The Language of the Prayer Book

by J MW

The Language of the Prayer Book

J. Enoch Powell MBE (16 June 1912 – 8 February 1998)

Text of address to The National Conference of The Prayer Book Society held at Trinity Hall, Cambridge on 10th September 1983

It was the sound of church bells and the language of the Book of Common Prayer, heard almost 36 years ago now across the Aleian plain of atheism, which recalled me home, gently yet imperiously, to the Church. I have needed therefore no prompting or persuasion to take my place in defending against its powerful and determined opponents the liturgy of the Church of England as by law established in 1558 and 1662. And as a ranker in the army of the Book of Common Prayer, I am singularly fortunate and happy to be called to address you this morning.

I want to share with my fellows here in the same cause an anxiety which repeatedly assails me. It is the anxiety that we are given to understating our cause, or, to be more precise, founding it upon grounds less exalted and less substantial than those which are capable of sustaining it. In decisive engagements it is the main forces that must be committed. This it often seems to me we are reluctant or afraid to do. Why, can perhaps be explained, and is, in due course, worth examining; but explanation is not justification. It is easy to extol the Book of Common Prayer linguistically and literarily. Its superiority in beauty of language and power of diction over the alternatives in the field against it all to effortlessly demonstrated. The consequence is that we often seem to rest content with that demonstration, as if the argument were thereby ended—at least, for all with ears to hear and emotions to be stirred. We drift thus into the easy option of conservationism: here is a thing of beauty, we say, a fair inheritance, so let us preserve it. The argument is all right so far as it goes; but it goes scarcely any distance.

The efficacy of the Book of Common Prayer consists in its being archaic and in its being prescriptive. Such is the thesis I put forward; and I assert further that on no lesser grounds ought the case of the Book of Common Prayer to be rested.

When the liturgy in English replaced the Latin liturgy, it replaced a language that was not only was no longer spoken but had not been a live tongue even in its native land for over a thousand years. It was, in most senses of the word, a dead language, but a dead language which was hieratic, the language of prescribed ritual and customary worship. It was not for the most part particularly good or beautiful Latin—Cicero would have found it excruciating—but it had ben used immemorially and the Western Church had known no other. Those words in that language, and no other words in any other language, were efficacious.

To replace them with English words, even with the august, rhetorical and inspired English of the Prayer Book, was a violently revolutionary event. It was revolutionary in what it destroyed; it was revolutionary in its professed object. How severe that revolution was, we Anglicans can form some mild notion today when we contemplate the devastation which the Roman Church has been busy inflicting upon itself in recent years. The assumption which underlay, and underlies, the revolution is that words used in worship can be, and ought to be, ‘understand of the people’. But ought they? And can they? Not unlike music, worship and ritual say things and do things which cannot be stated in plain language and which are destroyed or trivialized or caricatured in the attempt so to state them. It is of the essence of worship and rite that their language has overtones which defy analysis or paraphrase.

I must resort here to a term which cannot be fended off. The language of worship and rite is in itself sacramental; that is to say, it is more than, and different from, its natural sense. The converse is also true—that sacramental acts depend upon sacramental language; supercharged action and the supercharged words which accompany it are mutually dependent, inseparable aspects of one and the same event.

The humiliating and baffling fact about supercharged language is that we cannot voluntarily and intentionally construct it; it is, like so many of the other capabilities which make human life sustainable, ‘begotten, not made’. There is only one process known whereby it arises, and that process it—call it archaism, call it obsolescence if you please—that it has continued to be used until it has become detached from its original meaning, context and associations, that it has lived over from one world to another. That occurs easily and obviously when an actual language, which has been otherwise disused, survives in religious use, as Latin did in the Western Church until the vandals put an end to it. But the process can also occur, though less violently and visibly, when an earlier form of a still spoken language is preserved in a religious context; and this process is exemplified by the Book of Common Prayer. By one of those happy combinations of circumstance in English history which half persuade us that our nation is specially favoured by Providence, the Book of Common Prayer was preserved intact through more than four centuries while the passage of time subtly imparted to it the supercharge of archaism and familiarity which it could not possess at the outset but which make it a uniquely English vehicle of religious and ritual expression. Cranmer did not put the supercharge there—he could not—it grew there out of its own accord, which makes its existence the more difficult and embarrassing to acknowledge.

One reason why this happy outcome was possible was the fact that the Book of Common Prayer, being statutory document embodying a compromise, was peculiarly entrenched. I do not want however to come yet to the subject of authority. Another contributory cause was the intense conservatism of the Church of England in that long stretch of time—250 years—between the Restoration of the monarchy and the religious ferments of the early nineteenth century. By the time the depths were stirred by the Evangelicals and the Tractarians, the Book of Common Prayer had already completed its transmutation into a hieratic tongue, as sacramental in its own way as the Latin of the Tridentine rite.

I am going to offer a small specific example of the sacramental nature of liturgical language: it will serve as a transition to the next, and the most difficult, suggestion which I have to offer. Nobody, surely, can be unaware that something is made to happen by the opening words of the Sanctus: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts’. In modern English ‘Lord God of hosts’ is effectively inexplicable. The origin of the words can indeed be elucidated, not without some difficulty, from Biblical Hebrew; but that elucidation does not contain the secret. Significantly, the Roman Missal embalmed the Hebrew word itself, dominus deus Saboath; but the Book of Common Prayer has achieved the same result of power and mystery by a literal translation of the Hebrew feminine plural which is no more to be ‘understanded of the people’ than the original would be. The Alternative Service Book, Rite A, offers us, as usual, a piece of bathos: ‘God of power and might’!

The reason why I selected that particular, rather minuscule case is that it illustrates a surprising and even alarming characteristic which apparently normal if not essential to religious and ritual language—unintelligibility. Greatly presuming, I venture to designate this as ‘the nonsense factor’. It was in the course of text critical studies of the synoptic Gospels that I found myself forced to admit that frequently error creates truth and absurdity creates beauty. It is almost a matter of rule that when a Gospel phrase or thought has passed into the lips and hearts of men and been recognised by them as conveying by the splendour of its imagery an otherwise inaccessible truth, it turns out to be the produce of deep-seated corruption which has altered whatever was the original sense into undeniable nonsense. I am not talking here about archaic expressions open to misunderstanding, such as the ‘evil communications’ which ‘corrupt good manners’ or ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’. I am talking about real nonsense, such as the famous ‘lilies of the field which toil not neither do they spin’, or ‘entering in at the strait gate’ when self-evidently entry (as opposed to exit) by the ‘wide gate’ will get you to exactly the same place, or ‘the faith no larger than a mustard seed’ which ‘moves mountains’, or ‘if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out’ or ‘moth and rust doth corrupt’.

In all such places it would be possible, with varying degrees of assurance, to substitute a text and a translation which eliminated the illogicality and often cast a new and penetrating light upon the passages which were thus brought into closer relevance. The result would also be total devastation—a spirit would escape from the bottle and evaporate. It is not so much that the verbal magic is invulnerable to difficulties of sense, construction and logic. The suspicion is hard to resist that those difficulties actually play a creative and perhaps indispensable role. An irrational element is part and parcel of the supercharge of religious and ritual language.

Like those treading the foothills of a high mountain range, we are here in the presence of huge, daunting and ill-defined possibilities, such as the question to what extent the truth, the power and the success of the Gospel itself were dependent upon the contradictions and unintelligibilities which successive stages of its verbal and credal evolution deposited. On all that, however, I hasten to turn my back, in order to descend to the relative safety of the plain, observing only that much, though not the whole, of the case for the Book of Common Prayer applies equally to the Authorised of the King James Bible. The known and acknowledge defects of its underlying original and of the translation are not corrigible; but the penalty which attaches to the attempt to remove them is the loss of the precious essence itself.

It is possible to champion the Authorised Version and those earlier versions embalmed in the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer without being ignorant nor obscurantist—and without being fundamentalist either. The fundamentalists, nevertheless, are right in their instinct that ‘one step, and all the marsh’ beyond the arbitrary safety of 1611. Those who have seen most deeply into what lies behind and beneath the textus receptus and the Authorised Version are most aware how endlessly insecure is the advance of the scholar and the historian into the unknown.

Reference to the Authorised Version has brought me, by something more than a pun, to another indispensable attribute of religious and ritual language—authority. When words are to do something, to bring something into existence which was not there before, they must be the right words, their secret lies in the rightness: out of all the possible selections and combination, one only is efficacious. Not for nothing do we pray, in the B.C.P. of course, that bishops and curates may ‘rightly and duly administer thy holy sacraments’—‘rightly and duly’, rite et debite, the condition of success in all collective religious action.

Until the synodical revolution of the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1874, the language of the Book of Common Prayer was distinguished by being uniquely authoritative, established and fixed by the Crown in Parliament, the supreme source of authority in this realm. This authoritative fixity of the wording not only, as I have mentioned already, ‘held the ring’ as it were during the long period of supercharging while what was new became traditional and what was once contemporary became archaic. It also liberated meaning; for if words and formulae are fixed, change must express itself in interpretation. The Tractarians were doubly right when they acclaimed the Book of Common Prayer as the proof of the catholicism of the Anglican Church: right because the words and formulae, being themselves impregnable, were susceptible of an interpretation which bridged the gulf of the Reformation; and right because the essential mark of catholicism, uniformity imposed by universal authority, was placed upon it by the untrammeled imperium of the English nation state. Without the authoritative fixity of its liturgy, the unique comprehensiveness and broadmindedness of the Church of England would not have been possible. For where formulation can be altered, differences of interpretation cannot be tolerated: that is the logic which the long fissiparous history of the dissenting sects has demonstrated ad nauseam. The freedom of the Anglican to say ‘I conform because it is commanded’ is not unworthy to stand beside the freedom of Tertullian to say ‘it is certain because it is impossible’.

The cause of the Book of Common Prayer is not a literary or an aesthetic cause: it is a religious cause. It lies athwart the religious dilemma of our society, a society not emancipated from the necessities, including the religious necessities, of all human societies, but a society where the intellectual and emotional scaffolding of religious observance has been dismantled, not least by the very caste which is specialized in society for sustaining, commending and interpreting it. The deliberate attack upon the Book of Common Prayer which the last decade has witnessed is a conscious and integral part of that dismantling process—inevitably so, because the Anglican Church and its liturgical heritage survive, almost alone since the ravaging of the Roman Church, as living evidence of essential elements in religious experience and expression. I suspect that we who maintain the Book of Common Prayer are fighting in a wider warfare than we can know.

This essay was originally published in The Salisbury Review (Winter, 1984) 

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.