Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer
Lambeth Palace, the London seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, stands opposite the Houses of Parliament and is a short stroll from the attractions of the South Bank. On the tourist trail, but not of it, its library currently hosts the best exhibition in the capital. Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer holds few of the cards demanded by today’s over-energetic curator, who tends to be concerned more with attracting those who care little for a subject than satisfying the curiosity of those who do. It is not free; photography is forbidden; mobile phones are banned. There are no buttons to press or video machines to record your thoughts, just eight cases and a couple of cabinets, the contents of which reveal the often troubled and always contentious relationship between England’s church and state and people from the eve of the Reformation to the present day, via the Civil Wars, regicide and Empire.
The exhibition marks the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which sought to embody the religious life of the nation and bring uniformity to it. It is claimed that more people heard the weekly services of the Prayer Book than listened to the soliloquies of Shakespeare and its linguistic legacy continues to resonate in such phrases as ‘ashes to ashes’, ‘for richer, for poorer’, ‘in sickness and in health’. Yet the anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer has garnered little of the celebration reserved for the King James Version of the Bible last year, despite it being arguably of greater importance and certainly the subject of a more dramatic story.
Of course the Bible, in any form, especially when its language is as beautiful as the King James Version, can be read as literature pure and simple, while the Prayer Book, with its impulses of unity and devotion, appears more alien to our secular and individualistic age. But the disparity in coverage of these two great works makes one wonder why we choose to celebrate some figures and some events more than others, even when they are of similar stature. Compare, for example, the wall to wall coverage of Charles Dickens’ 200th anniversary to that of Robert Browning, whose bicentenary has just passed (though a celebration of the poet at Westminster Abbey has been delayed until December). Dickens’ concern with social justice and equality certainly appeals more to modern-day sensibilities than does Browning’s rarefied Italianate references. Yet Browning wrote one of the finest poems on the subject of history, Memorabilia. Based on a real encounter with a man who once met Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of Browning’s literary heroes, it is, as the title suggests, a meditation on ‘things worth remembering’ and how little of life is ultimately recalled, ending with the line: Well, I forget the rest.
The consolation of our fragmented world, to which the Prayer Book is estranged, is that almost everything is remembered by someone and everything has, at worst, its niche. Lambeth Palace provides one for the Prayer Book until July 14th and anyone interested in English history who can make their way there should do so. The visit will stay in the memory.
Paul Lay is editor of History Today and author of History Today... And Tomorrow
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