Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Peter Hitchens on the Book of Common Prayer

On Wednesday evening I went to an open public meeting at Pusey House of the Oxford branch of the Prayer Book Society to hear the thoughts and ideas of the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens on the BCP. He entitled his talk "The Constitution of the Private Life."

peter hitchens

Peter Hitchens


He began his talk with the point that apart from the State Prayers there was little that was overtly or directly political in the Book of Common Prayer, and that the services of commemoration on such lines added in the seventeenth century had been removed in 1858, but went on to argue for its wider significance for national life.

This argument was that there was a social ethic outlined in the Prayer Book that did have far reaching implications for the country in that it gave a framework within which the individual could learn to exercise authority over themselves and their lives in such a way that it gave them autonomy from the undue involvement of the State.

He recalled reading the Catechism as a schoolboy, with the expectation that one might indeed be expected to know it by heart and to understand what it stated. He continued by wondereing how long it was since Anglican bishops actually examined children at their confirmation on its contents. He saw this as being a valuable tool in the formation of young people for adult and responsible life. Here was a clear exposition of the individuals spiritual and social obligations. Instead he saw modern life as ever more determined by unrestrained individualism and the fulfilling of consumer gratification.
He cited the marriage service as contributing to a proper understating of this as a building block of society. He contrasted what he saw as the fuss last year over same sex marriage - a concern for a tiny minority - with the virtual silence from Church leaders about the marriage crisis. He was sharply critical of the most recent divorce legislation which he saw as putting the State on the side of the partner who seeks dissolution of a marriage rather than being neutral. He thought the pamphlet produced by the Anglican bishops about this entitled Putting Asunder as a selling of the pass and an admission of failure or abandonment in this key area of social life.

He spoke less about the burial  service, but pointed to it as a reminder to everyone of their mortality.

One of his overiding concerns was that Britain has irrecoverably damaged itself as a society, and he was pessimistic as to its - our - chances of survival.

His dislike of the State involving itself in the lives of individuals and usurping the proper roles of parents and families is clear, and he sees the ideas adumbrated or inherent in the BCP as a safeguard against that if they are inculcated and developed in people.
The questions from the sizeable audience were mainly about marriage. I was somewhat surprised at such a gathering to sense so liberal an interpretation of ideas about this. Peter Hitchens was perhaps not. He stressed the indissolubility of Christian marriage as contrasted with other traditions - a point some clearly did not share. He also stressed the importance of finding a basis for authority in the life of a family that was natural and integral rather than the constraint of the modern State system or law.

Asked about the impact of feminism on family life  - had it led women to implicitly denigrate their sons for example - he took a more liberal line than I might have expected from someone speaking to the Prayer Book Society - he has, for example, never had objections to the ordination or consecration of women in the Church of England.

He also stressed that the language and concepts underlying it in the BCP draw the hearer and reader out of themselves towards that which is greater and the sense of wider truths. For Hitchens the Prayer Book puts the hearer in mind of eternity, and he clearly felt that dimension needed to be contrasted to the overly materialist world of so many people.

An interesting talk, and thought provoking, as one would expect. Peter Hitchens has a good dose of Burkean Tory pessimism about him -  I  share in that myself - and he is not afraid to express his ideas about the decline of the moral foundation and grounding of national life.  The ideas he sees contained in the BCP are part of a wider inheritance than just that of the Church of England, and his arguments can be appreciated by others of different traditions. 

This then was not just a lament for the absence of BCP services - though he would doubtless like to see it used more - but for the loss of moral grounding in national life. Whether one should be as pessimistic as he appeared to be at one point I do not know, but I do see that he makes a good case for striving to re-establish it through sensible and secure channels.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glossing over feminism and the role of the metropolitan bourgeous jew then...