A meaner-spirited person than me would say that it was not the first time that Lambeth Palace had achieved such a feat, but a new exhibition at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s London residence includes possibly the most pointless imaginable piece of missionary apparatus. Sitting among the various items included in Royal Devotion: Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer is a 1608 Gaelic Irish translation of the Anglican prayer book, looking as unread as it did the day it rolled off the Dublin presses.
The exhibition includes a number of interesting items — such as the Book of Hours in which Richard III has rather endearingly written his own birthday, or the book arguing against Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon in which the impetuous king has scrawled the 16th-century version of “what a load of rubbish” — but elsewhere there is proof of a very modern lesson.
When the Book of Common Prayer first appeared in 1549 during the English Reformation, it was greeted by a rebellion in the West, partly spurred by opposition to the displacing of the Latin Mass. Thomas Cranmer’s 1552 edition was more radically Protestant.
Casually close to the exhibition’s nod to these developments is a display case standing alone, in which are the gloves worn by Charles I at his execution and the ivory chalice of Archbishop William Laud, who also died at the hands of the Civil War’s roundheads.
One of the reasons for the two men’s deaths was religion. By the 1640s, the once radically Protestant Book of Common Prayer was, in the eyes of the Puritans, practically a Missal. To them, Laud’s “ritualism” was Romish and his chalice would have been proof of ongoing Popish superstition. Yet Laud’s chalice is markedly plain in comparison to the continent’s extravagant Catholic baroque masterpieces of the same time. Nobody today would immediately think the chalice looked “Catholic” by 17th-century standards.
In short, such a comparison underlines the vacuity of those who unthinkingly trumpet the current political buzzword: progress. In the name of Protestant progress, the radical Prayer Book of the 1550s was a sign of superstitious backwardness by the 1640s. When somebody calls for progress, the next question should always be, “From what — the last generation’s ‘progress’?” It means that in a short space of time the unthinkable can become the acceptable and can then become the norm.
It comes at things backwards, constantly changing the end goal rather than the world, particularly when this reversed thinking is applied to religion. Rather than the world striving for higher ideals, it is the religion that is told that it should “progress” to fit with the passing mores of the day.