Posts Tagged ‘Book of Common Prayer’

Faith and doubt

February 27, 2013

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
The holy Catholick Church;
The Communion of Saints;
The Forgiveness of sins;
The Resurrection of the body,
And the Life everlasting.
Amen.

This is the Apostles’ Creed as it appears in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. A beautiful piece of writing, even if you happen not to agree with the sentiments.

A few years ago I was attending evensong at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the time came for saying the Creed. The congregation turned to face the East.

The Creed has natural pauses built into it, most notably before the catalogue beginning ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost’. On this occasion, the congregants paused for breath at the appropriate point, but failed to start again. Even the presiding priest stopped talking.

This sudden silence may be interpreted in any of several ways. The probability is that, having stopped and paused, no one person wanted to take the responsibility of starting up again lest he should be a lone voice, a pelican in the wilderness (as the Psalmist says), and so silence enveloped the chapel. At the time, I liked to think that the words about to be said — ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost’ etc. — had struck the entire congregation as so unlikely, so far-fetched, as to be unutterable.

The silence lasted five seconds, possibly slightly longer. It certainly felt longer. To our credit, most of us started to laugh as we launched into the final straight.

It’s a testament to the enduring qualities of the 1662 Creed that it inspires poetry to this day.

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Hyperion 10: #8. The Psalms of David / Choir of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Scott

September 21, 2010

I think on first acquaintance with the Psalms in their Anglican manifestation, i.e. sung to harmonic chants, if I can remember that far back, I was not a receptive listener. In a bad performance the effect of these repeated chord patterns can be dull, particularly if the choir fails to take the trouble to illuminate the words. I’m afraid that with hymns I still often find myself glossing over the words, preoccupied with the tune. That’s a habit that repetition ought to eliminate: once you’ve got the notes, you can concentrate on what the words mean.

With the Psalms – especially with the Coverdale Psalter – one misses so much by failing to consider the text. You don’t have to have faith to see something tremendous in “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint : my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax” (Psalm 22) or “I am become like a pelican in the wilderness : and like an owl that is in the desert” (Psalm 102). The poetry is evident in every line. Just a momentary glance at a phrase like “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine indignation : neither chasten me in thy displeasure” (Psalm 6) will transport me back years into the past like the twitch upon the thread Waugh writes about in Brideshead. Maybe the effect of the language is so profound because we (by which I mean I) have become accustomed to devotional writing being merely fit for purpose, rather than beautiful in its own right like the Book of Common Prayer.

To get back on track. This is a complete recording of the St Paul’s Cathedral Psalter. There’s no danger of the Choir of St Paul’s glossing over the words: each phrase is perfectly nuanced and executed, and their clarity of diction mostly overcomes the cavernous acoustic. That acoustic is a reason some critics have resisted the recording. I think the sense of place it gives can add immeasurably to the atmosphere, and don’t find harmonic definition obscured, though the resonance does mean that it is necessary for the choir on occasion to employ slower tempi than might be thought desirable.

The entirety of the recordings, which were made over a period of about seven years, date from John Scott’s tenure at St Paul’s, and he is more than ably assisted by his two organists, Andrew Lucas and Huw Williams, whose perceptive embellishments are all one could hope for. The choice of chants is a pleasing combination of the standard and the unexpected, the old and the new. The familiar Stanford chants for Psalms 147 and 150, for instance, are present and correct. I have very fond memories of singing the Cooke chant for Psalm 7 in an Eton Choral Course evensong at King’s several years ago. A treasure trove.