I am so delighted that you manage to get together on these occasions to share something that you're enthusiastic about and really mind about.
There's nothing, I think, like safety in numbers and I only hope, as far as the numbers are concerned, that you can work at raising the awareness amongst people in this country of the sheer joy and glory of the Prayer Book. And how, as I was saying to some of you whilst going round, it has this remarkable ability to link generations.
It does seem to me that one of the great tragedies of our modern existence is that all the signposts, all those marvellous ‘little country lanes' that people used to know and walk down, have all been destroyed, so that there are so few things that anybody can share with their grandparents if you are younger, which I think is a real and tragic loss. How you knit back again some of these lost aspects of life, how you join the roots again which have been severed, is something, for what it's worth, that I've been trying to do for the past thirty years.
It does gives me enormous pleasure as your Patron to join you at your Annual Conference. It is particularly appropriate that you have chosen to meet in Oxford to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the martyrdom in this city of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
If I may say so, I am also delighted that you have managed to secure such comfortable lodgings here at Lady Margaret Hall, which was, of course, founded by Elizabeth Wordsworth, daughter of that loyal Prayer Book bishop, Christopher Wordsworth, of Lincoln.
The motto of Lady Margaret Hall, as you will have noticed, is “souvent me souviens” – “remember me often” - and all lovers of the Book of Common Prayer, and I must say I very much count myself among them, will want to recall with great thankfulness the man to whom, above all, we owe such a huge debt of gratitude for the Prayer Book, Thomas Cranmer.
Our knowledge of him has been greatly enriched by the researches of one of the professors in this university, Diarmaid MacCulloch. In his biography he paints a picture of a relatively conservative academic living quietly in his thirties in my old University, which is I think referred to in Oxford as “the other place”, and showing little sign of the great role he was to play.
Then after being selected as a junior member of an embassy to Spain in 1527, he had his first fateful meeting with King Henry VIII and the quiet academic became a leading actor in the affairs which preoccupied the whole of Europe.
So I think this anniversary is a marvellous opportunity to tell Cranmer's story and the story of The Book of Common Prayer, if we possibly can, to a new generation, which is not always well served by how history is taught in our schools – that's another question, of course. There has never been a generation better informed about “now”, but perhaps with so little sense of how we actually came to be here. Every young person in this country ought really to have the opportunity to find out about Cranmer and to consider his legacy – but that, of course, is mere wishful thinking!
Members of the Church of England are not Cranmerians in the sense that Lutherans and Calvinists look to some master theologian for their inspiration. Much that we cherish, including the choral Evensong and the Sung Holy Communion which, I understand, you will be celebrating, would not necessarily have had Cranmer's approval; but we honour him and celebrate his contribution to the spiritual life of this and every nation which worships in English.
It is sometimes forgotten that the Prayer Book largely created and spread standard English across the country in the 16th century, as a result of Sunday worship in the parish church when, week after week, millions would assemble to hear the power and majesty of the Book of Common Prayer.
And, Ladies and Gentlemen, how lucky they were, and we are, that the Prayer Book was composed by Thomas Cranmer who had such an ear for formal prose: for its sonorities and structure. To some of his contemporaries it must have seemed too conservative; to others too radical – but it has survived changes in Church and State that would have destroyed a liturgy less sensitive to the profound human need for continuity and permanence.
It also needs to be remembered, I think, that standard English could have developed in other ways. For example, the pompous and convoluted style favoured by some humanist scholars with an excessive dependence on the classical languages, or the path favoured by men like Sir John Cheke, Cranmer's friend, which would have seen a consistent preference for Anglo-Saxon derivations over Latin and Greek. He proposed, for instance, that instead of “resurrection” we should speak of “gainrising”; “crucified” would have been “crossed” and proselyte, “freshman”.
And the influence of the Prayer Book upon many generations has, I believe, gone beyond its language and has played a major role in instilling in English culture the essential virtues of restraint and balance. It has reminded us – but perhaps not enough – that if we encourage the use of mean, trite and ordinary language, we encourage a mean, trite and ordinary view of the world we inhabit.
The genius of Cranmer's Prayer Book – in my humble opinion – lies in the conveyance of a sense of the sacred through the power and majesty of the language so that, in the words of the Collect ‘Among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found'.
The Prayer Book also offers a simple and moderate system for a whole life, from baptism to last rites, and seeks, I think, in its rubrics and ceremonies to embrace the whole person and not merely the intellect.
It is for these reasons that I congratulate the Prayer Book Society for all its work in fostering the traditions of the Prayer Book and for telling its story as a system which transforms lives and translates doctrines and ethics into a living ethos.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to be the Patron of your endeavours and wish you a joyful and fruitful conference.