23 DECEMBER 1989, Page 20


Prince Charles presented our prizes

for Prayer Book recitation, and stood up for Cranmer. Charles Moore reports

THE germ of the idea of a prize in memory of Thomas Cranmer had nothing to do with Thomas Cranmer. My idea was to invent a prize for schools which invited children to recite poetry by heart. Such recitation has long been dismissed as 'rote-learning' and has fallen into abeyance. But it seemed to me that the phrase 'by heart' was very much to the point. Words, particularly great words, do not only have the fupction of instant communication: they also have resonance, and their full meaning is only disclosed by deep acquaintance. They have to live in you, and they can only do this if you have them in your heart. A poetry declamation prize seemed in order.

Then I reflected that 1989 was the quincentenary of the birth of Thomas Cranmer. I also reflected that apart perhaps from the words of hymns, it was the collects of the Book of Common Prayer which were most firmly implanted in pupils at the church primary school which I attended in the 1960s. We recited some of them communally and by heart every day. They had more effect than any other words. One could be grimly confident that there were very few such schools in the 1980s. The task was to encourage more of them (though we preferred to look for secondary, not primary schools), to com- memorate Cranmer by inviting the pupils to recite passages from the Prayer Book.

The Spectator accordingly joined forces with the Prayer Book Society. We found a distinguished panel of judges, chaired by P. D. James, the novelist. The others were the Ven. George Austin, the Archdeacon of York; P. J. Kavanagh, the poetry editor of The Spectator; Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer; Alec McCowen, the actor; Prunella Scales, the actress; C. H. Sisson, the poet; and Timothy West, the actor. A qualifying round was held, and the eight finalists assembled at St James's Church, Garlickhythe, in the City, on Monday 18 December.

The church was exactly appropriate for the occasion in every respect except one: Sir Christopher Wren could not have been expected to foresee the roar of 20th- century traffic in Upper Thames Street. Competitors had to recite against the noise of lorries, cars and even the occasional drill, and it was part of our rules that they had to do so without the assistance of microphones. This worked to the disadvan- tage of the girls, with their lighter voices, who made up five of the final eight, but the judges were able to allow for this.

Each competitor arrived ready to de- claim, consecutively, the collect, epistle and gospel of his or her choice. This they all did from the high pulpit, except for one bold spirit who wished to embellish Cranmer with gestures, and stood on the chancel 'It's a trumpety trump trump trumped up charge, ni'lud' steps. They were then asked to read, rather than recite, prayers chosen from the com- munion service, and the general thanksgiv- ing. The judges crouched at the back, marking them, and then retired to the vestry to decide.

The result was very close, and there was some division between the judges over the question of 'understanding', some con- tending that Cranmer's words spoke for themselves, and simply needed to be allowed to do that, others arguing that those who put a great range of expression into their recitation should be rewarded, The unsuccessful finalists were Claire Buchan, of Rivington and Black Rod High School, Lancashire; Victoria Davies, of Higham Lane School, Nuneaton; Justin Gollan, of West Somerset School, Mine- head (the only school with two finalists); Joseph Wood, of Bluecoat Comprehensive School, Walsall; and Emma Wallis, of Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon. Jonathan Fuller, of Debenham High School, took the third prize. Michelle McLean, of Ballakermeen High School, Douglas, Isle of Man, won the second prize. The winner of the first prize was Alison Munro-Smith, also of West Somer- set School.

Winners, finalists, judges and all recon- vened the following morning at St James's for the climax of the whole thing. We were honoured by the fact that the Prince of Wales had agreed to be Patron of the Prize. Prince Charles's duties, as pre- scribed by us, consisted only of turning up, of listening to the winners recite, and of presenting the prizes (£500 for the winner, smaller sums for the other two, com- memorative Prayer Books and certificates for all of them). We were absolutely delighted, however, that he took upon himself a more arduous task, and used the occasion to deliver his views about Cran- mer's Prayer Book and about the teaching of English. In that audience at least, the Prince expressed sentiments to which every bosom returned an echo. He used another quotation from Dr Johnson to drive the point home: ' "I know of no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer." ' And Prince Charles continued:

Ours is the age of miraculous writing machines but not of miraculous writing. Our banalities are no improvement on the past; merely an insult to it and a source of confusion in the present. In the case of our cherished religious writings, we should leave well alone, especially when it is better than well: when it is great.

He was fierce about what had happened as the result of not leaving well alone:

It saddens me . . . that we gather to praise Cranmer's great work at a time when it has been battered and deformed in the unlikely cause of making it easier to understand . . . If we encourage a mean, trite, ordinary language we encourage a mean, trite and ordinary view of the world which we inhabit.

And the Prince was disarmingly out- spoken about the criticism he expected to receive for taking this position:

It has forced me to reflect on why there is such a fierce obsession about being 'mod- em'. The fear of being considered old- fashioned seems to be so all-powerful that the more eternal values and principles which run like a thread through the whole tapestry of human existence are abandoned under the false assumption that they restrict progress. Well, I'm not afraid of being considered old-fashioned, which is why I'm standing here at this lectern wearing a double- breasted suit and turn-ups to my trousers, ready to declaim the fact that I believe the Prayer Book is a glorious part of every English speaker's heritage and, as such, ought to be a Grade One listed edifice.

Perhaps the most powerful part of Prince Charles's argument was his insistence that the Book of Common Prayer is not only valuable because it is old and beautiful, but because it is, in fact, as 'relevant' as ever it was. His speech questioned the foundation of the argument for liturgical revision:

. . what we have to ask ourselves, it seems to me, is whether, by making the words less

poetic, you really do make them more democratic. Isn't there something rather patronising about the whole assumption?

Possibly there are more people today who read less well than people in the past, although I doubt it. Most people then couldn't read at all. But supposing it were true, whoever decided that for people who aren't very good at reading the best thing to read are those things written by people who aren't very good at writing? Poetry is for everybody, even if it's only a few phrases. But banality is for nobody.

Cranmer, the Prince argued, had com- piled his Prayer Book 'in a spirit of reconciliation', and had managed to devise a language that was 'quite deliberately "not of an age, but for all time" '. Because

ordinary people had learnt the collects of the Prayer Book by heart,

though their own speech could not command the cadences and rhythms of Cranmer's prayers, because they were familiar with them they remembered them. At home, abroad, in hospitals, on battlefields, in soli- tude, in society, in trouble and in prosperity, these words were remembered and gave comfort and hope in the great crises of innumerable lives.

People were wrong to complain that the language of Cranmer was 'a bit over our heads.' For 'the word of God is supposed

to be a bit over our heads. Elevated is what God is.'

Students of Prince Charles's public pro- nouncements will recognise this as a vin- tage performance and will be interested by the development of his ideas about our heritage into the field of literature and religion. We, the prize's organisers, were above all grateful to him for his defence of the greatest luminary of the Church of which he will one day be Supreme Gov- ernor. And we are happy to take it on royal authority that

If English is spoken in heaven. . . God undoubtedly employs Cranmer as his speech- writer. The angels of the lesser ministries probably use the language of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book for internal memos.