The philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once remarked that “experiences of the first order, of the first rank, are not realized through the eye.” What he meant was that auditory experiences—sound, hearing, music, words, language itself—provide access to an order of reality that goes much deeper than that afforded by sight. The visual realm is one of measurable objects, empirical facts. It is the flat abode of experimental science. The aural realm, in contrast, is one of meaning, mystery, and faith. It gives duration and depth to the environment. It breaks in upon the world, suggesting something beyond the world. It cannot be seen; it must be believed.
Obviously this schema resonates strongly with religion, and with Christianity in particular. “In the beginning was the Word”; “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation”; “Faith comes through hearing.” Although I happen to believe that images remain an indelible part of Christianity (after all, the Word did become flesh), it is undoubtedly a religion of the word. The word is God’s chosen medium of communication with us, and it is our primary form of communication with others.
This lengthy and rather abstract introduction is all to say that words are especially important for Anglicans. Our liturgies and lives are shaped (and have been shaped, for hundreds of years) by the remarkable words of the Book of Common Prayer. This text—produced at the height of the English Reformation with the intent of unifying England in a common, vernacular liturgy—is the doing of Anglicanism’s first great figure, the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556). Despite being a product of the print era, which made it possible for one to read texts alone and apart from communities, as a liturgical text the book is a communal object, meant to be spoken aloud in the presence of and with others in worship. It made worship more congregational, giving the laity more to say than they had in years past, while retaining a structure similar to that of the Catholic Mass.
As anyone who has experienced an Anglican service knows, speaking the beautiful words of this particular liturgy with others is an incredibly powerful act of worship. Part of this power comes from the poetic quality of the words themselves. English professor Alan Jacobs has pointed out that the Book of Common Prayer’s language was carefully sculpted for reading aloud. Cranmer compiled and adapted components from the medieval Latin liturgy, often infusing them with poetic structures borrowed from biblical Hebrew. The prayers have a certain rhythm and parallelism to them; their particular cadences roll off the tongue and produce flowing rivers of sound:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
These prayers have stamped themselves onto the English language. Although the Book of Common Prayer has undergone numerous revisions and changes over the years, some of our best-loved phrases are found within its covers. Whenever we hear “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse…” at a wedding; “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” at a funeral; or “moveable feast” and “children of men” in titles of art, we are hearing the Book of Common Prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer’s achievements, however, go far beyond the literary, and have to do with content as well as form. Theologically, Cranmer’s book is without a doubt a child of the Reformation. Cranmer himself was embroiled within the tumults of the English Reformation, living through the religiously fraught reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and the Catholic Mary I, under whom he was finally executed for treason and heresy. He had a reputation for being a little weak-willed and inconsistent, at one point recanting his Protestant beliefs and then renouncing his recantations. But despite (or perhaps because of) a hectic political life, Cranmer held a robust theology, which he infused into the Book of Common Prayer.
The Anglican liturgy is saturated with Scripture and reflects a Protestant sensibility on issues like the role of images in worship and the veneration of saints. Yet it also navigates ground between Catholicism and radical Protestantism, a “middle way” that has remained a distinctive feature of the Anglican church.
In keeping with the spirit of the Reformation, one of its most prominent features is its emphasis on humanity’s sinfulness. In the General Confession portion of the Morning Prayer, the people respond to the reality of sin with the following:
Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
But this emphasis on sinfulness does not amount to total depravity; the Book of Common Prayer also consoles and comforts, reminding us that God is guiding us on His path. In accordance with our free will and assent, we are to answer God’s call and meet Him in His work:
O Almighty Lord, and everlasting God, vouchsafe, we beseech thee, to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and ever, we may be preserved in body and soul; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Cranmer’s views on the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, are perhaps the most difficult to tease out. What is certain is that he rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as well as Luther’s own view of the sacrament. Both of these positions claim that Christ becomes physically present at a certain moment in the liturgy. Showing the influence of continental reformers like Martin Bucer, Cranmer argued instead that Christ is present during the Eucharist not in a physical manner but in a “heavenly and spiritual manner.” Christ is met not in bodily form but through the Spirit working in the participant:
Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ…
This doctrine comes close to the view of Zwingli, the radical Swiss reformer, who held that “the Lord’s Supper” is only a commemorative ceremony, with the elements having only a symbolic function. But by insisting on the real, “true” presence of Christ, even if it is not bodily, Cranmer escapes Zwingli’s memorialism.
At first glance, this might just seem like nitpicking. What do the specifics of Eucharistic doctrine have to do with the life of the believer? Nothing could be more important, in fact. Cranmer’s theology falls in line with the general Anglican view of the sacraments–that they are “visible signs of an invisible grace.” Partaking of the elements is the visible sign of the inward grace of Christ’s true presence, and thus the elements have weight and meaning. In the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving, Christ is truly met by the assenting believer; we have the opportunity to be transformed and connected to others by a common grace if we come to the table in humility. The event is certainly a memorial, looking back to Christ’s last meal and sacrifice. But it also looks forward to the eschaton, when we will be in full communion with Christ at the end of time.
The Eucharist brings us to a final aspect of the Book of Common Prayer, one which is perhaps its most distinctive. This is the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi—“the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” The Book of Common Prayer is important because our worship molds our thoughts about God and the Christian life. Our experience of the Eucharist—in this case a visible sign of an invisible grace—extends to all our thinking about doctrine. Thus, one of the best ways to get a hold on Anglican theology is to experience Anglican worship. Worship is not a static event by which we are unchanged. It is a dynamic process, providing the structure for theology and life with other believers.
In this manner we arrive again at the truth that sound is the realm of belief and that “faith comes through hearing.” Through the Book of Common Prayer, we are directed toward Scripture and the Gospel message via the sounds and actions of the liturgy. We are called to respond by actively believing, by being willing to be molded by the worship experience, in which Christ is met.
I think that one of the reasons Anglicanism has survived and spread since the sixteenth century is due precisely to the unique and beautiful liturgy that Thomas Cranmer was able to cobble together in a time of strife. It is a blueprint for all the great men and women who have left their mark on Anglicanism. While many words have changed since then, the spirit of the liturgy remains, able to transform hearts and lives.