[A letter from August 2019 on the matter of modern vs. traditional liturgical English….]

Dear Father __________,

Thank you for the REC [Reformed Episcopal Church] ‘modern language’ rite.  You suggest that this does what you want:  provide a modern language ‘translation’ of orthodox Anglican liturgy.  That suggestion begs the questions before us, however:  is it as orthodox as the forms it would replace?  Is it inferior on other grounds?

You have twice used the classic phrase ‘understanded of the people’.  It is, I think, quite significant that you use an antique phrase to make your point:  thereby, in fact, you make a couple points against your own argument.  First, the antique phrase from an Anglican formulary is perfectly clear and understandable in its meaning.  The term is antique, but no less clear for that.  Secondly, the venerable and old-fashioned language itself is more effective, winsome, and memorable than would be a ‘modern’ translation.  Multiply this case by a couple hundred, and you have a significant part of my argument.

Before looking more closely at the REC book, let me return to some points from my previous e-mail to you – points which you have not addressed, much less dealt with adequately.

First, liturgical change requires constitutional amendments, which in turn require supermajorities that imply something close to an overwhelming consensus.  I do not think you will find a single bishop for whom English is his mother tongue who would support such amendments.  Nor do I think you can persuade a single diocese in the U.S. in the ACC or any of the G-4 to go along with such proposals.  If the matter, politically-speaking, is dead-on-arrival, why invest time and effort in the cause?  In Rome profound liturgical change was imposed by an authoritarian power structure, which we, happily, do not have.  In TEC [the Episcopal Church] profound liturgical change was imposed by deception and stealth, which is well-remembered by me and others who lived through it.  These examples suggest that even tentative steps in the direction of reform are dangerous and ill-advised.  They would disquiet, and even anger, our people profoundly.

Secondly, you have not responded to the considerable body of writing I have devoted to this issue.  I have already addressed many of the points you are raising.  I do not mind repeating myself, but from my point of view the argument against the radical alteration of liturgical language has already been made persuasively.  Until that response has been directly addressed, I am not really persuadable.

Thirdly, on ‘charity’, I don’t think you have touched my main point.  My point is that the modern translation, ‘love’, is more misleading than the classical term, precisely because it seems more immediately understandable.  To think mistakenly that you know something is a more profound error than to know that you do not know something.  A number of the words you point out as problematic are like ‘charity’.  That is, they are terms of art with a specific, technical meaning, which cannot easily be reduced to a modern vernacular term.  Every kind of profession has such terms of art, which practitioners of the profession need to master.  Christianity is no different.

In general the REC book and you seem to want to abandon anything that is old-fashioned, antique, or not every-day.  But this is radically ahistorical.  The Hebrew of the Old Testament never was, according to Robert Alter and many other knowledgeable scholars, a commonplace vernacular, but always was deliberately somewhat antique, elevated, and formal.  So too, the English that Cranmer used for the Prayer Book was not that of daily speech, but was more formal, elevated, and already somewhat antique-sounding.  But that English also came after the great linguistic changes that turned Middle English into a language that is very substantially our own.  There is very little in the Prayer Book that is really unclear, though there is much that is clearly not our everyday speech.  C.S. Lewis, who is a better judge of the language than either of us, and a better communicator and persuader than either of us, suggested that the Prayer Book’s English has perhaps half a dozen words per century that really become misleading.  The 1928 BCP already has changed most of the ones Lewis would point out from 1662 (such as ‘indifferently’ in the Prayer for the Church).  Consider, if you will, the Prologue to Saint John’s gospel.  Its language is extremely simple – mostly monosyllabic.  The difficult words (‘comprehended’, e.g.) cannot be reduced to a single modern alternative, because the concepts they convey are difficult.  The antique verb endings do not really obscure anything.

Really what you are objecting to, then, is not a deeply obscure language, but a language that is elevated, sacred, and somewhat antique.  The REC attempt to deal with this is instructive.

In a number of cases very mildly elevated words are abandoned.  In the bidding to confession in the Daily Offices, e.g., ‘sundry’ is changed to ‘various’.  Often such altered words in fact remain in use, and often the meaning is made clear in the Prayer Book through a parallel term in a pleonasm.  ‘All and sundry’ is a pleonastic double in regular secular use now.  ‘Sundries’ was a polite euphemism of my mother’s generation.  The verb ‘sunder’ is in educated people’s vocabulary.  The change from ‘sundry’ exchanges a simple, two syllable word that is clear and understandable, for a longer term that improves meaning if at all only very marginally and probably only for the uneducated.  Again and again the REC book makes such choices, abandoning words that seem at all elevated or antique, even if they are perfectly clear.  The mistaken assumption seems to be that the revisers are doing for 2019 what Cranmer did for the 1540s.  They are not.

In any case, I would dispute many of your examples:  succor, manifold, quick, sundry – all are very much in my vocabulary.  ‘Quick’ in the sense of ‘living’ is slightly antique or poetic, but not obscure to educated people.  Again, a pleonasm with the word remains current:  the quick and the dead.

Finally, let me note that the REC has kept all three of the changes from the 1662 English book’s Te Deum made in the previous American books.  In all three cases, the alterations were, I believe, for the worse.  The adjective ‘adorable’, which now savors of kittens and babies, was substituted for ‘honorable’.  The squeamish avoidance of ‘womb’ (‘thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb’) led to the abandonment of an accurate translation for a paraphrase of what the Latin says (‘thou didst humble thyself to be born of a Virgin’). And the gentle metaphor of a settling dove (‘let thy mercy lighten upon us’) is abandoned for an unimaginative ‘let thy mercy be upon us’.  I would argue that modernizing changes are usually changes for the worse, as the next generation will realize, and that therefore our best course is to go further back, not to adopt reforms that the next generation will look upon more skeptically.

I do not think, Father, that I am going to persuade you.  But the bottom line is that there is no appetite for liturgical changes of the sort you would like to see.  Until, say, a diocesan Synod or a couple of bishops request that the matter be taken up, there seems no reason to devote time to this.

Yours in Christ,

+Mark Haverland

2 thoughts on “‘Modern’ liturgical language – again

  1. The most problematic usages in the BCP are “lusty” to mean “healthy” and the phrase “round world” in place of simply “world” or “earth” in a world where millenials increasingly question NASA. Aside from that I don’t see anything particularly hard to understand, although I am talking about the Psalter alone primarily.


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