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Advent 2013: P.D. James

Advent 2013: P.D. James

(Photo: C. Peter Molloy)

This summer your editor, C. Peter Molloy, was pleased to sit down with The Right Honourable Baroness James of Holland Park, OBE, known to her millions of readers as P.D. James. In this excerpt from that conversation, Baroness James talks about one book that has truly captured her heart.

TAP: Baroness James, it is a great pleasure to be with you. I wonder if we could start by talking about your spiritual life?

PDJ: Well, I came to The Book of Common Prayer and to the Church of England and its worship very young because I was born in Oxford where my parents lived and they hadn’t servants to leave children with. So when they wanted to go to Church we went with them. They loved music; they especially loved liturgical music. They loved to hear Evensong in the College Chapels, so I would be taken in my mother’s arms, obviously most of the time. So as I grew up, these wonderful words just became part, very much, of my life.

 When I got older and went to Church there were rather long sermons, which I found rather boring. So I would read my prayer book and what I was so interested in those days were the wonderful stories that it told. I remember particularly reading about communion at the time when there was the plague or a terrible infectious disease.  That for fear of the disease, the priest only would take it to those who were sick, obviously it was a huge risk to himself, almost certainly a death sentence. I could picture him, this lonely figure, you know, carrying the sacred vessels through the village or town, totally deserted, everybody closed to this lonely dying person and sharing the communion with them.  And the Prayers at Sea. There were wonderful prayers in the storm when the ship is in danger, the prayers become rather more appealing when the ship is going down – they all get called on to the deck and then they say the Lord’s Prayer. Nowadays I wonder how many will say the Lord’s Prayer, but immediately for a child, there is the picture of a raging storm and a little group of sailors and the captain and the chaplain saying the Lord’s Prayer and probably getting a benediction or a blessing before the ship finally went down.

TAP: Many would see the Prayer Book as somewhat dry and dusty but when you look at it in that light, it speaks of heroism, and embraces the reality of our lives.

PDJ: Absolutely. Of course the book was very much written at the time of an agricultural and sea-faring society. But I think such wonderful prayers are still relevant; you could still thank God for a wonderful season of fine weather after rain. You could still ask him for rain and thank him when the rain comes, but there is much about the harvest and much about the sea. I suppose people who want to be relevant find it dull and irrelevant. “Relevant” is a terrible word as far as I am concerned, when I hear something that is “relevant” I think I am certainly going to hear something that I don’t really approve of.  I do not feel too strongly about people writing new liturgy as long as it isn’t used as a substitute for this central, wonderful book that has been with us through the ages, and as I say I am so lucky that I did come to it very young, very young.

TAP: Now you were appointed by Archbishop Runcie to serve on the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission. What observations do you have of that experience?

PDJ: Not very happy ones. It would seem rather a humourless group and they took it all very seriously, which is right.  But I don’t think they wanted my opinion on anything, quite frankly. I think Robert Runcie was in a rather mischievous mood when he appointed me. And I really didn’t like what they were doing. Actually, I didn’t think it was worthy of the church.

TAP: And why would they ask your opinion? It is not as if you know anything about books that actually resonate with people.

PDJ: It is a mystery, my dear. I think the book [Anglican Service Book] that was produced was not good. I mean the thing is, the Book of Common Prayer was written at a time when English was at one of its most wonderful periods. And it was written by people who knew it and understood it and could use it.  Unfortunately the first revision – well, it wasn’t a revision it was a substitution – was at a time when that wasn’t true. So it is banal, it is not good.

I also think that it is somehow right and natural that you carry your prayer book with you to church, not being left with a sort of sheet in which the priest has taken what he wants, and what he doesn’t want is left out.

TAP: It is very unsettling – when you don’t know what is coming next, it is hard to worship.

PDJ: When I travel, visiting people on a Sunday, I often go to the early service, as I can be fairly certain to find the Prayer Book. And, being naughty here, as I am trying to avoid the sermon. But having the Prayer Book service early means that it is very often old people, which I think is a pity in a way. I understand that when the Prayer Book does become known by the young, they like it very much.

TAP: That has been my experience.

PDJ:  They like it and they appreciate it.

TAP: Do you have much hope in the revival of the use of the Prayer Book or at least the slowing of its decline in the church?

PDJ: Not a great deal, I am afraid. We are becoming a country in which going to churches are increasingly uncommon now. When I was a girl, of course, it was very common and I think it is much more common in other countries than it is here. I think yes, congregations are falling fairly dramatically.

TAP: What would you say to those well-meaning people who think plainer language will grow the church?

PDJ: I would simply say go back to the Prayer Book. Find a church in which it is used, there are churches where it is regularly used and there are churches where the Vicar is happy to have it for certain services. That is better than nothing, really, and those are the ones that most of us go to or my friends would go to.  Sometimes it is the first service of the day on a Sunday or a weekday service, but I think it is tremendously important and I would like to see the church saying that, in all churches, during the week there must be the use of the Book of Common Prayer at certain services.

Part of the joy is that the words are so memorable you do not have to concentrate on them very much, they are such a part of your brain, part of your mind and part of your life so you can concentrate on worship. And the words are suitable to the worship of God – worthy of the worship of God, as far as any words can be worthy of the worship of God. I do not find it easy to understand when people say it is all too difficult. It is not too difficult, I mean part of it might be difficult, but most of it is accessible to people – think of the quite humble people from the time when it was written. If you think of the evening collect, “LIGHTEN our darkness we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night....” It is appropriate for a single woman now living in a violent inner city area, which can be a bit frightening, can’t it? It is so simple – what is difficult to understand about it?

TAP: I was interested to read in one of your papers on Liturgy that you really have no time for gender inclusive language in liturgy. Would you say why that is?

PDJ: Well, I think it is just debased. I think the Prayer Book contains everything that any human being needs when worshipping God, absolutely everything. 

The collects are absolutely lovely. I was lucky: as I grew up on the Welsh border I went to a school, it was called the national school, founded in Victorian England by the national society for educating the poor or something like that. This was a church school and therefore the clergyman came every week to talk to us about the collect for the week. So I became familiar with these marvellous prayers; they are quite short, many of them, and so full of prayer and worship. They needn’t be changed.

TAP: Now moving to your writing, what effect would you say your Christian faith has on your writing?

PDJ: As far as the books are concerned, that somehow Christianity is always in the book, there is always a character who is genuinely Christian  – sometimes a humble one, sometimes a less humble one.

TAP: I think also that I read in an interview – I think it was in Australia – where you credit God with giving you the gift of writing.

PDJ: It is a gift. I never, ever, ever feel it has anything to do with my cleverness at all. I feel that it is a gift and when I am writing I feel that I can pray about it, when things get a bit sticky and it comes right. It is not a thing I often talk about but I feel this very, very strongly.  Personally I feel that gratitude to God is the very heart of my faith, my personal faith. You know, to be allowed to live in this wonderful world for 90 years, to have known the love of family and friends and to have a talent and the strength to follow it, to know from where it comes. I have no doubt that creativity comes from God, the great Creator – and I do believe that profoundly – and I believe I have a responsibility to do the best I can with the talent he has given me.    TAP


Editor’s note: The second installment, which we hope to publish in the spring, will include a discussion of the moral responsibility of writers, and an indepth discussion of her main character, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, and hopes of his salvation.

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