My first experience of really powerful and complex English prose came through Thomas Cranmer. Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, Dick and Jane and Spot were all good in their way, but imagine the effect on the young mind of such sentences as this:
Immortal and ever-living God, we most heartily thank thee for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy sacraments with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our savior Jesus Christ, and dost assure us thereby of thy favor and goodness toward us, and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and are also heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most blessed death and passion.
It’s a grammarian’s delight (and, on checking, I find that my memory made only two mistakes, neither breaking with the rhythm): a main clause to which are subordinated four “that…” clauses, each with its own attack and consequence (“for that thou dost vouchsafe… and [that thou] dost assure.. and [that thou dost assure us] that we are… and [dost assure us that we] are also heirs…”). Never a dull repetition; always a variant skewing back to the main point; the “members incorporate” of the long, ornate sentence admitting either an interpretation that would make them all equivalent, or one that would make them a series of differences fanning out from an initial act of grace (“we thank thee for that”).
We were off-and-on churchgoers in my family, to the point that friends, relatives and “the help” took us children to a variety of churches in our parents’ stead, but despite the lace and candles that I remember from the Catholic cathedral and the intense musical athleticism of the black churches, the language is what I remember from the Episcopal parish that we were supposed to call home– that and a smell of floor wax and a big brass cross whose nodal point was surrounded by a halo with a curious ring of wiggly flames. I remember a few hymn tunes from my childhood. Nothing about Sunday School. But those long, swerving, delaying and crosscutting sentences, absolutely. There was nothing else like it in my experience. Maybe those pieces my father liked to play on the piano, that started with a simple little tune and wound it up into so many layers of argument and chatter that you couldn’t keep up with them, that were called Bach.
James Wood, recently, wrote a birthday card in the New Yorker for the Book of Common Prayer (350 years old in its 1662 revision; 473 if you’re looking at Cranmer’s first attempt, which dates from 1539). He praises Cranmer’s ritual prose for its “simplicity and directness… ‘coziness’ or ‘comfortability.’” I wouldn’t think of simplicity first. Coziness? Well, anything that you’ve heard for decades tends to get cozy in your ear; that’s no explanation. “Comfortability” is a borrowing from Cranmer (the “comfortable words” are the exhortation to come forward to communion). What comes most to my mind is the slanted, scarred quality of Cranmer’s words, acknowledging and bewailing their impossible or insincere content under a perfect pastoral straight face. The words of administration of communion name the bread and wine as the body and blood, but in the next sentence specify that the congregant is to take and eat them “in remembrance.” To paraphrase a bit: “Yes, that’s what we would like to say about these mere material elements, but we can’t truthfully state that that’s what they are, so let’s follow up with this more commonsensical version of the presence doctrine which is all you’re going to get anyway.” Another fine bit of truthful and artful dodging is the way the officiant uses the subjunctive mood (a piece of old-fashioned English grammar one might have to learn from Cranmer, if growing up in Tennessee): the remission of sins is performed not by the priest, but (in hope and under conditions) by the Almighty who is invoked but not compelled. As with so many other grand churchly paragraphs left us by Archbishop Cranmer, the mustering of clauses and sonority might give one the impression that something wondrous has been done, but a closer inspection reveals that the operative clauses were shrewdly minimized: “Almighty God… have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, strengthen and confirm you in all goodness,” etc.: all in the subjunctive mood. The swinging of robed sleeves and censers, if any, is just decoration. The operative bit is no performative speech act, but a wish. It might happen, then again it might not.
And when burying someone, the Prayer Book says that it is done “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.” Clever Cranmer again: what’s sure and certain is not the resurrection, but the hope of it, and perhaps our hope is sure and certain only because it’s one of those things that are “meet, right, and our bounden duty” to say. I always found this escape-clause comforting, in a grim way, when consigning people I loved to the ground.
As James Wood does not say (perhaps he is reporting on the state of things in England), the old Prayer Book, last revised for US Episcopal churches in 1928, is no longer in use. The 1970s substitute offers a modernized version of all the services and “traditional” versions for some of them (1928 with light revision). Comparison shows what subtleties are lost. Where Cranmer had written these lines for the congregation: “We do earnestly repent and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings,” the 1970s US Episcopalians go all touchy-feely: “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” This is getting it backwards, according to the somewhat cynical psychology of the 1539 service book. You repent first and then you have the luxury of feeling sorry. In the 1970s, you are subjectively, emotionally sorry first and you describe that as humbly repenting. I don’t know what an omniscient, omnipotent being would feel about anything, but my impression is that the 1539 people are playing their cards a little more carefully, allowing for more distrust of their own motives, and the 1970s people are unable to tell the difference between a feeling and a state of affairs.
James Wood’s article ends with cases of “reverent irony” in citations of Prayer Book language by Woolf and Beckett. I rather think the reverent irony was there to start with; but you have to discover it. In my case, it took memorizing those labyrinthine sentences and uncoiling them in my mind, again and again, over decades, to see what a Cheshire Cat of a shaggy dog the cautious archbishop had perched on the tree branch.