Pentecost: A Christian nation before God


Sermon by the Reverend Doctor Brutus Green

Based on readings: Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2. 1-21, John 14.8-17, 25-27 

The late eighteenth century philosopher Hegel wrote that “newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers”.  The comment reflects the secularising of society, but at the heart of what he is saying is that the thing that binds the nation together, the people’s common interest and experience, is the daily practice of reading the paper.  Reading the paper, or however else we catch the news, forms us in our personal and social identities. The two, I might add, are not mutually exclusive. Justin Welby at the start of his reign repeated the theologian Karl Barth’s dictum that we should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, if our faith is going to be relevant to the world.

Part of what is troubling about the rise of Social media is that we are no longer reading the same news, which leads to a confused and divided nation. But what I’d like to reflect on this morning how this little book gave us a new benchmark for the English nation, the English language and the modern individual.

The Prayer Book, obviously, holds God in high esteem, but the monarch comes a pretty close second. Not a service goes by without a prayer for her and usually for her family as well. Eddie Izzard was quite right in noting that, as people go, behind her big house and people with guns, she is one pretty saved queen.  This last week I have prayed and sung for her to be saved at least 20 times, so I’ve certainly done my bit, but it’s important to remember that praying for the queen is at the same time understood as praying for her government and people.

The gunpowder plot, used to provide one of the more colourful services of the 1662 Prayer Book, which was duly to be remembered each year, including the prayer to God, “who on this day, didst miraculously preserve our Church and State from the secret contrivance and hellish malice of Popish conspirators; and on this day also didst begin to give us a mighty deliverance from the open tyranny and oppression of the same cruel and blood-thirsty enemies”. The service was cut - presumably as Father Jack would have said - as an ecumenical matter.

Aside from the no doubt sincere piety of Anglican liturgists in wishing their monarchs well, the force of the Prayer book is deeply conservative, quietist and nationalistic, intended through lifelong repetition to uphold social structure that ‘we may be godly and quietly governed’.  And no surprise here. The 16th Century was still recovering from the bloody Wars of the Roses, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation sparked political and religious wars and revolts across all of Europe. Rebellion was the great fear. 

But now for the first time, since the prior Latin rites were innumerable and diverse and incomprehensible to the ordinary folk, the people had services which would have been identical no matter where you were in the country, in a language you could understand. It was an end to parochial differences. Even the rubrics were written out so you would all be standing, kneeling or sitting at the appropriate time. It is the ideal form of ideology, even more than cricket and afternoon tea, the prayer book united the people in a common language and religion; thoroughly English.

It is particularly appropriate then that the prayer book was launched on Pentecost 1549.  The preface of the day celebrates ‘the gifte of diverse languages’ the tool of evangelism, suggesting that truth is to be pursued through the vernacular and understood by the people; against the tyrannous opacity of Latin. Being called Brutus that is a very difficult thing to say. It also brings to mind all those bad Latin jokes, like how you can decline Brutus but you can’t conjugate him. 

The point is that while in our Old Testament reading Zephaniah wants the undoing of the curse of Babel in a new ‘pure language’, the book of Acts, read through the Reformers, celebrates the gifts of different tongues praising God as the gift of the Holy Spirit, and so the hankering for a barely understood single holy language of Latin is read as the denial of the Spirit.  The use of Latin in liturgy was outlawed from Pentecost 1549. 

The nation state was not the only winner from the Prayerbook, however.  As part of the Reformation movement, a significant impetus in the new liturgy was to make the individual accountable before God. Under Catholic Latin it is the Church that is the guardian of Truth.  It is a matter beyond the competence of ordinary people. The inability of the majority to understand what is being said maintains a sense of transcendence and the radical difference of the divine. The Prayer Book, on the other hand, has a rubric that it must be “read distinctly with a loud voice”. It demands that it is understood and transparent before the people. No more secret prayers and cult practices.

And with the Prayer Book, services were laid open for the first time. The interpretation of Scripture and liturgy was suddenly open to everyone.  What had been sacred mystery and priestly power had become personal engagement and intellectual access.  This required the ordinary people to be involved in the service.  All of a sudden the service was actually about them. But all of a sudden they had to work a bit harder. 

The nation in worship moved from watching a transubstantiatory rite (try saying that after three gin and tonics) in a foreign language (1547), to a doctrinally ambiguous but inclusive and fully English service (1549), to forthright Protestantism in the second Book of Common Prayer (1552), back to Latin in the Catholic retrenchment of bloody Mary, before the compromise Prayer Book of the religious settlement of 1559.  A troubling couple of decades. The Prayer Book had two main purposes, to unite a nation in language, loyalty to the crown and uniformity of religion, and to legitimize the individual as a man or woman unmediated before God, able to work out their salvation in fear and trembling. 

The first Queen Elizabeth said “I would not open windows into men’s souls” and that has preserved a liturgy which might properly be called inclusive in its theology, and the good luck of the Church of England was to have for its liturgist a poet, Thomas Cranmer, who was able to lay the basis for a beautiful liturgy.  The same queen, however, was also to say, "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm."

And this is the other side of the Prayer Book, a fierce nationalistic ideology, built on the humble origins of a the troubling and ambivalent character of Henry VII and a generation of religious persecution. It's an historical and cultural document which is worthy of celebration, but it also is in perpetuity, the official Prayer Book of this land, and for all its faults incredibly important in being a Book of Common Prayer, the first book of prayer for the common people of these isles.

We too can enjoy its beauty in prayer and music, reminded that we are still (just about) a Christian nation before God, but also an individual before God, called to learn his love and participate in building his kingdom.