People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.
Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:
While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.
The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.
Here is an interesting looking new book from Princeton on the Framers’ generation, Gentlemen Revolutionaries: Power and Justice in the New American Republic, by historian Tom Cutterham (University of Birmingham). Among other things, Cutterham addresses the clash between conservative supporters of religious establishment, mostly from New England states, and populists who wished to use the Revolution as a tool to break the hold of traditional religious authority. Here’s the description from the Princeton website:
In the years between the Revolutionary War and the drafting of the Constitution, American gentlemen—the merchants, lawyers, planters, and landowners who comprised the independent republic’s elite—worked hard to maintain their positions of power. Gentlemen Revolutionaries shows how their struggles over status, hierarchy, property, and control shaped the ideologies and institutions of the fledgling nation.
Tom Cutterham examines how, facing pressure from populist movements as well as the threat of foreign empires, these gentlemen argued among themselves to find new ways of justifying economic and political inequality in a republican society. At the heart of their ideology was a regime of property and contract rights derived from the norms of international commerce and eighteenth-century jurisprudence. But these gentlemen were not concerned with property alone. They also sought personal prestige and cultural preeminence. Cutterham describes how, painting the egalitarian freedom of the republic’s “lower sort” as dangerous licentiousness, they constructed a vision of proper social order around their own fantasies of power and justice. In pamphlets, speeches, letters, and poetry, they argued that the survival of the republican experiment in the United States depended on the leadership of worthy gentlemen and the obedience of everyone else.
Lively and elegantly written, Gentlemen Revolutionaries demonstrates how these elites, far from giving up their attachment to gentility and privilege, recast the new republic in their own image.
The Fondazione Studium Generale Marcianum in Venice has issued a call for papers for a conference, “The Legitimate Scope of Religious Establishment, to take place on March 7-9, 2016:
How best to deal with the relationship between law and religion is one of the fundamental questions that every liberal democratic country must encounter. Comparative constitutionalism worldwide sees a large spectrum of state and religion models. The American model of separation, for instance, is an exception in liberal-democratic countries, where one can find a variety of ways in which religions get support from the state. In some democracies there is even explicit acknowledgement of one religion as the official religion of the state.
While it is clear that most democracies reject the idea that religion should be privatized, one is still hard pressed to ask: What are the essential features of establishment regimes? Should any limits be set to the establishment of religion? Are there any means of support that should necessarily be ruled out? May a decent state grant preferential treatment to one religion over other religions (or some of them)? If so, on what legitimate basis could this be done, and in what ways?
This workshop will be devoted to a discussion of these questions and other related topics. We are especially focused on papers that address normative questions about establishment of religion from a particular point of view, but comparative papers are welcome too. The keynote speaker will be Prof. Joseph Weiler.
Scholars are invited to submit a 2-3 page abstract (double-spaced) by April 15th, 2015. Abstracts will be evaluated by the organizing committee and decisions made in May 2015. Please direct all abstracts and queries to: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
In rereading a wonderful piece by Professor Michael McConnell about Edmund Burke’s view of the relationship between an established religion and a regime of toleration of religion, I came across this deeply insightful discussion of the close connection of a separationist idea of religion and government (as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, for example) and the idea that government itself had very limited functions in the first place:
There is a close, but generally unrecognized, connection between the idea of the “Wall of Separation” and the idea of a radically limited government. Once government shakes off its limited role and concerns itself with the general welfare of the people, including their cultural and intellectual lives, it has leapt the “Wall” and entered the traditional sphere of religion. In contrast to many of our Founders, Burke had a more modern conception of the jurisdiction of the state, which did not permit him the easy answer of a “Wall of Separation.” If the government is “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” then it necessarily will be conveying a collective teaching on science, art, virtue, and perfection (whether we label the teaching a “religion” or not). It follows not that an establishment is desirable, but that it is inescapable. Some sort of opinions will necessarily guide the state in its “superintending control over…the publicly propagated doctrines of men.” If the Jeffersonian-Madisonian ideal of the limited state is abandoned as naive or outmoded, then the serious questions become how to protect against arbitrary or tyrannical use of this power and how to respect the legitimate rights of those who disagree with the official orthodoxy.
Michael W. McConnell, Establishment and Toleration in Edmund Burke’s ‘Constitution of Freedom,’ 1995 Supreme Court Review 393, 444-45 (with citations to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and his Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians).