Skip to comments.The Language of Liturgy [Anglican]
Posted on 01/21/2007 5:00:18 PM PST by sionnsar
The debate about the draft proposed modernized 1662 Prayer Book over at Stand Firm is an instructive hoot. It was almost enough to overcome my phobia about registering to comment at any site. Almost.
Theres one and only one area of this complicated discussion that I feel able to comment upon, and that is the rhetoric of the reformation prayer books and their successors, and that bears on the issue of contemporary or modern language. About which, one must ask, what do you mean? There are several stands to tease out here.
First, we have the problem of semantic drift, words that change meaning over time. In Thomas Cranmers time, to prevent meant to go ahead of, to precede, to go ahead of. It was very close to its Latin origin, and so in (I think only one collect) Cranmer could ask that the Holy Ghost prevent us, meaning that he asked that the Holy Ghost would show us the path, guide us, but not stop us from doing something, which is what prevent means in contemporary English. Back when the Services for Trial Use were under discussion in the late 1960s and early 70s, that example was a favorite of those who wanted to replace Cranmers language wholesale. Its a good example, but not common enough to justify wholesale destruction. There are others: in the Prayer of the Whole State of Christs Church, we pray that ministers set forth thy true and lively word. Lively here meant something like lifegiving, but now it means something a little different. The Collect for Purity refers to the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, and inspiration here is also much closer, much more physical and immediate, than the contemporary meaning: it means something closer to blow into, than the more contemporary get a good idea. Most of the drift is very subtle. Those who will be charged with preparing a Book of Common Prayer for the Reformed Anglican communities of North America will need to take expert advice, and weigh changes very carefully. At what point does drift become an impediment to understanding and to worship?
Then there is the problem of words that have dropped out of common use, whose meaning may well be obscure, but for which theres no obvious replacement. In the Thanksgiving after Communion, we sayvouchsafe to feed us. Originally, the word expressed an action from a superior person to an inferior, and is redolent of feudal relationship. A great noble might vouchsafe a gift to an inferior lord who held his fief from the greater noble. It implies a gracious and unforced gift, something not required. Here it means something like freely deigned to feed us without any merit or deserving on our part. Changing this word will be difficult should it be considered necessary.
Another aspect is the seriousness of language. Thomas Cranmer and those who followed him wrote serious, solemn language to be used in serious, solemn situations. This is a form of English that doesnt get written anymore. It is not scholarly English, it is not stuffy English, but it is learned, intelligent, and serious. The effect is achieved in several ways. First, Cranmer used parallel Latinate and English constructions. For example, in the Prayer for the Whole State, we see read, meek heart and due reverence. Heart and reverence dont mean the same thing, are not intended to mean the same thing. They serve to balance each other. Sometimes he balances English and Latinate effects to provide subtle coloration: in the Confession, wrath and indignation, or in the Prayer of Humble Access, manifold and great mercies. Cranmer also uses parallel constructions and repetition to cram meaning into small space: in the prayer of consecration, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction. The seemingly repetitious phrases are intended to cover a number of theologies of the Eucharist, while stressing the unique nature of Jesuss sacrifice, and taking a firm stance against the Roman Catholic position. Often what appears to be repetition in Cranmer are a series of words carefully chosen to supplement each other.
Lastly, Cranmer had a tremendous ear for the cadences of spoken English. For someone who thought himself a poor poet, his ear was remarkable. For example, in the Prayer of Humble Access again, this thy table is just hard enough to pronounce to make the speaker slow slightly and enunciate clearly. This table, or thy table, or your table doesnt have the same effect. The effect of a worship service is not a trivial issue; that the service be capable of bearing dignity and solemnity is important, both for long-time Christians and to those we seek to evangelize. We dont want to be incomprehensible on the one hand, or tawdry on the other. The worship of God, hearing his word, receiving his gifts, should not be the same as any other occasion of our lives, and shouldnt be expressed in the language of the street or market - or gutter. Or circus.
In more cheerful news, introduced at the AMiA meeting is a first draft of a modern language version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. A pdf of the Holy Communion is here. This is a first draught, folks. Let's see: among the quibbles I've read so far - the 1662 Book uses "minister" rather than "priest," and so does this version. The issue of the epiklesis will have be hassled over by more learned folk. I imagine that this is an area that will be changed, though. As to "I believe" versus "We believe" in the Creed, the Greek version is definitely in the 1st person plural (Pisteoumen) and the Latin in the first person singular (Credo). The Reformed Prayer Book tradition consistently uses the Latin form, "I believe." But the Greek plural may be derived from Greek baptismal confessions in the singular. Arggh! A modernization of the 1662 Book would properly use the singular, I think. But fighting over the Prayer Book is an Anglican hobby.
There's a fairly powerful but not universal movement to revert to some form of the 1662 Book. On the other hand, there are a lot of people, clergy and laity, who know only the 1979 Book. Between the Reformation line and the 1979 Book there's quite a difference, so much so that I'd be apt to compare someone's first encounter with the Reformation liturgy with a rum-and-cola drinker's first tot of Laphroaig. There'll be a certain shock to the system.
And savages need to be civilized.
(Laphroaig is my favorite single malt. I prefer the 10 year old to the 15. My husband prefers Lagavulin, which I think tastes like paint thinner. Nothing so idiosyncratic as single malt preferences.)
Ditto for the brand! I'm also scotch enough that I don't buy it often enough to know the differences...
I speak from long experience. MacAllan...and get the 12 year old!
But I just like the taste of the Laphroaig. Perhaps I just prefer Islay to Speyside.
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