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Prayer book bridges old and new worlds

The Baltimore Sun

In the nave of St. Anne's Church in Annapolis is a new gift, one even older than the historic church itself: a leather-bound Book of Common Prayer, elegantly printed in 1849 by Oxford University Press.

It comes compliments of an 81-year-old woman packing up to move to Connecticut. Mary Knight, a widow who has retained her British diction and manner through nearly 40 years of living in the state capital, said, "I'm clearing the decks, you might say. I hate throwing anything away."

Sitting in a mahogany church pew by a Tiffany window, she said to the Rev. Bob Wickizer, the acting rector, "I know it will have a good home here."

A regular parishioner while raising two children, she has not attended the red brick church in years. Her high church prayer book - a comprehensive recital of Anglican prayers, communions, confirmations and other rituals and psalms for priests and congregants in the U.S. - was given to her husband in the 1970s.

"The language of Shakespeare is the language of this prayer book, and that version would still be the accepted ritual," Wickizer said, a hint of wonder at holding words that still speak of the 1660s. "Somehow it makes it more concrete to people."

Knight's well-preserved prayer book arrived as Wickizer is leading an unusual series of Lenten services on all four Sundays in March - the last this morning - using four of the earliest versions of the Book of Common Prayer.

Dating to Elizabethan England, when the Protestant Church of England took wing, the 1662 prayer book was used in last week's Sunday service. Today's will reach back even further, to the 1552 prayer book's "Holye Communion" language.

"To get this beautiful book in such great condition was a wonderful surprise," G. August Deimel, a church spokesman, said. He said the Oxford book is the 1662 version, which remains the parliamentary standard text today in the Church of England.

The Episcopal Church's recent modern language editions for the U.S., on the other hand, were made less than 30 years ago.

Deimel said the old texts even pose a challenge for priests and rectors. "Sometimes they do stumble a little bit. The language is more humbling and penitential - like a phrase that says we are not worthy of crumbs at thy table."

The gift prayer book's monetary value is not known, but church officials have no plans to sell it. Instead, they expect to put it out on display a few times a year, as a symbol of the church's colonial ties to the mother country. The original St. Anne's parish, which stood on the same site on Church Circle, was founded about four centuries ago as an extension of the Church of England. The current structure is close to 150 years old.

Even if she hasn't been to church lately, Knight's memory is clear as the chimes when it comes to the prayer book's content, educated as she was in an English girls' boarding school in Devon. It was the kind of place, she said, where you didn't go to bed during wartime until you went to Evensong. German bombs were likely to drop on country towns near the coast, she said, and there was a pervasive fear of being invaded.

"I knew the whole Morning Prayer service," she said. "We had to memorize reams and reams of passages."

The prayer book might also serve as a reminder that current waves of change breaking over the church are nothing new, Wickizer said. Internal differences on bedrock social issues such as gay marriage have rocked the Anglican Communion, which is weighing whether to expel or split the entire Episcopal branch. Wickizer said he and other Episcopal clergy say they are ready to follow U.S. bishops united against foreign oversight.

The Church of England was filled with intrigue, clashes and high drama, even stake-burnings, from the beginning, with King Henry VIII establishing it in defiance of the authority of the Vatican, in part because he wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and have a male heir with another.

"There were wildly different theologies back then, embroiled in controversy over how Catholic and Protestant-leaning they were," Wickizer said. "Since day one, there's a myth about the church as bucolic and peaceful once, when we all worshiped the same way.

"This book helps re-create a sense that we are all present, Anglicans, standing for the rights and inclusion of others," Wickizer said.

Knight, for her part, said it was just as well to let the prayer book go. She would not miss it.

"Not really," she said. "I have the prayer book my godmother gave me in 1935."

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