18 June 2012

Sacral Language

I have always preferred the style of language found in the 1929 Scottish Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer, the English 1662 BCP, the US 1928 BCP, and the Canadian 1964 BCP.  It is the original language with which I worshipped and its style together with the King James (Authorised) Version printed in the Prayer Book shaped and framed how I prayed privately as well as publicly.

As a priest I adjusted myself to the new rites as a matter of obedience.  In time I came to see that there was a place for liturgy in a contemporary idiom, but it seemed to me that people had missed the point.  We weren't in need of exchanging Shakespeare for e.e. cummings.  We were in need of a form of English for those whose education and background had not prepared them for our sacral language.

For some English is their mother tongue, their maternal language.  With that language also comes elements of culture and faith.  But for many in the world today English is not a mother tongue but rather a lingua franca.  Their facility with the language is not great, and they are usually not evangelised by the sort of language found in the older prayer books much less the so-called contemporary, dynamic language of modern liturgical rites.

There have been various Shorter Prayer Books meant to work toward this goal. Captain Howard Galley's infamous Star Trek Eucharistic Prayer in the American BCP 1979 arose from ministering to those for whom the normal sacral and doctrinal language was simply empty of meaning... not in itself of course empty, but for those so far outside the Church, in the midst of addiction, homelessness, troubles the language was effectively empty.

Although it is not my cup of tea, there will always be a legitimate case to be made for liturgical orders in contemporary English and in a simplified 'world English' that is the functional lingua franca of today.  In the Catholic Church after the dreadful first paraphrase in English that obtained after the Council, there is necessarily a fear of that sort of effort.  The new translation is in fact a translation.  But it would be sad for the Church to lock herself in a corner and not make use of simplified language in cases where it would reach people for the Gospel in profound ways.

Another problem in the Catholic context is the authorised versions of the Holy Bible for Mass.  In the USA the New American Bible is the required version and as such puts money into the coffers of the USCCB who own the copyright.  All that can be said for it is that it is a translation, but at times it sounds and reads like the worst translation in need of a complete rewrite.

The Ordinariates should rejoice that they are being given the Revised Standard Version, 2nd Catholic Edition for their Lectionary.  We can all thank the Catholic Church in the West Indies for that.  But should not a broader embrace of translations be welcome in the English-speaking Catholic Church when they serve legitimate purposes of uniting and reuniting to the Church those who need Jesus and the Gospel?

The loss of Msgr. Ronald Knox great effort is truly a tragedy.  The great beauty of Challoner's Douay-Rheims is never heard though it is of equal beauty to the King James Version.  More simplified translations are never authorised when the community only shares English as a language in common but not the mother tongue of anyone.  Surely, the Lord of the harvest who loves endless variety in the natural order of His creation would not look amiss at such generous use of translations of inspired Scripture.

Am I advocating the Bible for Modern Millie or an anti-masculine language abomination?  No.  I am simply asking if there is not room to consider Evangelisation first and liturgical and biblical texts second so that the great work of the Gospel is supported by the linguistic tools it needs.

No one was happier than I to see the new English translation of the Third Roman Missal of the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI.  For one it was actually a translation and not a paraphrase.  To my mind the Third Missal is a far better missal in Latin than its predecessors, and the English translation of it a vast improvement.  But I will never comprehend complete resistance to Anglican translations of these prayers when Anglicans have had 500 years of doing this sort of thing and the Latin Church has had a mere forty years.  Perhaps the commission believed they could do it better and so came up with some choices that do not come trippingly off the tongue for a reason.  

For the Anglican Use Parishes and the Ordinariate congregations sacral language largely means the language of the traditional Prayer Books.  One hears that Roman authorities want the Anglican Use and Ordinariate congregations to use this language.  Some claim there is no room for contemporary Anglican prayers, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record that would be both short-sighted and a great pity.

There has been a great deal of beautiful liturgical writing in the contemporary idiom.  Some of the language more grand like those exquisitely beautiful prayers of Bishop David Silk, and others more simple like some of the prayers in the Anglican Church of Kenya's Modern Services.  Yes, sometimes a prayer uses English in a way that is colloquial to a region, and some care must be taken to adapt the English for understanding everywhere.

In one new prayer we read "the Spirit lights" where for international understanding it must read "the Spirit shines". The West Indies BCP does a good job of making such adjustments from the English original to what is understood in the Americas.  A little attention to such things goes a long way in helping a regional text become an international one.

I have no idea if any contemporary English language prayers will become a part of the Ordinariate, but I certainly hope they do for the sake of Evangelisation.  I will close this post with a beautiful prayer from the most recent Kenyan Order for Holy Eucharist illustrative of simplicity, historically resonant with the East African Revival, and in the mouth of the Church a fine means of approaching God :

Almighty God,
You bring to Light
Things hidden in darkness,
And know the shadows of our hearts;
Cleanse and renew us by your Spirit,
That we may walk in the light
And glorify your name,
Through Jesus Christ,
The Light of the world. Amen.

+Omnipotens Deus!