W.H. Auden Meets Liturgical Rant

Nothing puts a bee in an Episcopalian’s bonnet quite like liturgical change. It brings out passion, anger, grief, and indignation (some righteous, some not so much). Those who lived through the transition from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to the current 1979 BCP have the battle scars to prove it.

I’ve been thinking about that transition this week as I learned that the Rev. Canon Leonel Mitchell died. Mitchell taught liturgy at my alma mater Seabury-Western Theological Seminary for many years and was the driving force behind the current Prayer Book. I keep several of his books including the classic “Praying Shapes Believing” within arm’s reach of my desk.

I was fortunate enough to be at Seabury when he returned for a couple of semesters to cover a sabbatical (he had long since retired by the time I showed up in Evanston). Hearing first-hand the stories of that era’s liturgical revision was a privilege. Of course, peeking behind the ecclesiastical curtain is not for the faint of heart. But you’d never meet a more gracious and friendly living legend than Lee Mitchell (though it’s true I’ve never met Ringo Starr).

Our parish Verger, Tom Daley, recently forwarded the accompanying letter written by W.H. Auden to the rector at his parish St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery in New York City. The missive was clearly written in the midst of this liturgical transition that Mitchell helped bring to fruition. The eloquence is classic Auden but the passion behind it is every disgruntled parishioner who has ever rued changes to the divine liturgy. The text of the letter is pasted in below. Enjoy. Then say a prayer for the repose of the soul of the Lee Mitchell.

77 St Mark’s Place
New York City 3
Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new ‘liturgy’ is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes
[signed]
W.H. Auden


3 Comments on “W.H. Auden Meets Liturgical Rant”

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    As I found out from a Facebook thread on this, Auden did not originate the phrase “bowels of Christ.” Paul did.

    For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1.8 Authorized Version)

    If I remember the explanation correctly, the bowels were supposed to hold human emotions.

  2. John Williamson says:

    I had not read the W.H.Alden letter before this. I totally agree with him. And, I do offer prayer for the repose of the soul of Fr. Mitchell.

  3. The Rev. Nancy Noall says:

    I am in my 70’s and lived through the death of the 28 PB with great thanksgiving! I hate Elizabethan English! That’s for courses in English Lit or those who like reading the stuff. Thank God for change. I can’t wait for the next PB! Creation is not finished!


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