“Has the 1662 Prayer Book become a subversive text? A Service in Memory of George Bell?” – Peter Hitchens – October 5 2016

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05 October 2016 1:15 PM

Has the 1662 Prayer Book become a subversive text? A service in memory of George Bell

I have long thought that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (actually its first version was written in 1549)  would eventually become a subversive document.

Increasingly, its sentiments are revolutionary not only in the Christian sense (which calls for an uninterrupted lifelong revolution in the human soul) but in that they subvert to accepted beliefs of today. In almost every conceivable way, from its insistence upon lifelong marriage to its finely-carved but stony insistence on moral absolutes, confession and judgement, it rebls against the ad hoc, temporal ethics of the day.

To attend a service properly conducted according to its order in a building of the Anglican tradition, is to see an expression in architecture, music and poetry of Immanuel Kant’s conclusion from his ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, carved on his tombstone in Koenigsberg, which has somehow survived the storms of war and Communism even while that once-pagan city became first an outpost of Hitler’s evil empire and then, after 1945,  a fortress of Soviet Communism closed to the outside world:  ‘Two things fill the mind with ever-new and increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more seriously reflection concentrates upon them: the starry heave n above me and the moral law within me’.

Such a service took place late on Monday afternoon at the church of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the heart of the old City of London.

It was to commemorate the day in the Church calendar in which the life of the late Bishop George Bell is supposed to be marked. Following accusations of child abuse against Bishop Bell, the Church has tended to draw back from commemorating him, removing his name from a guest house at Chichester Cathedral and from two Church schools, as well as acting in many other ways as if this accusation is proven, which it is not. Many who value George Bell’s reputation felt that there needed to be a firm answer to this, not just because his memory as man of principle is too valuable to be cast aside on the basis of a single, uncorroborated, untested allegation from many decades ago; but because his reputation as a courageous defender of truth requires that he himself is treated according to his own principles.

The order of service (attended by a congregation of about 50, including  some senior clergy, by relatives of Bishop Bell and by readers of this weblog) was almost entirely from the 1662 book and in its tradition. Bible lessons were read from the 1611 Authorised Version, which preserves the same poetic, mysterious form of language. The music included Purcell’s great anthem ‘Rejoice in the Lord Alway’ and the 27th Psalm with its searing lines ‘Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid; and though there rose up war against me, yet will I put my trust in him…’

Perhaps more pointedly it contained the opening hymn ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation’, written in the 17th century in German by Joachim Neander and brilliantly translated by the Victorian Catherine Winkworth, especially two rather fierce verses which are far too seldom sung by the modern Church of England:

‘Praise to the Lord, who, when tempests their warfare are waging,
who, when the elements madly around thee are raging,
biddeth them cease,
turneth their fury to peace,
whirlwinds and waters assuaging.

Praise to the Lord, who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
sheddeth his light,
chaseth the horrors of night,
saints with his mercy surrounding.’

This was one of many German references in the service, given the high reputation Bell has among German Christians because of his early and dedicated support for the Christian resistance to Hitler,  his advocacy for refugees from Hitler in Britain and his refusal to allow loathing for Nazism to become anti-German feeling, even at the height of war, epitomised by his opposition to the deliberate bombing of German civilians. (Bell’s own hymn (he was a poet as well as a great patron of the arts) ‘Christ is the King’  was sung to music from, Vulpius’s ‘Gesangbuch’, and the organ voluntary was of course by J.S.Bach. The Old Testament lesson from Isaiah Chapter 2, and its reference to swords into ploughshares, recalled Bell’s loathing of war (though he was by no means a pacifist and insisted instead that war must be waged justly).


The New Testament lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 25, , describes an attempt to condemn St Paul through a kangaroo court, and the response of the just Roman, Festus , to this: ‘It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have licence to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him’.

Well, quite. Doesn’t everyone think that? Not, alas, in this case.

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