Bishop White’s day to provide for a form of service which has only become practicable and desirable since modern discovery has enabled us to make the public streets almost as safe at night as in the daytime, and church-going as easy by gaslight as by sunlight.

Now it is perfectly possible, of course, under the present order of things, and with no change in rubric or canon law, for any clergyman to provide an additional service, to provide it in the form of a mosaic made up of bits of the liturgy wrenched out of their proper places, and so irregularly put together that no [21/22] stranger among the worshippers can possibly, with the book in hand, thread his way among its intricacies.

But when we consider how many exquisite gems of devotional speech there are still left outside the covers of the Prayer Book; when we consider how delightful it would be to have back again the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis, and some of the sweet versicles of the Evensong of the Church of England; when we consider the lamentable mistake already made in our existing formularies of introducing into Morning and Evening Prayer identically the same opening sentences, the same General Exhortation, the same General Confession, the same Declaration of Absolution, the same Prayer for the President, and the same General Thanksgiving,—is it not evident that an additional, or, if you please, an alternative service, composed of material not elsewhere employed, would be for the worshippers a very great gain? The repetition which wearies is only the repetition which we feel need not have been. We never tire of the Collect for Peace any more than we tire of the sunset. It is in its place, and we always welcome it. In a perfect liturgy no form of words, except the Creed, the Doxology and the Lord’s Prayer, would at any time reappear, but as in arabesque work every square inch of space differs from every other square, so each clause and sentence of the manual of worship would have a distinctive beauty of its own, to be looked for precisely there and nowhere else.

[23] This is but one illustration of what may be called a possible enrichment of our Book of Common Prayer. Impoverishment under the name of revision may very justly be deprecated, but who shall find any just fault with an enrichment that is really such?

We must remember that the, men who gave us what we now have were, in their day and generation, the innovators, advocates of what the more timid spirits accounted dangerous change. We cannot, I think, sufficiently admire the courageous foresight of those reformers who, at a time when public worship was mainly associated in men’s minds with what went on among a number of ecclesiastics gathered together at one end of a church, dared to plant themselves firmly on the principle of “ common” prayer, and to say, Henceforth the worship of the National Church shall be the worship not of priests alone, but of priests and people too. What a bold act it was! The printing press, remember, although it had given the impulse to the Reformation, was far from being at that time the omnipresent thing it is now; books were scarce, popular education, as we understand it, was unknown; there were no means of supplying service-books to the poorer classes (no Prayer Book Societies, like this of yours), nor could the books have been used had they been furnished. And yet, in the face of these seemingly insuperable obstacles, the leaders of religious thought in the England of that day had the sagacity to plan a system of [23/24] worship which should involve participation by the people in all the acts of divine service, including the administration of the sacraments.

Here was genuine statesmanship applied to the administration of religion. Those men discerned wisely the signs of their own times. They saw what the right principle was, they foresaw what the art of printing was destined in time to accomplish, and they did a piece of work which has bravely stood the wear and tear of full three hundred years.

No churchman questions the wisdom of their innovations now. Is it hopeless to expect a like quickness of discernment in the leaders of to-day? Surely they have eyes to see that a new world has been born, and that a thousand unexampled demands are pressing us on every side. If the Prayer Book is not enriched with a view to meeting those demands, it is not for lack of materials. A Saturday reviewer has tried to fasten on the Church of England the stigma of being the Church which for the space of two centuries has not been able to evolve a fresh prayer.

If the reproach were just, it would be stinging indeed; but it is most cruelly unjust. In the devotional literature of the Anglicanism of the last fifty years, to go no further back, there may be found prayers fully equal in compass of thought and depth of feeling to any of those that are already in public use. Not to single out too many instances, it may suffice to mention the [24/25] prayers appended to the book of “Ancient Collects,” edited a few years since by a distinguished Oxford scholar. The clergy are acquainted with them, and know how beautiful they are. Why should not the whole Church enjoy the happiness of using them? [25/26] Why is there not the same propriety in our garnering the devotional harvest of the three hundred years last past, that there was in the Reformers garnering the harvest of five times three hundred years?

“One generation passeth away, another generation cometh.” I have spoken of the present and the past, what now of the future? We know that all things come to an end. What destiny awaits the book to which our evening thoughts have been given? That is a path not open to our tread. The cloudy curtain screens the threshold of it. Still we may listen and imagine that we hear sounds. What if such a voice as this were to come to us from the distance of a hundred years hence,—a voice tinged with sadness, and carrying just the least suggestion of reproach? “Our fathers,” the voice says, “in the last quarter of the last century, forfeited a golden opportunity. It was a time of reconstruction in the State, social life was taking on the form it was destined long to retain, a great war had come to an end and its results were being registered, all things were fluent. Moreover, there happened, just then, to be an almost unparalleled lull in the strife of religious parties; men were more disposed than usual to agree; the interest in liturgical research was at its greatest, and scholars knew and cared more than they have ever [26/27] done since about the history and the structure of forms of prayer. Nevertheless, timid counsels prevailed; nothing was done with a view to better adapting the system to the needs of society, and the hope that the Church might cease to wear the dimensions of a sect, and might become the chosen home of a great people, died unrealized. We struggle on, a half-hearted company, and try to live upon the high traditions, the sweet memories of our past.”

God forbid, my friends, that the dismal prophecy come true! We will not believe it. But what, you ask, is the pathway to any such betterment as I have ventured roughly to sketch to-night? I will not attempt to map it, but I feel very confident which way it does not run. I am sure it does not run through the region of disaffection, complaint, threatening, restlessness, petulance, or secession. Mere fretfulness never carries its points. No, the true way to better things is always to begin by holding on manfully to that which we already are convinced is good. The best restorers of old fabrics are those who work with affectionate loyalty as nearly as possible on the lines of the first builders, averse to any change which is made merely for change’s sake, not so anxious to modernize as to restore, and yet always awake to the fact that what they have been set to do is to make the building once more what it was first meant to be, a practicable shelter.

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