Sermon preached on the fourth Sunday of Easter (29 April 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the 'conversation' we have with God using the three best known sets
of text in the Church of England - the King James Bible; Hymns Ancient and Modern; and the Book of Common Prayer, the 350th anniversary of
which we celebrate throughout May.
We acknowledge the need to commemorate and we enjoy an opportunity to celebrate with the result that we are often at our most reflective and imaginative when special anniversaries occur.
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is the most obvious example right now and will bring with it an appraisal of our national consciousness but also, more earthily and perhaps therefore more realistically, will bring with it an excuse to party.
Three other anniversaries have occurred, in the space of the last year, which have had particular significance for the Church of England and they relate to three sets of texts which, until recently, formed almost the entire library of our worship and praise of almighty God. Last year, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Authorised or King James Version of the Bible; in October, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the hymn book, ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’; and next month, we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.
The close proximity of these three anniversaries is a coincidence but it is a useful coincidence because it allows us to consider the importance of language in worship, the shared experience of worship, and the object and purpose of worship.
One of the most useful definitions of worship is the idea that, when we worship, we take part in a conversation between God and his people which began long before we were born and which will continue long after we are dead. That is both historical in that it reminds us that worship is offered across the chronology of time and it is eternal in that it reminds us that worship is offered by all people on earth and by the whole company of heaven.
Worship is so intensely personal, however, that it has often been the battleground over which Christians have fallen out with Christians which is why I favour the definition I have just offered because a long and broad view of the perpetual stream of worship offered by the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant reminds us of our unworthiness and of God’s worthiness.
But this definition carries with it a health warning. It mustn’t be an excuse for liturgical nostalgia. That worship might be likened to a conversation between God and his people that began long before we were born doesn’t mean that only seventeenth century English idiom is valid or better as an expression of worship any more than a Latin mass is more effective than the vernacular or a Greek New Testament more likely to be quoting Jesus verbatim.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, whose anniversary we will be celebrating next month, is the latest edition of a book which dates back to 1549 so that it’s true to say that, for most of the history of the Church of England thus far, the language of the Book of Common Prayer was the only language of this Church’s worship – at least as far its authorised texts are concerned.
Emerging from that book’s monopoly into the liturgical revision of the 1960s and 70s was difficult for many people but it was a necessary task which reached its climax in 2000 with Common Worship, the Church of England’s contemporary form of liturgy published in no fewer than ten volumes. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer, however, remains the prime liturgy of the Church of England with Common Worship very decidedly an alternative to it. It’s interesting to note that, if parish priests fall out with their congregations over proposed changes to the worship of the parish church, they must revert to sole use of the 1662 Prayer Book until the dispute is resolved.
I said that my favoured definition of worship as being a conversation between God and his people that began long before we were born and which will continue long after we are dead was not an excuse for liturgical nostalgia for the reasons I’ve given. But I also said that worship was intensely personal and therefore something of a battleground over which Christians fall out with Christians. Nostalgia is perhaps therefore inevitable and merely human. It is, after all, usually associated with past events, people we care about, and places where we’ve been happy. It was Prayer Book Evensong at Durham Cathedral as a student that brought me closer to God and triggered my vocation to the priesthood.
In an exhibition of personal copies of the 1662 book at St Paul’s throughout next month, people have contributed their own Prayer Books to the exhibition and the stories that make the books special to them. What is striking is that many of the stories speak movingly of lost love and the bonds of friendship – the yearning for some half-remembered homecoming (which is what the word ‘nostalgia’ means) but a homecoming which must now await death. By these very human associations, the book of a conversation between God and his people, by which we mean both the quick and the dead, becomes the symbol of a multiplicity of other loving conversations between the people of this life and of the life of the world to come. It is therefore no coincidence, it seems to me, that the pages of common prayer provide a memory bank for the sharing of common experience.
The strong melody of the Book of Common Prayer, the foundation stone of Anglican liturgy, has permitted a great polyphony of revision to build upon its legacy and that revision has resulted in a rich library of liturgical resources which means that priests no longer need to cross their fingers when swearing that they will use only those forms of service which are authorised or allowed by canon. But nor should we remove from our rich resource that anchor which is the Book of Common Prayer.
One last thought for you on the eve of the Prayer Book’s 350th anniversary: when the Prayer Book addresses God as ‘thou’, it’s doing nothing more grand than if an old Yorkshire farmer leans on his gate and calls his neighbour and old familiar friend ‘thou’. If a stranger walks past and wants his attention, it’s ‘ye’. The conversation between God and his people in the Book of Common Prayer is a conversation between friends who love each other. That should be the hallmark of our liturgy, whether it’s Common Prayer or Common Worship.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, who knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking; We beseech thee to have compassion upon our infirmities; and those things, which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us, for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with us all evermore. Amen.