Sunday, 3 April 2016

Review: The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, by Alan Jacobs

"Speak now or forever hold your peace," "till death do us part," "Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," "the world, the flesh, and the devil." If you aren't Anglican and yet any of these phrases sound familiar, you will begin to realize how influential the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has been. A quick trip to Google will show these and more phrases which long ago became stock phrases in English conversation and which originated with the BCP.

Anything I've ever read by Alan Jacobs has been enjoyable and reading his biography of the Book of Common Prayer  was no exception. In his usual clear, informed, wise and witty prose, Jacobs takes us through the development and evolution of the BCP as well as the history of the Church of England which first birthed it and then in turn was formed by it. We meet all of the major actors and many of the colourful bit-players in this centuries-long drama. There is much solid scholarship that stands behind this work: Jacobs is familiar with each iteration of the Prayer Book as well as the authoritative studies of the subject. Something I found particularly enjoyable was Jacobs' inclusion of bits of personal conversations he had while conducting his research, conversations with people such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. I confess I found my mind wandering, curious if Jacobs and Williams perhaps talked a bit about C.S. Lewis on the side, seeing as they have both written fine books about Lewis and Narnia (Jacobs here and Williams here).

Having been in the Anglican Church of Canada in the past, our family is familiar with both the Prayer Book services and those of the Alternative Book of Services. It was therefore of personal interest to learn more about how the "high" and "low" services came to be. But even for those with no previous personal connection, this entry in Princeton University Press's Lives of Great Religious Books series richly repays the read.

If you ever find yourself in the market for a home, it is an eye opening experience to be taken through the same home first by a realtor and then by the people that have lived in the home for the last 40 years. The realtor can point to a small gouge in the hardwood or a hole in the wall (or perhaps hang a picture in front of it so you don't see it) but the longtime owner might half apologetically, half affectionately point to that same blemish and tell you a story about how it first happened and why it's never been repaired. Jacobs certainly knows the BCP, but he is no mere professional guide. He also knows the ins-and-outs of the BCP from his own experience in the Anglican Church, both through corporate worship and personal devotion. He spends only a little time in scattered places telling us directly of his personal experience with the BCP, but the tone of the whole book is made richer by his relationship with it. For sympathetic and open readers, this tone projects (not overbearingly) a sense that Jacobs is introducing us to one of his closest friends, one who is somewhat quirky but whom Jacobs knows will enrich our lives if we will only make the effort to spend time with them. This doesn't mean Jacobs closes a blind eye to the oddities of his friend. He introduces us to these as well. However, this personal factor, as well as Jacobs' eminently readable and always enjoyable style, ensures that this is not a dry or difficult read - quite the contrary - so don't be sacred away by the fact that it is published by a university press. Also, this beautifully crafted book is a relatively quick read and has wide margins for those who like to annotate. For those who normally skip reading the end notes, let me encourage you not to in this case. Here they are more than mere reference citations, frequently giving little trips down side alleys of history or narrative, maintaining the same care for readability as the main text.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the CoE, or in English politics from Henry VIII on, in liturgics or the reformation and subsequent broader church history, or even those who may be interested in the development of the English language in the modern era. Unlike the limited appeal of most historical works, I would also recommend this book to people who have no previous interest in any of the aforementioned areas. Jacobs is just that good at telling a story. You may have no current interest in the BCP or the CoE but you will find this an interesting story anyway largely because you will find Jacobs a great story-teller.

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