"Maintenance of thy true religion": is use of 1662 reactionary?

When a UK newspaper recently reported a Prayer Book Society statement on the increased attendance which marked the renewed use of the Book of Common Prayer 1662 in a London parish church, some quarters of Anglican clerical Twitter (rather predictably) lamented that the use of 1662 was inherently reactionary.  My initial response was a mixture of frustration and amusement.  To judge the average Anglican congregation throughout these Islands attending 1662 (or variant) Early Communion or Evensong as reactionary culture warriors is, to say the least, odd.  Indeed, it comes rather close to bearing false witness.  

Of course, it also suggests another difficulty.  For some Anglican clerics, having conservative views on the constitution and standing for the National Anthem is indeed reactionary.  Whatever would they have made of Clement Attlee?  The suggestion that use of 1662 is reactionary also betrays a lack of theological imagination, a flat, insipid reading not only of 1662 but also of the liberal order itself, suggesting that the latter has no place for robust theological accounts of our common life.  And yet as someone has recently said, quoting Augustine, "a people [is] a multitude defined by the common objects of their love".

My thoughts turned to the moderately Broad Church parish in which I serve, with a congregation which is predominantly moderate to liberal in terms of political and social issues.  The Church of Ireland BCP 2004 incorporates much of the BCP 1926 (a very lightly revised 1662).  As such (and not unlike many Church of Ireland parishes) we use Order One/1926 for Choral Evensong, Compline, and for some early and weekday Holy Communions.  In addition to the main Sunday liturgy being contemporary rite Parish Communion, Order One/1926 Mattins is also offered (and during lock-down has been used as the main liturgy on some Sundays).

Discussing such use of Order One/1926 with parishioners, what consistently is identified and welcomed is a perception of a slower, more contemplative pace in Order One/1926 liturgies.  There is also a recognition of phrases written so as to be memorised (some of which are included in contemporary Order Two rites). The rhythms of Order One/1926 are seen to be 'natural' for Choral Evensong and Compline, and to 'fit' the quieter, more intimate circumstances of early and weekday Holy Communions.  

I have yet to encounter a parishioner who regards the use of Order One/1926 as a rejection of modernity, as a badge of reactionary ecclesial and cultural politics.  Now, of course, the moderately Broad Church ethos of the parish would militate against this.  That said, this is rather the point.  Use of Order One/1926 is understood to be entirely compatible what that Broad Church ethos: not in any way a reactionary rejection of the present, but, instead, a contemplative ordering of liturgical prayer which quietly roots life in - and not against - the liberal social order in prayer, Word, and Sacrament.

By contrast, to use 1662 and its variants to signal a rejection of modernity, as a badge of reactionary cultural politics, is to misuse such classical Anglican liturgies.  It encourages a sectarianism which entirely contradicts the purpose of Common Prayer, of providing a liturgy (as Cranmer put it) "for all the whole Realm".  The nature of Common Prayer is to be embedded in domestic, communal, civic, and national life, blessing and sanctifying them: not radically opposed to them.  

This is so even with regards to parts of 1662 which critics might condemn as encouraging a reactionary stance.  Take, for example, the petition for the realm in the Prayer for the Church Militant:

and especially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.

To pray that we might be "godly and quietly governed" is hardly a call for an aggressive reactionary culture war.  To be "quietly governed" suggests a peace and stability entirely contrary to the harsh divisiveness of culture wars.  As for 'godly' government, this is a petition for a just ordering of common life, what Rowan Williams has described as a society in which "neighbours should be secure and that no one's need goes unnoticed".  To pray that those who govern "may truly and indifferently [Order One = impartially] minister justice" has profound resonances in a time in which there is a heightened awareness of those contexts in which the administration of justice has been neither true nor impartial.  The "punishment of wickedness and vice" reminds us that our common life is disfigured when greed, exploitation, and racism are unchallenged by government.  In the final petition, the recognition that "virtue" should be nurtured is hardly a controversial claim in an age when many commentators are calling for a renewal of the values which undergird of our civic order. The "maintenance of thy true religion" is bound up with those rights and liberties which secure the Church's presence in our common life, and thus likewise secure the presence of synagogue and mosque, enabling the Christian tradition of moral reflection - with and alongside other such great traditions - to enrich the debates and discourse of our society.

This understanding is also reflected in the most popular contemporary use of 1662: Choral Evensong.  The idea that Choral Evensong is a reactionary declaration verges on the absurd and would certainly provoke a quizzical response from the vast majority of those who attend it.  It does offer, of course, a source of peace, renewal, and refreshment in the midst of the constant distractions and demands of contemporary life. As one 2016 report stated regarding the popularity of Choral Evensong in Oxbridge chapels:

College chaplains have seen a steady but noticeable increase in attendances at the early evening services which combine contemplative music with the 16th Century language of the Book of Common Prayer ... Chaplains say the mix of music, silence and centuries-old language appears to have taken on a new appeal for a generation more used to instant and constant communications, often conducted in 140 characters rather than the phrases of Cranmer.

As another observer has stated:

Evensong offers an antidote to the modern age of instant digital gratification.

To label this as reactionary, however, is to identify what Andrew Sullivan has termed "the era of mass distraction" and its "frazzled digital generation" as somehow inherently progressive, rather than a debilitating phenomenon which is undermining our common life.  Indeed, we might argue that recent years have demonstrated that the ability to step back from such "mass distraction" and to engage in a deeper, shared moral reflection - such as that provided by Choral Evensong - is precisely what the contemporary liberal order requires.

Rather, then, than being somehow reactionary, 1662 can be a source for the renewal of those virtues which sustain the liberal order.  1662's robustly Augustinian theology of sin underpins what Christopher Insole has identified as a foundational principle of the liberal order, "a sense of the frailty of human agency".  The Christocentricity which is a defining characteristic of 1662 enables it to assist in answering a contemporary need emphasised by Rowan Williams:

Ineradicable rights and universal human dignity, seen not simply as the corporate decision of human majority, stand in need for grounding, Christian and Christocentric anthropology supplies .

The use of the Ten Commandments in the 1662 Communion Office and its exhortation to be "in love and charity with your neighbours" gives expression to what Marilynne Robinson has described as the Mosaic origins of liberalism, "a profound theological basis for liberality, openhandedness".

This, perhaps, hints at what is one of the most disturbing aspect of rejections of 1662 as reactionary: that the liberal order should be shallow, deprived of theological roots, and thus brittle and unattractive in the face of authoritarian critics of Right and Left.  It similarly applies if reactionary is being used by critics in an ecclesial context, seeking thereby to deprive traditions which, for example, ordain women as priests and bishops of the rootedness which 1662 provides in Scripture, Creeds, and Augustinian theology.  This also presumes a desire for weak theology and banal liturgy by such traditions.  Perhaps the best answer to this is to point to the excellent contribution from a female priest at the 2020 Prayer Book Society conference or Angela Tilby's contention that "the shortness, bareness, and starkness of the Prayer Book’s order for holy communion seems newly appropriate".

Whether it is the liberal order or the average Anglican Broad Church congregation, neither should be deprived of the rich theological rooting provided by 1662.  To suggest that they should is itself, ironically, a reactionary stance, contributing to brittle cultural and ecclesial orders weakened in the face of challenges from political and ecclesiastical voices offering alternatives that will undermine both polity and church dwelling in love and charity with neighbours.


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