I accepted the invitation to be Patron of the Thomas Cranmer Schools Prize simply because I mind about what may loosely be referred to as our heritage. Some may say it is an exaggerated concern and, indeed, as I have discovered only too plainly, if you actually stand up and talk about the importance of our heritage and the lessons to be learned from our forebears, you are at once accused of having a quaint nostalgia for a picturesque, irrelevant past. It has forced me to reflect on why there is such a fierce obsession about being 'modern'. The fear of being considered old-fashioned seems to be so all-powerful that the more eternal values and principles which run like a thread through the whole tapestry of human existence are abandoned under the false assumption that they restrict progress. Well, I'm not afraid of being considered old-fashioned, which is why I am standing here at this lectern wearing a double-breasted suit and turn-ups to my trousers, ready to declaim the fact that I believe the Prayer Book is a glorious part of every English-speaker's heritage and, as such, ought to be a Grade I listed edifice!
Do you recall that wonderful passage of Alan Bennet in The Old Country?
"I imagine", he wrote "that when it comes to the next prayer book they won't write He, meaning Him with a capital H. God will be written in the lower case to banish any lurking feeling of inferiority his worshippers might feel."
I would have liked to begin with a ringing phrase from the King James's Version of the Bible: "Harken to my words".
But the New English Bible translates the phrase in less commanding terms: "Give me a hearing".
It might seem more humble but it also sounds less poetic: and what we have to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is whether, by making the words less poetic, you really do make them more dramatic. Isn't there something rather patronising about that whole assumption?
Possibly there are more people today who read less well than people in the past, although I doubt it. Most people then couldn't read at all. But supposing it were true, whoever decided that for people who aren't very good at reading, the best things to read are those written by people who aren't very good at writing? Poetry is for everybody, even if it's only a few phrases. But banality is for nobody. It might be accessible for all, but so is a desert.
For the Book of Common Prayer has been the spiritual resource of English and English-speaking people for four centuries. It is a book of prayer for the whole community, devised and composed so that it might satisfy everyone. Cranmer, like the translators of the King James' Bible, looked to the past as well as the present when he set about this task at a time of reformation and change; he compiled his Prayer Book in a spirit of reconciliation. To some of his contemporaries it 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. The language Cranmer employed in the Prayer Book was quite deliberately "not of an age, but for all time".
And so it has survived by passing into common speech. Words and phrases from this liturgy have become part of the heritage of the English language by continuous reiteration through centuries, in public worship and private devotion. In Church of England day schools, pupils used to learn by heart the great Collects from the Prayer Book, a practice much despised by educationalists today. But that learning by heart, together with regular church services where the Prayer Book was the only rite, had a genuine influence on the minds and imaginations of ordinary men and women. Though their own speech could not command the cadences and rhythms of Cranmer's prayers, because they were familiar with them they remembered them! At home, abroad, in hospitals, on battlefields, in solitude, in society, in trouble and in prosperity, these words were remembered and gave comfort and hope in the great crises of innumerable human lives.
The Book of Common Prayer reminds us of human frailty "among the sundry and manifold changes of the world" and, at the same time, of the consolation of "the means of grace and the hope of glory". At this point it is perhaps worth recalling what George Orwell pointed out in 1984, "that the best way of getting rid of history and thought is to get rid of the language of history and ideas". So he invented "Newspeak" for his nightmare communist world. Consider the following - "We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies". Compare the courtesy of Cranmer's language with the crassness of the Alternative Service Book which spends much time telling the Deity what he must already know; "Lord Jesus Christ, only son of the Father Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us. You are seated at the right hand of the Father; receive our prayer..." and so on.
It saddens me, as no doubt it saddens some of you, that we gather to praise Cranmer's great work at a time when it has been battered and deformed in the unlikely cause of making it easier to understand. 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.
If English is spoken in Heaven (as the spread of English as a world language makes more likely each year) God undoubtedly employs Cranmer as his speech-writer. The angels of the lesser ministries probably use the language of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book for internal memos.
The editors of the Revised Standard version and the New English Bible had good reason for many of the changes they made to the King James' Version. But a good many more changes were made just to lower the tone, in the belief that the rest of us wouldn't get the point if the word of God was a bit over our heads. But the word of God is supposed to be a bit over our heads. Elevated is what God is. And for meddling with the Prayer Book there isn't even a scholarly excuse. The idea is to put great thoughts within our reach by changing the words. But the words are the thoughts. Admittedly the King James' Version of the Bible asks us: "Why take ye thought for raiment?"
But words aren't just decoration. They are the structure itself, as the Revised Standard Version inadvertently proves, by asking us: "And why are you anxious about clothing?"
We can have a prayer book that talks like that if we want to - a prayer book that talks like us on a bad day. But what will it say to us on a really bad day? Where is the comfort in a phrase too banal to be remembered? How can we be lifted up by a sentence which itself needs lifting on a stretcher?
"And if the salt have lost his savour", says The King James' Version, "Wherewith shall it be salted?" Or as the Revised Standard Version so much less memorably puts it: "If salt has lost its taste how shall its saltiness be restored?"
Is it entirely an accident that the defacing of Cranmer's Prayer Book has coincided with a calamitous decline in literacy and the quality of English? We have rejected quality in expression, just as we have rejected quality in the buildings in which we work and educate. Fortunately many more people have begun to appreciate the extent of the problem we face and have seen the fundamental need for quality, for a respect, for a tradition, for humility before the ideas and practices of our forebears which served them so well, and for which we have yet to find anything like an effective replacement.
It is a remarkable fact that in these islands, we have produced the world's most successful language. That language has also served as the medium for some of the greatest literature in the world, including that of probably the greatest playwright who ever lived. Yet a great many people today look in dismay at what is happening to that language in the very place where it evolved. Looking at the way English is used in our popular newspapers, our radio and television programmes - even in our schools and our theatres - they wonder what it is about our country and our society that our language has become so impoverished, so sloppy and so limited - that we have arrived at such a dismal wasteland of banality, clichÅ½ and casual obscenity.
It leads me to wonder, for instance, how Hamlet would deliver his great "To be or not to be" soliloquy in the language of today - "To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind ..." no, we can't have all that incomprehensible, high-flown stuff. What about this?
"Well, frankly, the problem as I see it at this moment in time is whether I should just lie down under all this hassle and let them walk all over me, or whether I should just say OK, I get the message, and do myself in. I mean, let's face it, I'm in a no-win situation, and quite honestly, I'm so stuffed up to here with the whole stupid mess that I can tell you I've just got a good mind to take the quick way out. That's the bottom line. The only problem is, what happens if I find that when I've bumped myself off there's some kind of a, you know, all that mystical stuff about when you die, you might find you're still - know what I mean?"
In the last two decades we have witnessed a situation where our education has no longer been centred on the idea that the English language is an enormously precious legacy to be handed on with care. We have seen the abandonment of learning the rules of grammar and the parts of speech as boring and irrelevant. Learning poetry by heart has been abandoned, together with 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.
Of course there have been honourable exceptions to this rule where people have been courageous enough to withstand the accusations of being old-fashioned and reactionary. But the situation persists. At one of the country's leading public schools, for instance, I gather that George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' was recently rejected from this year's list of 'A' Level English set books because it was thought to be too long and difficult.
Now, before I am accused of being unfair to teachers, let me hasten to add that I do not envy the task that teachers have, particularly in inner city schools. It must frequently appear a thankless task and I know that there are many who have been trying to uphold standards amidst the general spread of mediocrity. They need our sympathy and support in an exhausting task. English teachers inevitably have to teach their pupils what is relevant, but surely they should not teach only what is relevant. There is also a need, through great literature, to give their pupils - in AN Whitehead's phrase - "the habitual vision of greatness".
We do, of course, have to recognise that we need ever higher standards if we are to survive in the modern competitive world. Our economic environment requires clarity in expression and precision in meaning. The world of work demands high standards of accuracy in communication skills to deploy and transmit facts, to process information, to persuade people, to sell goods. Many of you are familiar with computers and know that if you give these machines inaccurate instructions, your wishes will not be obeyed. So it is with people. If we do not communicate effectively with one another then we create confusion and lose our way.
Inevitably there has been controversy about the standards of English teaching in schools and about children's linguistic ability. This concern is not new. Complaints that young people cannot write grammatically, spell accurately, or express themselves clearly can be found stretching back into the last century. But there is now, I think, a growing consensus on what needs to be taught and it is heartening to witness the widespread recognition of this in the new national curriculum for English. It emphasises the importance of spelling, listening, reading and writing. It recognises the fact that competence in English is a key to success in all other subjects in the curriculum and a pre-requisite for adult life.
In the words of Saki, "you can't expect a boy to be depraved until he has been to a good school!"
So today's prize is not merely an ode to antiquity. It is a demonstration of pride in our heritage. It recognises the contribution which that heritage makes to our daily life and to assuring the achievement of standards of quality that will serve our own children well in the future. Those standards are important because they help us to enlarge our awareness; to heighten and deepen our experience of life like nothing else can.
Dr Johnson once remarked: "I know of no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer." Ours is the age of miraculous writing machines but not of miraculous writing. Our banalities are no improvement on the past; merely an insult to it and a source of confusion to the present. In the case of our cherished religious writings, we should leave well alone, especially when it is better than well: when it is great. Otherwise we leave ourselves open to the terrible accusation once levelled by that true master of the banal, Samuel Goldwyn: "You've improved it worse"."