As Western society continues its relentless purge of the pre-political, the body count keeps mounting. Yesterday's harmless activity—say, boys-only scouting—is tomorrow’s act of cisgendered heteronormative patriarchal oppression of the Other. Like some dreaded mutating bacillus, the political slowly but surely absorbs—and spoils—everything.
I was reminded of this recently when I was given as a gift the Folio Society’s edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Like all Folio Society volumes, the Prayer Book is a thing of beauty. And though the Prayer Book was, at least historically for my Presbyterian tradition, an instrument of social control through its imposition by the Act of Uniformity in 1662 (and thus scarcely pre-political in practical application), its content reflects a form of Christianity that ultimately reflected not so much the politics of Reformation England as the basic elements of historic Christianity and of earthly existence. Those elements include the God of the catholic creeds, and human life bookended by birth and death and lived in world full of the joys and sorrows, drudgery and delights, of ordinary, universal human experiences—love, marriage, illness, bereavement. There are services and prayers in the Book of Common Prayer that address all of these hardy perennials, connecting them to the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ.
That, I suspect, is one reason why the basics of the Prayer Book stayed in place for so long, with revisions being for many generations of the minor sort. Consensus on the fundamentals remained steady, and the changes were accordingly cosmetic. By contrast, the last century has witnessed liturgical change after liturgical change wrought by the various Anglican and Episcopal groupings around the world. None of these changes, as far as I can tell, embodies anything like significant improvement in either prose style or theological content. Tracing the revisions would no doubt prove a fruitful, if depressing, topic for a Ph.D. thesis, as the revisions witness to an age of restlessness and shortsighted obsession with the latest fads.
One of the reasons for this is surely that Christian liturgy—and God himself—have become victims of the abolition of the pre-political: Even those universals of human existence mentioned above—birth, sex, death—have become the political issues of the day via abortion, LGBTQ rights, and euthanasia. For the postcolonial mindset, to hold to a traditional liturgy that refuses to play the games of a pan-politicized world is to take a political position. And so traditional liturgy comes under relentless pressure to conform to the latest piety of the dominant political lobbying groups. When politics is everything, God loses his awesome transcendence and human beings take center stage. And the momentary afflictions of the professional victims displace the eternal weight of God’s glory. Historic, biblical Christianity thus becomes irrelevant—no, worse: It becomes the instrument of oppression.
That is why it is no surprise to see that the Episcopal Church in the USA is doing what it does best: planning to screw up the faith of its people yet further by eliminating gendered language about God from the liturgy. It is pulling off the remarkable hat trick of demonstrating profound ignorance about how God-language works, reinforcing the denomination’s divorce from anything resembling historic Christianity, and making itself yet again into a rather insipid and irrelevant tool of the liberal political establishment whose approval it apparently craves. Added to this, we might also anticipate the multiple crimes against graceful prose and theological sanity that such linguistic abominations as “Godself,” represent and which will no doubt pervade the final product.
The Folio Society edition of the Book of Common Prayer is made to last, with high-quality paper beautifully typeset, illustrated, and bound. Its beauty reflects the content of the Prayer Book itself. Its underlying concern is not with the vicissitudes of life considered in themselves, but with those vicissitudes set within the context of a sovereign and glorious God. Its religion is not the effete therapy of our age of victimhood, nor the lazy clichés of contemporary politics. It is the religion of historic Christianity, and both the Prayer Book’s form and its content reflect that. That is why it has no need to strive for relevance. And that is why it is good to have an edition that might still be read by my great-grandchildren in a hundred years time. Whatever else they may face in life, my descendants will still be experiencing birth, love, joy, sickness, death. And the God they worship will still be the same.
By contrast, the Episcopal Church can quite safely print its revised Prayer Book as a cheap paperback with a glued spine. Or better still, have it ring-bound. After all, who knows what demands the political class will be making for additions to or subtractions from the faith once and for all delivered to the saints by this time next week?
Carl R. Trueman is a professor in the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters at Grove City College, Pennsylvania.