Vol I No. 7

Beauty in Prayer: A Response to Peter Hitchens

The Revd. Fr Gavin Dunbar

One cannot help but appreciate the recent article by Peter Hitchens in The American Conservative, despite its meandering inaccuracies, for its savor of that great kernel of Anglican faith, the Book of Common Prayer. His eye-roller claim that the Prayer Book “is a cloudy compromise between Calvinism and Catholicism that nobody to this day has really been able to disentangle” is historical and theological nonsense, though sadly he is not the only one to espouse it. 

While the Prayer Book is a particular liturgical book from one historical milieu, the English Reformation, we cannot pretend that it is therefore a document of merely pragmatic necessity. It is, as Hitchens later affirms, a work of worship, a profound response to the revelation of the divine. “You cannot hear it spoken and be unaffected,” he writes. “It embodies the idea that truth is beauty and beauty is truth.”

This is a key point: the Prayer Book’s language and structure aim to facilitate a deep encounter with God, not reconcile theological differences between arbitrary factions. If it were not so, it would not have stood the test of centuries.

When Hitchens leaves off theology (about which he evidently knows little) and describes his own experience of worship by the Prayer Book, he has something worth listening to:

“It is also so perpetually lovely and full of the Holy Ghost that sin wilts in its presence and godly persons of any denomination can and do sink gratefully into its poetry, given the chance.”

He notes that we find not just literature, but a rule for life between the same two covers:

“It provides the Constitution of Private Life, from font to graveside. I have attended funerals conducted according to its austere instructions and come away astonished at just how seriously it takes death in a world which prefers to hide it.”

Beauty calls us to the divine, and in dark moments, can keep us true to our faith. Life’s darkest moments necessitate these prayerful glimmers of light, which Thomas Cranmer understood well, as is evident in the words of the burial service:

 “In the midst of life we are in death…suffer us not, in our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.”