PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
Mark FordLetters And So It Goes
Letters from Young Mr Grace
(aka John Ashbery)

(PN Review 239)
Henry Kingon Toby Martinez de las Rivas
(PN Review 244)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Sharif Elmusa on Mourid Barghouti Lorna Goodison Christmas Poem Brian Morton Now Patricia Craig Val Warner: a reminiscence John McAuliffe Bill Manhire in Conversation
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PNR 250 Poetry Archive Banner
Monthly Carcanet Books
PN Review Blog
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to

This article is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

C.H. Sisson's Anglicanism Richard Harries

Rose Macauley stood outside the walls of the Anglican church for many years because she believed adulterous love was incompatible with church membership (a view more fashionable then than now, as she might have said). Stevie Smith also stood outside because she believed the god locked inside had some morally ugly features: though not without many an enchanted glance through the window. Where does C. H. Sisson stand? No longer counting the money in the vestry anyway. 'Because I have more recently distanced myself from the Church - perhaps I should add that I have in my time been a churchwarden in two parishes.' Why does he so distance himself? First, because of the changing role of Anglicanism in the life of the nation. Secondly, because of the Alternative Service Book (ASB). 'The Bible and the Prayer Book were what gave the services of the Church of England not only their splendour but their meaning, and some who came into the Church, not lightly and unadvisedly, but after mature reflection and through a desire for the sacraments, now feel so betrayed that the sacraments themselves cannot be taken in this desolation.' This sentence half hides and half reveals the hurtness of soul that gives the somewhat disparate, but always sharp and often telling, Anglican Essays (Carcanet, 1983) its unity. There is honest bitterness in these essays. Yet do the arguments C. H. Sisson puts forward to account for his disaffection with the Anglican church stand up as arguments?

First, he rather surprisingly allowed himself to be taken in by the P. R. men for the ASB who put it about that the prime purpose of the new prayer book was to be 'modern'. This was not at all the reason. The rationale for the changes has been the fresh understanding of the nature of the Eucharist, drawn from a study of the liturgies of the early church, an understanding shared by all the major denominations. C. H. Sisson has read, and admires in part, Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy. It is the shape there discussed that is set forth in the Eucharist today. Then there has been a shift away from an exclusive preoccupation with the atoning death of Christ. ASB balances this Prayer Book emphasis by an equal stress on the resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit and the church.

Secondly, C. H. Sisson fires a sawn-off shotgun at the variety contained in the ASB without any attempt to distinguish the different kinds of variety and the reasons for their presence. 'There are alternative blessings and alternative confessions. A bit of what you like does you good - that seems to be the underlying principle,' he writes. But this sentence conflates blessings, which are part of the seasonal material, with the alternative confessions, where the choice offered is derived from a different principle. One of the great, neglected, gifts the church offers our culture is the liturgical year in which time is taken up and transfigured. This means that at the Eucharist during Lent, for example, there will be specific sentences, thanksgivings and blessings in which the main themes of the season are expressed. The choice of different confessions, however, is derived from a totally different principle; from the fact that the final form of some parts of the service has been left to the parish priest and the people to decide together. No new service can be introduced to a congregation without a basic agreement between the priest and the church council. The Church of England has chosen to bring in its new services gradually over a period of 15 years. The alternative was a diktat from above, as happened in the Roman communion, where change took place overnight and almost universally. Now most Church of England parishes have agreed on a form of service and have produced a pew edition. The differences in these pew editions, from one parish to another, are minimal. It is simply not true, as C. H. Sisson writes, that 'going into a church beyond his own parish boundary no one will know what he is going to find'. There is greater liturgical unity in the Church of England today than there has been for over a hundred years. Two parishes, one of which used the Roman rite and the other of which celebrated the BCP at the North End position, will both be found today using ASB Rite A with only small differences of ritual between them.

C. H. Sisson is one of a number of literati pleading for the centrality of the BCP and the AV in the church. I share their concern for language; and some of the language of the new services is unpleasing. Yet, in asking for the BCP, what exactly is it that they are asking for? Not surely that dusty little red book that can still be found in the back of most churches? That has not been used entire for many years. Sisson himself admits: 'It has long seemed to me that the Book of Common Prayer could do with a little editing'. Is it the superb Collect for Purity they want retained? 'Almighty God, to whom all hearts be open . . .'. It is still there, with only tiny changes. Is it the Gloria? That is there too in what is, in my judgment, an improved version. However, if the old form is wanted in order that music written for it might be sung, that too is permissible. Is it the prayer of humble access? 'We do not presume to come . . .'. Again, that is retained with only minor alterations. In other words, in asking for the BCP no one, not even C. H. Sisson, is asking for it entire. People want an edited version of it. The question, of course, is how much editing? In my opinion the best elements are preserved in Rite B and, with changes to 'You' rather than 'Thou', in Rite A. We all have regrets. It was a grave error not to include the Coverdale version of the Psalms in ASB. It was folly to try to re-write the BCP collects. The best of them should have been preserved as they stand and a completely new set of collects written in a much simpler style along the lines of the collects in the modern Roman rite, provided as well.

The cry goes up, 'Prayer Book', wardens wands are raised and those who feel unchurched by the new liturgy set up their wail of lament. The Prayer Book however is made up of many elements, and once the principle of editing is conceded each element must be looked at piece by piece. Nor can it be argued in this instance that the whole is greater than the parts, for the whole has not been used for centuries.

It is when he comes to a detailed discussion of the language that C. H. Sisson will have the strongest support for it is easy to single out phrases in ASB and the New English Bible that grate. But the NEB is not the only version available. I have been confronted by Professors of English Literature at parties and told how much they dislike the new version of the Bible. 'Which version?' I ask, not too innocently. They mean the NEB and seem blissfully unaware of the many new versions produced in recent decades, serving different purposes. For sustained public reading the American Revised Standard Version, the RSV, is excellent. This keeps close to the language and rhythms of the A V. It was produced in 1952 and thirty years of continuous reading in schools, chapels and parishes shows that it stands up remarkably well. The Jerusalem Bible has a directness and freshness that alerts the mind. It is possible to produce many infelicities in the NEB and in the ASB, yet it is not all equally mediocre. Since Series 3 was produced in 1972 I have used this part of the Eucharistic Prayer more days than not:

It is indeed right,
it is our duty and our joy,
at all times and in all places
to give you thanks and praise,
holy Father, heavenly King,
almighty and eternal God,
through Jesus Christ your only Son our Lord.

It is traditional, direct and stands up well to sustained usage. Some of the language of the ASB was not in the BCP and here there is some gain. For example this prayer from an early liturgy:

Send the Holy Spirit on your people
and gather into one in our kingdom
all who share this one bread and one cup,
so that we, in the company of all the saints,
many praise and glorify you for ever,
through him from whom all good things come,
Jesus Christ our Lord.

The importance of the language of the liturgy cannot be overestimated. Yet there is something even more crucial and that is the quality of spiritual life which is seeking to use it as a vehicle of prayer and worship. C. S. Lewis taught that the words of prayer should be like steps to a good dancer. When you are first learning to dance you concentrate on where to put your feet next; as you become more experienced you get caught up in the music and move to its flow. In true prayer we cease to be aware of the words as words. This state only comes when the words are thoroughly familiar and this means not simply learning them by heart, but mulling them over and praying them in, over a period of time. The words of the BCP have been prayed for four hundred years. There is here a problem that goes deeper than language. For it is only when people have taken the new forms of words and used them in private meditations and prayers (and many of them are suitable for this purpose, e.g. the Gloria and the Sanctus) that the ASB will indeed be a vehicle for worship. We are still moving from a situation where both priest and people are conscious of the words to one where the service is prayed rather than said or listened to.

C. H. Sisson's hard feelings about the new services are part of a wider dismay about the Anglican Church as such. The Church he hankers after is that of the Elizabethan settlement. In the words of Hooker, there was not to be 'any man of the Church of England but the same man is also a member of the commonwealth; nor any man a member of the commonwealth, which is not also of the Church of England.' He fears that the Church of England is now becoming a 'mere sect'. Yet there is a further alternative between becoming a state church and a sect: it is to be more conscious of belonging, to use the words of the creed which Anglicans say Sunday by Sunday, to 'the holy, catholic and apostolic church'.

The Church of England is on the move to a new future. This is inevitable. 'To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.' Moreover, as Newman argued in the same essay, the stream is not always clearest at its source. The Church is an organism with a developing life. I feel sad that a poet of C. H. Sisson's talent and stature now feels so left behind. The church, in some sense of the church, has been at fault in failing to draw on the particular charism with which he has been endowed and asking him to put it at the service of the community of the faithful. Yet the literary world too must take some share of the responsibility for the present unsatisfactory state of liturgical language. When W. H. Auden was asked by the Episcopal Church of the United States to help them write a new liturgy, he declined on the grounds that he liked the BCP. 'Why spit on your luck?' was his attitude to liturgical reform.

Now that C. H. Sisson is retiring from the editorship of PN Review perhaps he might take up the offer that Auden spurned? The shape of the new liturgy is clear and correct enough; the theology is agreed by all parties to be biblical. The language, however, is too much a pastiche of biblical phrases.

I have a dream. Amongst the belongings of an old poet there was found a liturgy written by him, direct, simple, understood by the people and able to be used by them, yet written in language capable of lifting us out of ourselves, beyond where we were spiritually, rather than depressing us below it. Such was the beauty and 'rightness' of this liturgy that as it passed from hand to hand and church to church it was greeted with mounting delight until by universal acclaim, like Ambrose being made a Bishop, it was adopted as the official liturgy of the church in the next stage of its life.

This article is taken from PN Review 40, Volume 11 Number 2, November - December 1984.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image