How the Prayer Book remembered, remembered…

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot…

One way in which the English used to remember, remember the fifth of November was the “form of prayer with thanksgiving” appointed in the Book of Common Prayer “to be used yearly upon the Fifth Day of November for the happy Deliverance of the King, and the Three Estates of the Realm, from the most Traiterous and Bloudy intended Massacre by Gun-Powder”.

No-one could accuse this service, as found in the original edition of the 1662 Prayer Book, of pulling its punches or lacking vigour in its language:

We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our late gracious Sovereign King James, the Queen, the Prince, and all the Royal Branches, with the Nobility, Clergy, and Commons of England, then assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous, and savage manner, beyond the examples of former ages.

Or the prayer that follows this thanksgiving:

Be thou still our mighty Protector, and scatter our enemies that delight in blood. Infatuate and defeat their counsels, abate their pride, assuage their malice, and confound their devices.

The prayer goes on to make a neat link between the former Roman Catholic threats to the natural order of Church and King and the then more recent threats from a Protestant direction:

Strengthen the hands of our gracious King Charles, and all that are put in authority under him, with Judgment and justice, to cut off all such workers of iniquity, as turn religion into rebellion, and faith into faction; that they may never prevail against us, or triumph in the ruine of thy Church among us…

Within a generation of the Restoration, however, the threat had once again become that of “Popery”, and during the 18th century the prayers were supplemented by additional material giving thanks for the arrival on our shores of King William, which also (providentially?) occurred on 5 November, in 1688:

Accept also, most gracious God, of our unfeigned thanks, for filling our hearts again with joy and gladness, after the time that thou hast afflicted us, and putting a new song into our mouths, by bringing his Majesty King William upon this Day, for the Deliverance of our Church and Nation from Popish Tyranny and arbitrary Power…

These prayers, however much they may (rightly) appal us by their bigotry, had one small redeeming feature: however much they may have identified the interests of the Protestant Crown and Established Church with the purposes of God, at least they recognised our dependence on God’s unmerited mercy and grace:

From this unnatural conspiracy, not our merit, but thy mercy; not our foresight, but thy providence, delivered us: And therefore, not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy Name be ascribed all honour and glory in all Churches of the saints, from generation to generation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

But overall, it’s probably best all round that, in 1859, Queen Victoria issued a royal warrant declaring that:

…the Use of the said Forms of Prayer and Service … be henceforth discontinued …, and that the said Forms of Prayer and Service be not henceforth printed and published with or annexed to the Book of Common Prayer.

In short, if we’re looking to the Book of Common Prayer for inspiration today, a day which such strong memories of religious hatred and division spilling over into terrorism and war, then we’re better going with this: the prayer for unity from the Accession Service:

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly union and concord: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


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