Simon Heffer makes a very interesting comment in passing in a review of a new book by Roy Strong on country churches. (Literary Review , Oct 2007, p.45-6). Surprised by Strong’s ‘pronounced lack of conservatism’ when considering the development of Anglican worship, he continues:
“It is all too often left to atheists like [Heffer] to seek to uphold the beauty of the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible, while believers like Strong argue for progress.”
Historically, Heffer is, I think, quite right. Whilst there were during the period of liturgical revision in the 1960s and 1970s plenty of conservatives within the church, there was much agitation against the new rites amongst those professing no faith at all, and without any connection with the Church of England, except in the broadest sense of having been born to it.
What is less clear is whether this is as odd a state of affairs as Heffer seems to imply. What is at stake is the idea of a national church, and whether the Church of England had a ‘duty’ to preserve the 1662 and the AV ‘for the nation’, whether or not they served the contemporary purpose of the church as a living, worshipping body of individuals. There are arguments to be had about whether the new liturgies and biblical translation are as beautiful as language (probably not), and whether beautiful language is fundamental to worship (rather than merely desirable for some worshippers in some times and places). There is also an argument that continuity in forms of worship (beautiful or otherwise) is important to the church’s sense of itself in time (see earlier post on Rowan Williams).
There is, however, some way to go yet to establish from those arguments that the ‘preservation’ of these texts requires their continued ‘vicarious’ use (in Grace Davie’s sense) by the Church on behalf of those who don’t attend the services for which the texts were composed. Historic churches will fall down if not maintained, but do the AV and the 1662 not remain beautiful in the library ?