From Bishop Alan Wildson in Book of Common Prayer (Part 7): The Joy of Beign a Miserable Sinner:
The Book of Common Prayer is rooted in the litany. In 1544, preparing to invade France, Henry VIII ordered processions throughout the land. Thomas Cranmer took the opportunity to translate the traditional litany, prefacing it with an exhortation. He trimmed the text and, echoing the traditional response people knew, “miserere nobis”, and the commendatio for the sick, called on God to “have mercy upon us miserable sinners”.
The Book of Common Prayer is full of miserable sinning. When, from the 1960s on, use of Cranmer’s eucharistic rite began to fail, the reason often given was distaste at the way he went on about sin. What relevance could such gloom possibly have to a world that was not on the brink of damnation, but a cheerful future built of tower blocks, holidays on Mars and driving to work in your own personal hovercraft? Congregations did not care to think they were miserable sinners once they had twisted to the hit parade, tasted instant mash, feasted off Formica and actually seen Wombles and hot pants.
As people entered various forms of the space race, Cranmer’s book was a discrete cough in the background, a reminder of what he would see as the Augustinian facts of life, grace and original sin. The latter term in particular is guaranteed to produce apoplectic rage from people who have never read Augustine, indeed Richard Dawkins himself has recently described it as “disgusting”.
It is not easy in the age of the soundbite, to convey what original sin actually meant to Augustine or Cranmer. Christians have sometimes isolated it and turned it into a form of designer self-loathing. Original sin is only a component in Augustine’s bigger narrative around baptism. Glass-half-full people will point out that in his scheme of Grace and Salvation, all you actually have to do to deal with the worst of original sin is dunk the baby.
What remains thereafter can be rather positive. Societies based on Augustinian theology have, in fact, cheerfully accomplished all kinds of technical and aesthetic lovely things. What remains after original sin has been dealt with, in Augustine’s scheme by baptism, is a pervasive awareness of imperfection and fallibility, with the humility to say “there but for the grace of God go I”. Paradoxically, some of the highest achieving societies in the world have Augustinian roots, Lutheran or Catholic.
However gloomy and distasteful it is to drive by a motorway pile-up, a degree of honest fear, combined with acknowledgement that a car is perpetually crashable, not perfectly invincible, seems to make drivers better not worse. It characteristically enhances rather than inhibits performance.
Read it all here.