Lord Charteris, ladies and gentlemen,
If I may say so, it is an enormous pleasure for me to have this opportunity of holding this reception here, and to see so many members of The Prayer Book Society, and indeed more than anything else to say how I could never possibly refuse Lord Charteris's invitation to do almost anything!
I am deeply conscious that I am here in the presence of experts of all kinds - not the least spiritual, theological and scholastic. I am particularly touched that so many people, like Dr Spurr, have come from as far away as Australia, others have come from Canada, and I was particularly glad to see the Bishop of London.
So I hesitate to speak with any authority on a subject as important and central as the Book of Common Prayer. But hope you will forgive a few thoughts which I think you might suspect come from the heart rather than from the pen of a scholarly individual.
I was struck when turning some of the less familiar pages of the Prayer Book the other day by the poignant way in which Cranmer and the Church fathers so succinctly understood the liturgy in a turbulent and changing world. I am sure you will all recall how the second Preface begins:
'There was never anything by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted.'
In a speech I made, which Lord Charteris mentioned, before some of you at St James, Garlickhythe, seven and a half years ago, I described the Prayer Book as a most glorious part of our heritage and a book of prayer for the whole community. Due in no small part to the hard work of you all and your Society over the last two and a half decades, I am delighted to say the Prayer Book remains today in cherished use in many churches across the country than might otherwise have been the case.
So, why does the Prayer Book matter, together with the numinous mystery of its language? Because, as its very survival over the centuries has shown, its language and liturgy are sensitive to the profound human need for continuity and permanence, and have shown themselves not of an age but of all time.
But, ladies and gentlemen, what is it about tradition and traditional values that, at the mere mention of these words, normally intelligent people go into paroxysms of rage and indignation - even vilification, as I have discovered? Is it because they feel threatened?
It is as if tradition represented the enemy of man's lofty ambition; the 'primitive' force which acts as an unwelcome reminder - deep in our subconscious - of the ultimate folly of believing that the purpose and meaning of life on this Earth lie in creating a material form of Utopia - a world in which Technology becomes a 'virtual reality' God; the arbiter of virtual reality ethics - and thus the eventual murderer of the Soul of Mankind.
To my mind, tradition is not a man-made element in our lives - it is a God-given awareness of the natural rhythms and of the fundamental harmony engendered by a union of the paradoxical opposites in every aspect of nature. Tradition reflects, in my opinion, the timeless order, and yet disorder, of the cosmos and anchors us into a harmonious relationship with the great mysteries of the Universe.
Some scientists claim to have discovered the origins of the Universe and explain it all quite confidently in terms of a 'Big Bang'. If it was a Big Bang, then I suggest it was a controlled explosion! Likewise, I believe that Man is much more than just a biological phenomenon resting on 'the bottom line' of the great balance sheet of life where art and culture and religion are increasingly in danger of becoming optional extras in life. While appreciating that so much of the simple innocence of our lives has been destroyed, I do believe that the survival of civilised values, as we have inherited them from our ancestors, depends on the corresponding survival in our hearts of that profound sense of the Sacred.
The genius of Cranmer's Prayer Book - in my humble opinion - lies in the conveyance of that sense of the sacred through the power and majesty of the language of the Prayer Book that, in the words of the Collect, 'Among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely be fixed where true joys are to be found'.
The Orthodox Church, for example, has never lost, abandoned or diminished the sacred beauty and symbolism of its liturgy. The great, overwhelming sadness for me - and I am sure for you too - is that we seem to have forgotten that for solemn occasions we need exceptional and solemn language: something which transcends our everyday speech. We commend the 'beauty of holiness', yet we forget the holiness of beauty.
If we encourage the use of mean, trite, ordinary language we encourage a mean, trite and ordinary view of the world we inhabit. Many people look in dismay at what has been happening to our language in the very place where it evolved. They wonder what it is about our country and society that our language has become so impoverished, so sloppy and limited - that we have arrived at such a dismal wasteland of banality, cliche and casual obscenity. For many, it has been an absolute tragedy to witness the abandonment of the idea of English as something really to be learned by effort and application, by long and careful familiarity with those who had shown how to clothe their thought in the most precise, vivid and memorable language. We had ended up leaving ourselves open to the terrible accusation once levelled by that true master of the banal, Samuel Goldwyn - 'You've improved it worse!'
However, there are signs of encouragement in that the last 25 years do seem to have brought about a slight change of atmosphere in this debate - and in particular that the Church of England Liturgical Commission is now making more effort to honour the Prayer Book tradition than in the past and is proposing to include the Book of Common Prayer in its new prayer book so that it will be much more available to everybody. There is no doubt in my mind that The Prayer Book Society's work to commend the Prayer Book to the next generation through the Cranmer Awards scheme matters a great deal.
So, the Prayer Book's survival is, I believe, a touchstone of our ability as a society to value its spiritual roots, its liturgical continuity, and its very identity as a nation of believers. This is, therefore, not the moment to relax your efforts, but to encourage them even further! I look forward to your next 25 years of endeavour and success. Your work could not be more important to the rediscovery of tradition, as the Bishop of London has so succintly put it."