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Friday, January 25, 2013

Tyranny! Dearmer and Milton on Ex Corde Prayer

In his Everyman's History of the Prayer Book, Percy Dearmer takes up the question of extemporaneous prayer.

As he observes, there was at the time of the Reformation, and and we may add that there remains today, a significant minority of Protestants who believe that this is the only form of prayer.  To a certain sectarian mindset, a prayer written in advance, much less inherited from tradition, is not a prayer at all; it is an unding, a nullity, a pretense worthy of the hypocrites.

Dearmer takes a very sensible approach.  He begins eirenically:
Now, there is very much to be said for extemporaneous worship in church; it is often a most useful instrument in mission work, it is an indispensable way of bringing the idea of worship to the ignorant, it secures the necessary element of freedom ; further more, it may bring spontaneity and vitality into a service, and be a good corrective to formalism....
Then he mentions Milton, among the most admired of English poets -- and, of course, a Puritan:
Now Milton objected to a liturgy because he thought it a slur upon the extemporary powers of the minister : " Well may men of eminent gifts," he wrote, " set forth as many forms and helps to prayer as they please ; but to impose them on ministers lawfully called and sufficiently tried ... is a supercilious tyranny, impropriating the Spirit of God to themselves."
If only, Dearmer says, John Milton had turned himself the the writing of prayers for the church!  "What matchless collects he might have added to the Prayer Book at the Restoration!"  It is a delightful fantasy, albeit one that is hard to sustain for anybody familiar with Milton's distinctive vocabulary and syntax.

But then Dearmer lowers the boom:

Milton's mistake, was, in fact, a very simple one. He thought that every minister would be a Milton. He did not realize what a deadly thing average custom can be, what a deadly bore an average man can make of himself when compelled to do continually a thing for which he has no natural gift. He did not foresee the insidious danger of unreality and cant. 
We should all, of course, flock to hear Milton praying extempore, if he were to come to life again ; but there are many mute, inglorious ministers whom we would rather not hear.
Er, yes.  Thank you, Father.  Why are you ... looking at me that way?

At last, he comes to the real point, one familiar to the liturgical reformers of the nineteenth century:

To put the prayers as well as the sermon in the hands of the officiating minister is indeed a form of sacerdotalism which the Church most wisely rejected many centuries ago. 
We know what a joy and help it would be to hear an inspired saint, with a genius for rapid prose composition, make up prayers as he went along ; and opportunities for extemporization do exist outside the appointed services. 
But the Church has to provide for the average man, and has to guard against that form of clerical absolutism which would put a congregation at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of one person. For extempore services, which should be a safeguard for freedom, can easily degenerate into a tyranny.

Hah!  Milton can complain all he wants about the supposed tyranny of a fixed liturgy, says Dearmer, but the real tyranny is letting a single minister impose his personal preferences, styles and idees-fixes upon the congregation, week after week until Jesus comes.

We agree heartily, with one small caveat.  Dearmer was writing about the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical formulary which is changed seldom and reluctantly.  The "fixed liturgies" to which many of us are subjected these days often reflect the particular preferences of a cabal at the church publishing house, promoting its own (sometimes very distinctive) view of what the service ought to be, at the expense of what it has always been.

The sad fact is that Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the New Century Hymnal, and similar books do sneak in the sort of tyranny that Milton feared.  Contemporary worship leaders, therefore, find themselves between a rock and a hard place, tyrannically speaking.  They do not want to impose their own will upon the people, but neither do they want to let the publishing cabal impose its will.  What then are they to do?

There's no easy answer to this.  But, on a related note, does anybody know where we can obtain 200 copies of the Common Service Book at a reasonable price?


mark said...

Your Alma Mater has a pdf.
Print 'em yourself!

Father Anonymous said...

Printing them myself is cost-prohibitive, but I'm still tempted.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! web