There’s something about late autumn that makes me prowl around the house, emptying cupboards, cleaning out drawers, looking for things I’m vaguely aware of having lost. This week, I found my old prayer book. With the Anglican Church in such an unhappy mess, this is probably not a good time to say anything about the Book of Common Prayer. I promise not to dwell on it, but, in fact, I think the frenzy of theological warfare began when the Church’s star of constancy was demolished by the Alternative Service Book (ASB).
Tucked in my prayer book was a clipping from The Times of a letter that John Osborne (he who wrote Look Back in Anger) fired off on November 17, 1979. ‘Sir-Someone once wrote of the French historian Michelet that he wrote history in a language in which it was impossible to tell the truth. Just so, the language of the Alternative Service Book is written in a style in which it is impossible to be religious.’
The playwright rants against the ‘opportunist philistinism’ that imposed the ASB on an ‘enfeebled and intimidated flock’. My old prayer book now rests on my bedside table, beside the Bose radio and Egyptian Jasmine hand cream. Given to me on my Confirmation, my maiden name is printed in gold on the book’s blue Moroccan-leather cover. Its India-paper pages make it a slender volume that’s easy to lose.
Osborne would be relieved to know that it’s pretty much the 16th-century Book of Common Prayer of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, with some ‘alterations and amendments’ that are explained in the preface, a thrilling and beautiful piece of writing. It explains that ‘in consequence of the Revolution’, the prayers for our civil rulers were changed, but ‘this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of doctrine, discipline or worship’. It’s signed ‘Philadelphia, October 1789′.
Thumbing through the silky pages, I also discovered the prayers for Thanksgiving Day, added in 1928. I never noticed these because we never went to church on Thanksgiving. For one thing, Thanksgiving is on a Thursday. For another, it’s non-sectarian. It is also touchingly American. The English created the ritual of Christmas as a present-packed, food-stuffed, tree-lined festivity, but the Americans came up with Thanksgiving, an altogether calmer, simpler occasion.
As well as finding my American prayer book and the service for Thanksgiving (in Matthew, vi.25, Jesus says: ‘Be not anxious for your life’), I came across a letter from my mother, stuck in my recipes for cornbread. She’d enclosed a column written by Harriet Van Horne for the New York Post.
Here’s a sliver of it. ‘Most Americans keep Thanksgiving with dignity. The mood is gentle, the wassail minimal… For one blessed day we are grateful that the Lord has brought us through another year.
‘The Lord, let’s admit, had a rougher time of it this year. For one thing, there’s more hate. There’s also more unemployment, more pollution, more crime, more drug addiction, more pornography, more bankruptcies, more suicides, more breakdowns of public service, more fear and despair, more cynicism-and peace never seemed more remote. The heart breaks a little brooding over the mixed harvest of blessings this year has brought us.’ The date: Thanksgiving. November 1970. Hard to believe it’s almost 40 years ago.
We celebrate Thanksgiving here at Wyken with a feast of turkey, sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing, pumpkin pie. It’s one of those meals when we pray before we eat. Thank you, Lord, for the President who now presides over America. Please forgive us if we cannot follow Your command to ‘Be not anxious’.