The pervasive influence of the Book of Common Prayer

by

James Fallows of The Atlantic on Rhythm, Reception and the Book of Common Prayer

I am not a believing, spiritual person, but from first consciousness until age 17 I spent so much time at Episcopal church services with the “old style” Cranmer liturgy that even now I can recite very long passages by rote. The same is of course true for people exposed to the standard holy texts in most religions: prayers in Hebrew, the old Latin mass, Sutras and Vedas, the Islamic call to prayer, and so on. The distinctive aspect of the Cranmer liturgy is that it is in English — and a particular form of stately English whose wording may seem antique but whose rhythms retain a classic beauty. I wouldn’t, and can’t, write the same way. Yet passages like those after the jump have stuck in my mind as the pure idea of how sentences should be paced, should repeat for emphasis yet also vary, should end.

And now I learn from Ben Schwarz that this is a completely clichéd observation! He reviews a new study of Cranmer’s work and says:

Brian Cummings, the editor of this volume, rightly asserts that the language of The Book of Common Prayer “has seeped into the collective consciousness more profoundly than that of any other book written in English, even the Bible.” … [I]t shaped the inner life and branded the tongue of the English-speaking peoples. Its phrases and rhythms did not merely enter the language. They largely defined the language.

Do you agree that the old BCP “branded the tongue of English-speaking peoples”? Has any book written in English been more influential in this regard?

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

Bill,

I went in search of the book you suggested.

I was shocked to see how many romance novels take the title For Services Rendered,

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_c_0_8?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=for+services+rendered&sprefix=for+serv%2Caps%2C285

Makes perfect sense, of course.

Here's the book Bill mentioned,

http://www.amazon.com/Services-Rendered-Anthology-Thanksgiving-Common/dp/0718828771/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346028495&sr=1-2&keywords=for+services+rendered+prayer

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dale_in_queens
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dale_in_queens

I'm no scholar, but I notice more phrases that to me owe their rhythm to the Book of Common Prayer than to either the Authorized Version of the Bible or Shakespeare. That could be simply that I knew both the AV and Shakespeare from the time I was a child; I met the Book of Common Prayer when I was 18.

Of course, Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible shaped the English language more, but I wonder if it might be that the Book of Common Prayer has affected English literature more.

dale mcneill

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

June, I was going to suggest Shakespeare myself, but I was afraid that he didn't fit the "book" category since he never really wrote one - using _The Collected Works of William Shakespeare_ just seemed like cheating. 😉

But you're right - he certainly coined more words and phrases than the BCP. So if we're counting him, I second your comment.

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GrandmèreMimi
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The King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the BCP have shaped the English language like no other writings before or since. I'd probably judge their influence in the order that I listed the three.

June Butler

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

I think the KJV/AV has probably been more influential than the BCP.

On a related note, though, there is a great book entitled _For Services Rendered_ that is basically an anthology of literary passages involving the Book of Common Prayer.

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