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Common prayer

Britain, and her monarchy, have a language fitted for times of joy and sorrow alike — so why does the Church of England make such poor use of our traditional liturgy?

Artillery Row

Following the recent announcement that King Charles has been diagnosed with a form of cancer, the Church of England communications team offered this decaffeinated modern-language version of a prayer originally taken from the service for the visitation of the sick:

Father of mercies,

grant to Charles our King

comfort and sure confidence in you,

and keep him in perpetual peace and safety,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Some commentators noted the curious omission of the original prayer’s request that God would ‘look down from heaven, behold, visit, and relieve’ the King of his illness. Comfort and confidence, peace and safety are desirable gifts, but so of course is healing. (Other faiths got right what the CofE got wrong: Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis led Jewish communities in praying that the Lord would grant His Majesty a refuah sheleima — an “absolute and total recovery” — from his illness.)

Contrast the CofE comms team’s anaemic offering with the rich language of the Book of Common Prayer’s “Prayer for the King’s Majesty” — which also, crucially, includes an explicit prayer for the Sovereign’s health:

O Lord our heavenly Father,

high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes,

who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth;

most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour

to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lord, King Charles;

and so replenish him with the grace of thy Holy Spirit,

that he may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way:

endue him plenteously with heavenly gifts;

grant him in health and wealth long to live;

strengthen him that he may vanquish and overcome all his enemies;

and finally, after this life, he may attain everlasting joy and felicity;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The difference between the two is not merely aesthetic, sumptuous as the Prayer Book language is. Words matter. The Bible teaches that God spoke creation into existence, and that the eternally begotten Word “was made flesh and dwelt among us” in the person of Jesus Christ. When we pray, we return words to their ultimate source — in thanksgiving, in petition, in intercession. What conception of God does the Church give the general public when it prays in the dull and flaccid words of modern corporate communications? 

A young Prince Charles reads from Isaiah at America’s National Cathedral. Picture Credit: Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images

We have a repository of words that takes seriously both those who pray and the God to whom they are praying, if only we would use it. The Book of Common Prayer — still the authorised liturgy of the Church of England — was forged in the fires of the Reformation and Civil War, and shaped by the best liturgical minds of the Church of England. Its glorious language influenced Shakespeare, Milton, and countless other writers. Besides the Bible itself, there is no single book more woven into the fabric of the English language or the English Church. Until rather later into the 20th century than one might expect, the Prayer Book accompanied the worshipping public through births, marriages, deaths, and regular Sunday devotions. For a happy (and growing) few, it still does.

As well as “prayers and thanksgivings upon several occasions”, to be used in times of collective joy or sorrow, the Prayer Book contained other great state prayers and services – such as the thanksgiving “for the happy Deliverance of King James I and the Three Estates of England from the most traitorous and bloody-intended Massacre by Gunpowder” on the fifth of November, or for the restoration of Charles II on the 29th of May. The Prayer Book and officially issued occasional prayers influenced by it set the tone and cadence of public worship and commemoration for hundreds of years.

The Book of Common Prayer is clear-eyed and unflinching about these realities of life

By contrast, the Church of England’s modern service books — Common Worship, first released in 2000 — offer liturgy for the end of history, in which wars never rage, plagues never afflict, and the technocratic nation-state experiences no civil unrest. Their largely pallid and bureaucratic language addresses God as a sort of cosmic middle manager in a modestly prosperous company in which nothing much ever goes wrong, mostly because nothing much ever happens at all. Communications from Church House have followed suit, offering simplistic public prayers that often seem to miss the significance of the events they purport to address. Such prayers give the impression that the Church of England has nothing more to offer than infantile platitudes.

History has not ended. As the past few years have amply demonstrated, war, plague, and civil unrest remain very much with us. The Book of Common Prayer is clear-eyed and unflinching about these realities of life. It offers — in measured, sonorous, reverent, and beautiful English — both an acknowledgement of the pain and sorrow to which all flesh is heir, and the sure and certain hope that these evils do not have the final word.

The duty of our Established Church is to lead the nation in thought, reflection, and prayer at times of national significance — whether that be the grief of a monarch’s death, the joy of a coronation, or the worry attending the Sovereign’s illness. It has at its disposal a treasure-house of language, filled with moving and deeply pastoral prayers for every conceivable occasion. Let us pray — and let us pray well.

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