The Book of Common Prayer, originally published in 1549, has affected me more powerfully than any other book I have ever read. I hope to have it with me when I die. Best known in Britain in its 1662 version, and in the USA as The 1928 Prayer Book, it is the now-forgotten third pillar of written English, alongside the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Excerpts from it occupy more than 15 pages of the Third Edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, yet - since it is now hardly used by the Church of England or its cousin, the Episcopal Church - those who quote from it, or use its phrases and cadences in their language, are mostly unaware of the fact that they are quoting at all. It is, amongst other things, the refutation in practice of the idea that religion is a resort of the stupid and the illiterate. Its marriage service is the constitution of private life, expressed in numinous poetry. Its burial service is a raw, uncompromising confrontation with the majesty of death.
But it is in its regular, ordinary services of Morning and Evening Prayer that, with a sweet persistence, it softly asks the listener - who is also often a participant - to consider, reasonably and carefully, the alternatives to the bare, comfortless tedium of materialism, and to reflect on his place in the universe. The apparently simple phrases quietly slip into the mind and compel thought. No revolutionary manifesto ever equalled the Magnificat's scorn for earthly greatness.
And running through it all is the knowledge that almost all of this, especially its repeated calls for God's help in the struggle to be good, 'forasmuch as without Thee we are not able to please Thee', was written or compiled by a rather bad man, Thomas Cranmer, Henry VIII's highly political Archbishop of Canterbury. This is not the work of some unapproachable, impossible saint but of a married man, wily in worldly affairs and capable both of great cowardice and of astonishing courage.