This blog is the result of reading the thoughts of others, mainly folk I have met through Twitter – thanks to ALL of them for thought provoking, stimulating discussion.
I was brought up on the Book of Common Prayer (1662), Matins (Morning Prayer) twice a month, Evensong once a month, Holy Communion once a month. That’s a lot of Thee Thou and Thy from the age of 2-18. It wasn’t until I joined the Christian Union at secondary school that I discovered that apparently God understands modern English – a discovery which was, and remains, liberating. But when I started to lead worship in the last few years, sometimes services from the BCP, I discovered that I had memorised huge chunks of it, without realising it at all. That’s what repetition does for you.
People have been predicting the death of the BCP for the whole of my life. It tends to get used at the early and late services these days (I generalise). And the argument goes along the lines that “the congregation is old, so as they die, so will BCP”. (With apologies to any BCP bod reading this, I know you are probably not old). But over the last 40 years, it hasn’t happened.
I grew up near Stratford-Upon-Avon – Shakespeare country. So the first theatre I saw was by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and yes, until I was about 15 it was all Shakespeare. Finding modern dramatists was just as liberating as being freed from BCP liturgy. But I have found I need both old and new, that different needs are met. Just as I still love watching and reading Shakespeare, but enjoy David Hare too. It’s interesting to see how Shakespeare is reinterpreted again and again – those of my generation will recall a Romeo and Juliet at Stratford in the mid-1980s with gangs and an amazing flash red car. It was sexy and modern and used Shakespearean language faithfully. Twenty years later I saw an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in the West End, performed by 4 American men, in which they used the text to explore the awakening of gay sexuality. It was sexy and modern and used the Shakespearian text faithfully (with a couple of modern bits at the beginning).
If I use BCP with the same musical settings, interspersed with the same hymns, and possibly the same sermons, as I heard as a child 40 years ago, then some people will find it comforting and “right”. Others will find it dull. More will find it incomprehensible. Understanding Shakespeare’s language takes work (and did even when he was alive – he invented dozens? hundreds? of new words). Understanding BCP takes concentration – especially if it is said by someone who hasn’t invested the time to make it comprehensible.
And not everyone has to like it. Not everyone likes Jane Austin, or Tom Sharpe, or Henning Mankell, or Stephen Fry. We have multiple liturgies (set services) available for use in the Church of England today – a richly textured variety. What matters is not what language we and God use to speak to each other – but that we understand and act on the conversation.
I will carry on using BCP as long as two or three are prepared to gather with me. I reserve the right to change the sermon (or even do something which makes the congregation move), to use modern hymns, and one day I might try using some screen visuals. I won’t be forcing people to have BCP Baptisms or Weddings – unless they ask, I won’t even suggest it. But BCP, done well, has as much right to be in the churches as Common Worship done well. Or even, Common Worship, done well, has as much right to be in the churches as BCP, done well!
I don’t mind that some folk hate it. Some people hate boiled eggs, or baked beans, or gherkins. We are all different. I do mind when people tell me I shouldn’t like it – or that I should love their favourite worship song, when I might not. I wouldn’t want an exclusive BCP diet, any more than I would want to rely exclusively on the KJV of the Bible. Using modern language makes sense. But so does reaching back into our heritage, be it literary or theological.