Neither Archaic Nor Obsolete
The Language of Common Prayer and Public Worship
by Peter Toon & Louis R. Tarsitano
The Prayer Book Society of the U.S.A., Edgeways Books, 2003
1 The English Bible and the Language of Prayer
2 Prayer Books and the language of Worship
3 Hymns and the Language of Faith
4 The You-God and the 1960s
5 Why Language Matters
[Footnotes have been moved to follow the paragraphs in which they are cited.]
For human beings it is a duty, and truly a privilege, to address in prayer the Creator, the judge of all, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are made in the image and after the likeness of the One True God to whom we speak. We exist to enjoy God and to glorify him for ever, so that addressing him in prayer and adoration ins a part of the solemn duty and high privilege of existence itself.
In the Providence of God, we have been given the unique gift of speech to enable us to address our Maker in rational, spiritual worship and to commune with him meaningfully. We praise God in words, and words become the phrases, clauses, and sentences that belong to a specific human language with a structure, character, and potential for eloquence of its own. We say what we mean through sentences because, as we learned in our school days, a sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought.
Of course, we use many of the same words and the same language that our words comprise to speak both to God and to our fellow human beings, but not in precisely the same way. When we speak to our mothers, for example, few of us would use the same vocabulary and the same blunt structures that we might employ in writing a letter of complaint to a business about a defective product. In much the same way, we are conscious that addressing the LORD our God is not the same as addressing even our earthly President or King. We make such distinctions not only in the content of our sentences, but also in their construction and, if speaking aloud, in the tone of our voices.
In England, the origins of what we call modern English came not only in the time of the introduction and extended use of the printing press, but also in the time of the Protestant Reformation. The precious Christian heritage of praise and prayer in liturgy was not only translated from Latin into English, but also widely published. Even the word “liturgy” itself was given a new English form, becoming “common prayer”. Likewise, the riches of the Bible were rendered from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin into English, so that anyone with diligence could read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.
The form of English used in the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer in the sixteenth century was the major factor in the establishment of modern English because as texts the Bible and the Prayer Book were almost the only examples of clear, fluid, dynamic English prose generally available to any Englishman (try reading Milton’s prose, written a century later). Furthermore, these classic texts, produced to be read and prayed, also served to create the traditional English idiom of prayer, which had a separate development of its own, able to be distinguished from that of modern, secular English.
It is easy to miss the obvious – that English has been a language of Christian prayer for as long as there have been Christians who have spoken English. By at least a thousand years ago, the Christian use of English had begun to take on a form that is recognizable to anyone familiar with the English Prayer Book or the pre-Vatican II vernacular prayers of English-speaking Roman Catholics. The Lord’s Prayer, for example, is unmistakable even if one does not read Old English easily. Similarly, one often encounters among the very earliest examples of historical usage in The Oxford English Dictionary words and phrases still on the lips of Christians today, even if we would spell or punctuate them differently. It is fair to say, then, that the traditional English idiom of prayer existed for centuries before the very best of it was gathered and set in print in the Book of Common Prayer and the English Bible. Nor was that idiom of prayer frozen in time. It remained the flexible idiom of a living faith, capable of development and addition, right into the twentieth century. Some will protest here that the traditional English idiom of prayer remains the vibrant instrument of their worship today, and that is true for numbers of Christians greater than most people will imagine. It is also true, however, that the natural use and development of the traditional English idiom of prayer was brought to an abrupt halt for the vast majority of English-speaking Christians in the late 1960s.
This hiatus in the until-then ordinary and unremarkable use of traditional Christian English was not an accident. It followed, in part, from the motivating spirit of the times – often expressed as a desire to break free from history. It followed, in particular, from the ideologies, enthusiasms, and theories of academic and ecclesiastical “experts”, many of whom were, indeed, quite intelligent and well-educated, except in the history and use of the English language. Very few of them understood how difficult it is to create from scratch a workable, living idiom of prayer (or of anything else) or that it was highly unlikely that they could put together in a few earnest brainstorming sessions a replacement for an idiom of prayer that had taken a thousand years to mature.
Moreover, not all were in earnest. Some of the innovators admitted, whether in writing or conversation, that their real antipathy was directed toward the traditional Christian content of the idiom of prayer, and not merely against the language itself. In any case, without reading minds or souls, it is safe to say that the greater portion of church leaders, Bible translators, and liturgical experts who told the clergy, laity and musicians of the Protestant churches of the English-speaking world some thirty or so years ago that the newly minted language “is simply and only a change from ‘thou’ to ‘you’” were being naive or disingenuous.
They were referring to the most evident (but perhaps least understood) element of change in the new idiom of prayer that they were attempting to invent: the adoption in new translations/versions of the Bible, in revised forms of public prayer, in completely new liturgical rites, and in a semi-revised hymnody, of the word “you” to replace “thee/thou” as the only acceptable modern form of the second person singular pronoun. Since ordinary people in their daily affairs no longer said to one another “thou art,” but “you are”, the professional leadership insisted from the late 1960s that the language of religion be updated to conform to the language of everyday life.
While we shall have to take up the complexities of “thou” and “you” later in this book, for now it is sufficient to notice that what these leaders either ignored or did not know is that “contemporary English” (as in any era) is more than a single “idiom”, except in the widest sense of that word, taken to mean the general forms of a specific language (English, Spanish, German, etc.). A language as extensive as English is also made up of “idioms”, sometimes called “dialects” (varieties of English with an identity and form of their own, connected with regions, communities, or shared purposes), as well as what linguists call “registers” (varieties of English used in particular social or group contexts).
Thus, whether one chooses to call it an idiom, a dialect, or a register, the traditional English of prayer and praise possesses a legitimate identity and reality of its own. In a neutral, descriptive sense, it is as modern as any other contemporary form of English since ordinary modern people, who speak and use a variety of other modern forms (all of which have some sort of roots in the past), have happily used it to worship God and to dispense his Word, frequently believing that it is the most effective instrument for doing so. From this perspective, the innovators were not so much attempting to prune away dead language as to eliminate a long-standing and living form of language, or at least to replace it with a form of which they approved, if only because they had devised it.
Of course, many people, especially but not only the mature in years, were upset and anxious at this change. For the whole of their lives they had addressed God as “Thou” and used a particular religious idiom for, at least, their public prayers. Then, seemingly out of the blue, the leadership of the churches began to exert much effort to prepare them for a radical change, and, in some cases, to comfort them in it as something necessary for the welfare of the Church. They explained to the wary that this move was really something that ought to have been done much earlier; that it was long overdue; that it was simply cosmetic; that it did not change how we think of God or worship him; that it was making talk to God and about God more credible, accessible, intelligible, and relevant; and that it would make the Church and her message much more attractive to the secular world. The question, based on the historic evidence, of whether the language of the sacred and the secular can be made identical was generally ignored or tactfully evaded.
Many accepted the change in the language of prayer and the explanations offered to justify it, while some accepted neither. They felt that their religious world was disintegrating around them and that their church was leaving them behind. Societies for the preservation of the traditional language, liturgies, and Bible came into being to defend the old order.
The call made within Protestantism that the same form of English be used in religious worship as is used by the media and in everyday speech on the street was given a tremendous boost by a major event within the Roman Catholic Church. After the Second Vatican Council (1962–5), it was decided that the Mass should no longer normally be celebrated in Latin but in the vernacular of the place where celebrated. Thus, by the early 1970s, there had appeared a translation of the Mass into a form of committee-designed modern English, and it was being used by millions on Sundays and Feast Days all over the English-speaking world.
Accordingly, while during the 1970s Protestants went from using “thou” to “you”, Roman Catholics also went from using the Latin pronouns equivalent to “thou” (“tu”, “te”, etc.) to the English pronoun “you”. Although they differed in the ways in which they expressed their doctrine of salvation, the representatives in the English-speaking world of the two great divisions of Western Christendom now officially agreed that God is to be addressed as “YOU” (the revised liturgies in other European languages retained their form of “thou”). With such an agreement between two longtime opponents, most English-speaking people had concluded by 1975 that they were obliged to worship what might be called the “YOU-God”, a God, who in address, was no different from the man in the street.
Looking back from the new millennium over the intervening years since the late 1960s, what we see in terms of changes to the idiom and the style of religious English causes some of us to ask various questions. For example: Is God really “You”? Is it possible, in moving from addressing God as “thou” to “you” (the cornerstone of revised religious language), not to disturb the style and ethos of the English language of prayer and not to change its most basic principles and premises? In considering the content of the Liturgy and of the Bible, is how something is said separable or inseparable from what is being said? What is the relation between style and theology in public prayer? Is religion wherein God is addressed as “You” in all ways the same as religion wherein God is addressed as “Thou”? Were the reasons given for the change in language based on the best evidence available? Have the churches become more relevant and more acceptable to the surrounding secular world since they have changed their language for addressing God?
This book has been written by two parish priests, one from each side of the Atlantic Ocean, to address questions such as these. However, in order to set the stage and to pose the questions to be answered, we need to have before us a description of the change in the language of prayer as it occurred in the last three or four decades of the twentieth century. To this end, the first three chapters will successively describe the move from “thou” to “you” in Bible translation, liturgy, and hymnody. Then two further chapters will attempt to present the inner story and the implications of this apparently simple change of pronoun for God.
For these reasons, Chapters One to Three are basically descriptive and invite the reader to explore the collected evidence that major changes have occurred in religious English, originating in the 1960s. Chapters Four and Five require a deeper level of concentration, for they attempt to engage the reader in a reflection upon the accumulated evidence and an exercise in critical judgement, as well as to make various recommendations concerning the way in which we ought best to address the Holy Trinity in worship today.
The specific positive purpose of the book is to make a case, based on sound reasoning and evidence, for the continued provision and use of the traditional English language of prayer and worship within the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, specifically of Great Britain, North America, and Australia. More generally, its purpose is to call for the continued use of the received English language of prayer within all the churches, even if only in its most basic form, according to the old catechetical rule, wherein “We say ‘Thou’ to God and ‘you’ to man.”
In making the positive case, there will also surface necessarily what may be called a negative argument concerning modern attempts to produce a modern language of public prayer, using as its basis the language of secular society and modifying it with the addition of theological words. We will develop this argument as minimally as we can, but it is impossible to avoid denying some things while affirming others.
It has been said that, “When the Church begins to proclaim the Gospel in a secular idiom, she may end by proclaiming secularism in a Christian idiom.” As outlined above, “idiom” is most generally used of language and of the form of speech peculiar to a people or a country. But the same word, in other contexts, can be used of the peculiar nature of a thing or enterprise. Thus, “in a secular idiom” may refer to the language of “the world”, used to translate the Bible, to amend or devise liturgy, and to evangelise. It may refer to a style of music (e.g., the jazz idiom). It may refer to the visual arts, as in painting, architecture, or ceremonial. It may refer to a combination of all these elements, but a “secular idiom” may also describe the interaction or blending of doctrines being communicated within and outside the Church. A “secular idiom” may be the way that “the world” sets itself apart from the kingdom of God.
Here our primary interest is in language as it relates the minds of human beings to the infinite and eternal God, and in particular the English language as it is used within the Church of Jesus Christ, which is the Household of God, composed of men and women, who worship in buildings made holy by God’s presence, hear sermons, engage in symbolic and ritual acts, make music, sing and believe, and teach and confess certain doctrines. We shall suggest that the churches in their commitment to contemporary language have adopted – often sincerely and with good intentions – at least in part, a secular idiom whose power to conform the Church to itself they do not understand, so that in certain ways they are already proclaiming in various degrees of intensity secularism in a Christian idiom in their liturgy and prayer. Thus, there is much work to be done on the logic, style, content, and structure of “contemporary liturgical English” in order for it to become truly fit and appropriate for its great task of public worship. And, in the meantime, and for long into the future, we anticipate that there will be a ready, even if minority constituency, desiring to use the traditional idiom and style of religious English.
Chapter 1 – The English Bible and the Language of Prayer
In a small northern-European kingdom in the sixteenth century, several texts were produced that decided the future of what was to become a world language. The English of today, used for purposes as diverse as international air traffic control, labelling machine parts made in China, and publishing your daily newspaper, would have been very different without them.
Just how different can be illustrated by the opening sentence of John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), an oration produced in the following century according to a dissenting scheme of what the English language ought to be:
They who to states and governors of the commonwealth direct their speech, High Court of Parliament, or wanting such access in a private condition, write that which they foresee may advance the public good; I suppose them, as at the beginning of no mean endeavour, not a little altered and moved inwardly in their minds: some with doubt of what will be the success, others with fear of what will be the censure; some with hope, others with confidence of what they have to speak.
This sentence can be diagrammed, but a knowledge of Cicero’s Latin will be far more helpful in doing so than a modern undergraduate course in grammar and rhetoric.
Milton’s prose is archaeological. In sharp contrast are the texts that marked the trail for the future of English. These were The Book of the Common Prayer, master-minded by Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556); the English Bible, translated from Hebrew, Greek and Latin by William Tyndale (c.1490–1536) and Miles Coverdale (1488–1568); and the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Prayer Book has transcended mere geography, going through multiple editions throughout the English-speaking world, and it is still used by millions today. The work of Tyndale and Coverdale laid the obvious foundation upon which the Authorized Version of 1611 had to be built, and built so well that it has been read continuously ever since. The plays of Shakespeare are produced every year around the world, and movie heart-throbs still long to play Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet.
It is a basic premise of this book that the English dialect of prayer and faith flows just as assuredly from these great works of intellect and language as the everyday English that we speak on the street corner. It is purpose that sets one kind of English apart from another, and not some fixed rule of “modernity”. To use an analogy, the difference between a Labrador retriever and a dachshund is not that one is “modern” and that the other is “archaic”. Both are dogs, and both have been bred for their proper purposes, just as each of the varieties of English has its proper place, shape, and function.
In considering, then, the purposeful English idiom of prayer and faith, we might notice in particular that since the sixteenth century the English-speaking peoples have used a printed Bible in whose pages all people, including the unique Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God made man, have addressed God the Father in the second person singular: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 11:25). An examination of the rare manuscript copies of earlier translations of Scripture into English will demonstrate that this has been the English usage for as long as there has been an identifiable English language.
Thus, in the English Bible, King David prays across the ages, “O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9), and the disciples are taught to pray to the Heavenly Father “hallowed be thy Name” (Matt. 6:9). Moreover, the English-speaking peoples have maintained this form of address to God Almighty for centuries as their model of the language of worship in both their public and private prayers, even when – from the seventeenth century – the second person singular (“thou,” “thee,” and “thy”) ceased to be used in ordinary conversation between human beings, except in regional dialects and Quaker “plain speech”.
We will discuss the significance of the second person singular at length in Chapter Five, but now let us briefly note from the publication of the Authorized/ King James Version how this tradition of the language of prayer in the English Bible was maintained in a variety of Versions (“complete translations”) until the 1970s.
The King James Version
(known in Great Britain as the Authorized Version)
No translation of the Bible into English has come near to the King James Version (KJV, 1611) in terms of influencing not only the character of the English language but also the religious belief of its readers and hearers. Wherever the English-speaking people went and lived, this Version of the Bible went with them. For example, when the New England Puritans adopted this Version of Holy Scripture, the words of the 1611 Bible became America’s sacred lexicon, the language in which divinity addressed humanity. And it remained so until the middle of the twentieth century.
With good reason, the KJV has been termed, “the noblest monument of English prose”. Its revisers in 1881 expressed admiration for “its simplicity, its dignity, its power, its happy turns of expression ... the music of its cadences and the felicities of its rhythm.”
The prose of this Version is traditional, not only in its use of the earlier sixteenth-century Versions, but also in its deep rhythmic modes, which go right back to the prose of the Ancrene Riwle (“Rule for Nuns”, a twelfth-century manual of spiritual direction) and to Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry. It differs much from the ordinary prose of 1611 and from the post-Dryden prose of intricate periodic structure. To compare “The Epistle Dedicatory” of the 1611 Bible, addressed to King James, with the contents of the Bible is instructive. It shows, on the one hand, the Latinate prose of the learned (where a sentence may wander on for a very long time) and, on the other, the simple, dignified, and rhythmic prose of the Bible itself.*
*See further, Ian Robinson, The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Cambridge, 1998.
The greatness of the style of the KJV has rightly been seen in its weight, its definiteness, its irresistible rightness of rhythm, and its power to draw upon Shakespearean ranges of meaning. The KJV is more than a minimal, tourist’s translation of Holy Writ, just good enough to find one’s way. Vast effort and great learning have gone into making the Bible a book available in English, and this is why the KJV can be seen as essentially English, making the language, at one central place, fully itself and fully free to demonstrate its capacity of expression. Its beauty, which is the quality most often mentioned today, is most certainly there; but its beauty takes second place to its style, which is first and foremost a style for getting something said, and for getting it said in the right way, because without the right way, there cannot be the Bible as the Word of God in English.*
*See further, Ian Robinson, The Survival of English, Cambridge, 1973, chapter 2, “Religious English”.
The translators in the seventeenth century chose to use the second person singular in the way that it is used in the original Hebrew and Greek. That is, they used it when the reference was singular, either to God himself or to a single human being. Thus Peter said to Jesus, “Thou art the Christ.” And Jesus said to Peter, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:16–18). Likewise, when King Solomon dedicated the Temple he prayed, “LORD God of Israel, there is no God like thee in heaven above ... .” (1 Kings 8:23).
In this way, the readers of the English Bible, whether they know the biblical languages or not, may be certain when they come across the word “you” in the KJV that the reference in the original text is to more than one person, for “you/ye/your” is always plural. When those same readers encounter the word “thou” and the related forms, they may also know with certainty that the reference in the original is singular. One can see immediately how keeping track of “the one and the many” is helpful to a right understanding of the Scriptures, but the matter becomes critical and essential where God is involved. God, who is one only God and only one Deity, is always addressed in the singular, as “Thou/Thee/Thy/Thine”.
Finally, we need to be recall that the basis for the translation of the KJV was what are known as the Textus Receptus (the Greek New Testament, as first printed in the sixteenth century) and the Massoretic Text (named for the Jewish grammarians, the Massoretes, who copied the Hebrew Old Testament during the Middle Ages). The relative accuracy of these texts in comparison to others based on the further study of ancient manuscripts is hotly contested among experts. In the same period, the “received text” for Roman Catholics meant the Latin Vulgate.
The Revised Version
What became known as The Revised Version (RV, 1885) was a revision of The Authorized Version (1611). It was called for and authorized by the Convocations of Canterbury and York of the Church of England in May, 1870. In terms of language, it was resolved “that we do not contemplate any new translation of the Bible, or any alteration in language, except where in the judgement of the most competent scholars such change is necessary.” And “that in such necessary changes, the style of the language employed in the existing Version be closely followed.” And these directions were taken extremely seriously.
However, despite the scholars’ best efforts, the famous Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon is reputed to have said that the Revised Version was “strong in Greek, but weak in English”. He meant by this remark that although the RV claimed to be based on sounder Greek and Hebrew texts than the KJV had been, its English had lost some of the evocative power of the KJV.
Spurgeon’s observations were also a part of a broader discussion of the RV’s use of what is called “Lower Criticism” in preparing the Hebrew and Greek texts to be translated into English. Lower Criticism (also called “Textual Criticism”) is a scholarly effort to recreate from the various manuscript sources of the Bible a text as close as possible to that produced by the human authors themselves. Since the “autographs” (the handwritten, personal first copies) no longer exist, Lower Criticism is controversial to the extent that an edited text is always, to some extent, a product of the judgement of the editors.
In contrast, what is known as the “Higher Criticism”, and often associated with Germanic schools, is far more controversial. The higher critic seeks to probe the date of the composition of a Biblical text, the identity of its author and that author’s intent, its literary form, its historical validity, and its ultimate meaning. Any Bible reader must do these things to some extent, but many of the higher critics have made themselves notorious by their interpretive theories, such as the rejection of the supernatural as a part of objective reality.
After using the RV for fourteen years, in 1901 the Americans published their own revised edition with the title The American Standard Edition of the Revised Version, and popularly known as The American Standard Version. It proved very popular for many years with students who wanted a sound, literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts.
The changes made in the revisions of the English Bible of 1611 in the late nineteenth century did not contemplate, and thus did not include, the termination of the use of the second person singular for both God and man. Therefore, support for the traditional language of prayer, as used in the churches and by families in their homes, was sustained by these Versions.
The Revised Standard Version
The Revised Standard Version (RSV) was an authorized revision of the American Standard Version (1901) and was published in 1946 (N. T.) and 1952 (O. T.). The work of translation began in 1937 by a vote of the Council of Religious Education of the Churches of the United States and Canada. The Council directed that the new version should
embody the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures, and express that meaning in English idiom which is designed for use in public and private worship and preserves those qualities which have given the King James Version a supreme place in English literature.
The Preface explains that, apart from the advances made in Biblical Studies, a major reason for revision of the King James Version was the change since 1611 in English usage.
Many forms of expression have become archaic, while still generally intelligible – the use of thou, thee, thy, thine and the verb endings -est and -edst, the verb endings -eth and -th, it came to pass that, whosoever, whatsoever, insomuch that, because that, for that, unto, howbeit, peradventure, holden, aforetime, must needs, would fain, behoved, to you-ward etc. Other words are obsolete and no longer understood by the common reader.
The greatest problem, however, is presented by the English words which are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in 1611 and in the King James Version. These words were once accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures; but now, having changed in meaning, they have become misleading.
The King James Version uses the word “let” in the sense of “hinder”, “prevent” to mean “precede”, “allow” in the sense of “approve”, “communicate” for “share”, “conversation” for “conduct”, “comprehend” for “overcome”, “ghost” for “spirit”, “wealth” for “well-being”, “allege” for “prove”, “demand” for “ask”, “take no thought” for “be not anxious”, “purchase a good degree” for “gain a good understanding”, etc.
The Greek word for “immediately” is translated in the King James Version not only by “immediately” and “straightway” but also by the terms “anon”, “by and by”, and “presently.” There are more than three hundred such English words which are used in the King James Version in a sense substantially different from that which they now convey. It not only does the King James translators no honor, but it is quite unfair to them and the truth which they understood and expressed, to retain these words which now convey meanings that they did not intend.
Yet, though the translators dropped the use of the traditional second person singular for human beings, they did retain it when either the Lord Jesus or any other person addressed Almighty God, the heavenly Father. Thus, in the RSV, Jesus Christ continued to pray, “Hallowed be thy name” (Matthew 6:9) and “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth” (Matthew 11:25). In making this decision, the translators followed the practice then common in most American Protestant churches, where God was addressed in the second person singular and human beings, both individually and together, were addressed as “you”.
As late as 1952, promotional literature from the National Council of Churches referred to the RSV as “the fifth authorized English Bible”, claiming a direct succession of authority from the Great Bible of 1539, the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, the King James Bible of 1611, and the Revised Version of 1885. Here, of course, the authorization had been granted by the old-line or mainline American churches, and this claim infuriated radical Protestants who believed that the Bible needed no authorization by man. Thus, to Protestant fundamentalists and to some conservative Evangelicals, the RSV was suspect both because of its sponsoring authority and because the translators were deemed to be liberals, committed not only to the Lower Criticism, but also in some cases to the Higher Criticism of the Bible. These opponents of the RSV either insisted on using the KJV (sometimes the ASV), or they began to call for a truly Evangelical Version, according to their lights, sponsored by a legitimate Evangelical Agency.
The New English Bible
The Preface to the New English Bible begins:
In May 1946 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland received an overture from the Presbytery of Stirling and Dunblane, where it had been initiated by the Reverend G. S. Hendry, recommending that a translation of the Bible be made in the language of the present day, inasmuch as the language of the Authorized Version, already archaic when it was made, had now become even more definitely archaic and less generally understood.
In October of that year, delegates of the Church of England, of the Church of Scotland, and of the Methodist, Baptist, and Congregational Churches met and recommended that the work should be undertaken. That is,
that a completely new translation should be made, rather than a revision [of the KJV/AV], such as had earlier been contemplated by the University Presses of Oxford and Cambridge; and that the translators should be free to employ a contemporary idiom rather than reproduce the traditional “biblical” English.
In 1961, The New English Bible (NEB) was published by the University Presses. In the Introduction to the Old Testament, the last paragraph reads:
Finally, the translators have endeavoured to avoid anachronisms and expressions reminiscent of foreign idioms. They have tried to keep their language as close to current usage as possible, while avoiding words and phrases likely soon to become obsolete. They have made every effort not only to make sense but also to offer renderings that will meet the needs of readers with no special knowledge of the background of the Old Testament.
Similarly, the Introduction to the New Testament explains:
In doing our work, we have constantly striven to follow our instructions and render the Greek, as we understand it, into the English of the present day, that is, into the natural vocabulary, constructions, and rhythms of contemporary speech. We have sought to avoid archaisms, jargon, and all that is stilted or slipshod.
Nevertheless, in examining the NEB, one finds that in direct address to God, just as in the RSV from America, the traditional “thee/thou/ thy” is used, in conformity to the way that ministers and congregations in Britain prayed in the 1950s. As nearly as one can tell working backward from the text, this historic and accustomed idiom for addressing God was still considered the natural and normal way of prayer. Further, since the impact of feminism had not yet been felt, there is no use in the NEB of what would later be called “inclusive” language. For example, Psalm 1 begins, “Happy is the man ...”, leaving intact the original Hebrew sense of some particular male human being.
Today’s English Version
(published in the UK as The Good News Bible)
Published by the American Bible Society between 1966 (New Testament) and 1976 (Old Testament, when the New Testament was already in its fourth edition), Today’s English Version has been very popular both sides of the Atlantic, actively supported by the influential Bible Societies. The Foreword states: “This translation does not follow the traditional vocabulary and style found in the historic English Bible versions. Instead it attempts to present the biblical content and message in standard, everyday, natural English.” (A separate edition for the U.K. uses the metric system for measurements of weight, length and volume, because the translators are under the impression that in England but not the U.S.A. kilometres and centilitres are everyday natural speech.)
The determination to use only everyday English was adopted in accordance with the theory of translation developed by Eugene A. Nida in a number of books. Nida is “not content merely to translate so that the average receptor is likely to understand the message; rather we aim to make certain that such a person is very unlikely to misunderstand it.”* It is important to Nida that the chances of understanding should not be weighted in favour of the educated. A very large number of the idioms and metaphors in the original Hebrew or Greek are accordingly rephrased because they are judged, though the empirical evidence for the judgement is not given, to be incomprehensible to this average reader. “The average person unacquainted with Semitic idioms is simply not going to understand that ... ‘heaps coals of fire on his head’ means to make a person ashamed of his behavior, and is not a way of torturing people to death.”** Phrases like “and all the daughters of music shall be brought low” and “the wings of the morning” are accordingly rephrased (“Your ears will be deaf to ... music as it plays”, “beyond the east”) so as to be immediately intelligible.
*Eugene A. Nida and Charles R. Taber, The Theory and Practice of Translation, Leiden, 1969, p. 1.
**Ibid., p. 2.
According to Nida’s principles scrupulously followed in GNB it would actually be incorrect to retain the second person singular of the original languages in a version in contemporary standard English, and so thou, thee are never used.
In the course of constant revisions to keep to the Today of the title,
In the decade and a half since publication of the full Good News Bible, the built-in masculine linguistic biases of both the ancient languages and the English language caused some Bible readers to feel excluded from being addressed by the scriptural Word. This concern led to the revision of most major English translations during the 1980s ...*
*The Good News Bible, 1992 reprint, p. xi
The Good News Bible followed suit! However, how it reconciled the changes with either the care that it claims was taken “not to distort the historical situation of the male-dominated culture of Biblical times” or the aim to publish natural English, is not stated, and at least in England the traditional inclusive masculine forms are still in 2003 in daily use. This change, in short, was apparently made not in the interests of accuracy or of ease of understanding in everyday English, but to ensure that the Bible was easily acceptable to the feminist lobby, particularly in North America.
The New International Version
As noted earlier, many conservative Protestants in America did not welcome the Revised Standard Version, judging its sponsorship by the liberal National Council of Churches as sufficient evidence of a liberal bias in the translation itself. Despite their rejection of the RSV, however, a number of the very same conservatives felt a need for a modern translation of their own, leading to the appearance of The Amplified Bible (1965), The Modern Language Bible [The New Berkeley Version] (1969), The New American Standard Bible (1971), and the widely popular paraphrase The Living Bible (1971), although none of these attained anything like a general acceptance among the various ecclesiastical factions.
The story of The New International Version (NIV) is the story of the effort to attain that acceptance, and it effectively begins in 1965, in the middle of the turbulent 1960s, with a proposal from committees of the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals for “a new translation of the Bible in contemporary English”. The New York International Bible Society provided the financial sponsorship, and the work was shared by many scholars from a large variety of specifically evangelical churches. The Apocrypha, read in the Anglican Daily Offices and the source of such Canticles as the Benedictus es and Benedicite, was not translated as it was not considered part of the Word of God. All the translators had to be committed to the doctrine that the Bible, in its entirety, is the Word of God and inerrant in its original autographs. They made use of Lower Criticism, but not of Higher Criticism.
The full Bible, minus the Apocrypha, was published in 1978, and the Preface declared, in a remarkably convoluted syntax:
Concern for clear and natural English – that the New International Version should be idiomatic but not idiosyncratic, contemporary not dated – motivated the translators and consultants. At the same time, they tried to reflect the differing styles of the biblical writers. In view of the international use of English, the translators sought to avoid obvious Americanisms on the one hand and obvious Anglicisms on the other ... .
As for the traditional pronouns, “thou”, “thee” and “thine” in reference to the Deity, the translators judged that to use these archaisms (along with the old verb forms such as “doest”, “wouldest”, and “hadst”) would violate accuracy in translation. Neither Hebrew, Aramaic nor Greek uses special pronouns for the persons of the Godhead. A present-day translation is not enhanced by forms that in the time of the King James Version were used in everyday speech, whether referring to God or to man.
Thus it was that this “official”, commercially successful, and widely distributed evangelical Bible: (a) abandoned the tradition of every major Bible translation from the time of Wycliffe (fourteenth century) to the first half of the twentieth century in regard to the proper scriptural address of God in English; and (b) rejected the native, natural, and normal form of address actually used in prayer to God in the public worship of evangelical churches by addressing God the Father as an indeterminate “You”, rather than as the singular “Thee/Thou”.
One of the great themes of the 1960s, which spilled over into the 1970s, was “relevance” and being “up-to-date”, and this secular cultural movement definitely affected not only Bible translations such as in the NIV, but also public worship and liturgical texts, both amongst Protestants and Catholics, as we shall see. This said, we need to be aware that the New International Version, while it helped to change the way in which evangelicals prayed, was not directly influenced in its original and early editions by the emerging feminist movement of the 1960s or its call for inclusivism in translation. Notably, Psalm 1 begins, “Blessed is the man ...” and not “Happy are they ...”.
Yet, even as the RSV was sponsored by the National Council of Churches, the NIV was sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals, and this sponsorship, plus the commitment of all the translators to the inerrancy of Scripture, gave it a certification of evangelical orthodoxy for American readers.
The Revised English Bible
The full edition of The New English Bible appeared in 1971, and its successor The Revised English Bible (REB) appeared in 1989. In the Preface to the latter, there is a brief explanation of the form of English used:
Care has been taken to ensure that the style of English used is fluent and of appropriate dignity for liturgical use, while maintaining intelligibility for worshippers of a wide range of ages and backgrounds. The revisers have sought to avoid complex or technical terms where possible, and to provide sentence structure and word order, especially in the Psalms, which will facilitate congregational reading but will not misrepresent the meaning of the original texts. As the “you”-form of address to God is now commonly used, the “thou”-form which was preserved in the language of prayer in The New English Bible has been abandoned. The use of male-oriented language, in passages of traditional versions of the Bible which evidently applies to both genders, has become a sensitive issue in recent years; the revisers have preferred more inclusive gender reference where that has been possible without compromising scholarly integrity or English style.
We can see here the quickening pace of change. In a mere eighteen years, (a) the traditional language of prayer has been judged obsolete and abandoned because the translators believe that the recently devised “modern form” is commonly used, and (b) some concessions are being made to the feminist movement in making a translation of the original texts. The abstract grammatical term “gender” has been substituted for the biological reality of human sex, the created division of the human race into male and female, men and women, for ideological reasons. Thus in this version, Psalm 1 begins, “Happy is the one ...” rather than “Happy is the man ...”.
The New Revised Standard Version
In 1974, the Policies Committee of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A. authorized the preparation of a revision of the entire RSV Bible. It was published in 1990, under the title The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
The general mandate to the translation team was summed up in the maxim: “As literal as possible, as free as necessary”. Specific mandates to the translators included the elimination of masculine-oriented language where, in their opinion, the reference was clearly to both men and women (e.g., “brothers and sisters” for “brethren”). Interestingly, it never seems to have occurred to the participants in this project that the substitution of “brothers and sisters” for the single Greek word translated “brethren” (adelphoi) might actually work against Christian equality, since men and women were no longer defined by a single shared word, but broken into separate categories by a phrase (a group of words).
Often the inclusiveness desired by feminist theories was achieved in the NRSV by simply rephrasing the original or by substituting plural for singular forms (e.g., “Happy are those ...” in Psalm 1: instead of “Happy is the man ...”). When we consider that the historic Christian understanding of Psalm 1 has been that “the man” is Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah and Lord, it is clear that such decisions are theological, as well as linguistic. The judgement expressed by advocates of the NRSV that “with notable success the NRSV has tackled the difficult task of making the English text inclusive where the original is not exclusive” is not as theologically neutral as it sounds.
In terms of how God is to be addressed, the Preface of the NRSV declares:
It will be seen that in the Psalms and other prayers addressed to God the archaic second person singular pronouns (thou, thee, thine) and verb forms (art, hast, hadst) are no longer used. Although some readers may regret this change, it should be pointed out that in the original languages neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament makes any linguistic distinction between addressing a human being and addressing the Deity.
What goes missing here is any admission that the Biblical languages do, indeed, distinguish between singular and plural pronouns and verbs, or that such distinctions are important both to the meaning of Scripture and to the absolute assertion that God is One.
A different sort of thought has required a different sort of language, and thus, this Version has completely abandoned the traditional English idiom of Prayer, and it has embraced the modern call for inclusiveness. These changes are most unfortunate, since the NRSV is widely used in the old-line or main-line denominations of America today, and it is much favoured in the Church of England.
The English Standard Version
From a group of evangelical Protestants, who feel an affinity to the tradition of Bible translation found in the KJV, the RV and the RSV, and who are not too impressed by the NIV, has come in 2002 what has been called The English Standard Version. It represents an attempt to improve the RSV in ways different from those found in the NRSV. In particular, the ESV is only moderately inclusive, and it is more literal than the NRSV. However, the ESV, unlike the RSV, does not retain the traditional English idiom of prayer. To illustrate, Psalm 8:3 in the ESV reads, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have set in place ... .” whereas the older RSV renders the Psalm, “When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars that thou hast established ... .”
Roman Catholic Versions
Until the middle of the twentieth century, the only translation of the Bible (i.e., of the Latin Vulgate) officially available to Catholics was the Rheims-Douai Bible (as revised by Bishop Challoner, 1738–52). This translation used the same kind of English found in the King James Version. Then, in 1955, the unofficial but much appreciated translation by Monsignor Ronald Knox (also from the Vulgate) was published. After Vatican II and the move to render the Liturgy into English, came also the move to translate the Scriptures (this time from the Hebrew & Greek) into English for use by Roman Catholics in the Mass, in the Daily Offices, and in study. This desire for new translations of Scripture produced, in a relatively short period of time, The Jerusalem Bible (1966) and then The New Jerusalem Bible (1985), as well as The New American Bible (1970) and its revised edition (1986).
These translations, like the Protestant ones from the same period, address God as “You”, and they seek to be inclusive of women (on the same feminist principles) wherever possible. In the Preface to the revised NAB we read: “The editors have wished to produce a version in English that reflects contemporary American usage and is readily understandable to ordinary educated people, but one that will be recognized as dignified speech, on the level of formal, rather than colloquial usage.”
It also needs to be noted that an edition of the RSV known as The Revised Standard Version Common Edition (containing the Deutero-Canonical Books, that is, the Apocrypha) was published in 1966 for use by Roman Catholics, and this edition, with its use of “Thee/Thou” for God, has had a limited, but loyal following. It does, however, represent a tremendous ecumenical breakthrough, for it was the first Protestant translation of the Bible to be given the Roman Catholic imprimatur.
Two new ecumenical editions of the RSV appeared in the 1970s, The RSV Common Bible (1973) and The Oxford Annotated Bible (1977), intended for use by Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox.
It would seem, at least on first sight, that the abandonment of the English idiom of prayer and Scripture translation, wherein God is addressed as “Thou”, is full and final. The NEB and the RSV from a half-century ago were the last major Versions of the Christian Bible to hold on to this traditional idiom – even if the style of their English was often of poor literary quality. All the recent Versions since the 1970s – NIV, REB, NRSV, ESV, NAB, NJB – have incorporated the so-called “contemporary English” form of address to the LORD our God.
Despite this flood of new Bibles, however, the King James Version of 1611 is still in print in many editions, and it is obviously widely read around the world, if only by a minority that has yet to discover a better instrument for their introduction to the Word of God. There are, likewise, limited editions of the RSV and its predecessor, the ASV, in print and in use. The traditional idiom of prayer as known through the English Bible is not, therefore, lost, and it could be more generally reclaimed if its value, clarity, and piety were to be rediscovered.
A final word. It has often been claimed that since the Christian Bible was written originally in colloquial Hebrew [O. T.] and Greek [N. T.], translations into English should also be in everyday speech. Yet the experts tell us that the Hebrew of the Old Testament is filled with archaisms (language that intentionally invokes the past), that it is far from being couched in everyday vernacular prose, and that it is frequently written in a somewhat obscure, poetic diction (a vocabulary more appropriate to artistic expression than to the equivalent of the daily newspaper). Biblical Hebrew is not “demotic,” the simplified language of street corners, but a many-faceted language of traditional expressions, preserved idioms, shades of meaning, and passages intentionally written to require serious meditation.*
*See further, Mitchell Dahood S. J., Psalms I, New York, 1965, Introduction.
In much the same way, the Greek of the New Testament is not simply “the Greek of the streets” since it is deeply influenced by Hebraisms (forms and structures imported from Hebrew) because of its subject matter, a Jewish Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. The Greek of the New Testament is also highly dependent on the Septuagint, a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, made by Jewish scholars centuries before the birth of Christ. There was, therefore, at the time of the writing of the New Testament, an existing tradition of Biblical Greek that had developed alongside the Greek of the marketplace or of the philosophers.*
*See further, Edwin Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek, 1889.
In this light, a perfectly serious case can be made that the King James Version, with its literal translations, creative preservation of archaisms, and its deliberately religious idiom is, at the very least, as accurate a translation of the Bible as, say, the New Revised Standard Version or any of its equivalents.
Chapter 2 – Prayer Books and the Language of Worship
A major part of any Christian act of worship is the engaging in prayers of praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition and intercession. As these are addressed to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Lord, with the Holy Ghost ( = Holy Spirit), there are occasions when pronouns must be used. And in English the choice is between “thou, thee, thine, thy” or “you, your”, for both sets can serve as second person singular for the Deity, who is one Lord and one God. Here we trace the move from the use of “Thee” to the use of “You” by Anglicans, Roman Catholics and other churches in their public forms of worship.
This change in pronouns for Deity has occurred during the influence of what is usually called the “Liturgical Movement”. This may be described as a twentieth-century movement for the revitalization of the church through the renewal of its worship, which began in the Roman Catholic Church and has affected to a greater or lesser extent nearly all Western mainstream Christian traditions and denominations, especially since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. However, we cannot claim that the Liturgical Movement was the direct cause of the change in pronouns for Deity. Yet it was a contributory cause, paving the way and opening the door, as we shall see as we proceed in this chapter.
In the Church of England the influence of the Liturgical Movement (which began in Europe) was felt first of all in the writings of Henry de Candole and Gabriel Hebert and in the Parish Communion and Parish and People Movements, with which they were closely connected. Then after World War II the book, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945) by Gregory Dix had an enormous impact upon Anglican liturgical thought and specifically upon the Liturgical Commission from 1955. In the U.S.A. there was the Associated Parishes Movement and the names of W. P. Ladd and Massey Shepherd stand out as those who were involved in liturgical reform.*
*See further, John Fenwick & Bryan Spinks, Worship in Transition: the Liturgical Movement in the Twentieth Century, Edinburgh/New York, 1995.
In relation to ecumenical cooperation in the Liturgy, we need to mention the various groups that worked on translations of common texts (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds and certain Canticles) and on the Common Lectionary. There was the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET, 1969–1974) and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL, 1974–1983). The latter was succeeded by the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC, 1983 onwards). Their work has been published in succeeding editions of Prayers We Have in Common from 1970 and most of the translations have been used in the new liturgies of Roman Catholic and major Protestant churches. Needless to say they are all in “contemporary language” and are often as much paraphrases as strict translations. From a parallel group, the Consultation of Common Texts (CCT), has come the Common Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary, and the latter is now widely used, most usually in Protestantism with the NRSV of the Bible.*
*For details see H. T. Allen & Joseph Russell, On Common Ground: The Story of the Revised Common Lectionary, Norwich, 1998.
The Book of Common Prayer
Together with the English Bible came the English Prayer Book. While the first authorized English Bible, known as The Great Bible, was published in 1539, the first Prayer Book, known as The Book of the Common Prayer appeared in 1549. There were further editions, wherein changes were made and the second definite article of the title was dropped, in 1552, 1559 and 1662, with the latter becoming the classic edition. It has been the official Prayer Book of the Church of England from that year to this and it was also the official Prayer Book of the British Colonies in the British Empire for many years.
This Book of Common Prayer, which contained all the required services to be used in the cathedrals and parish churches of the realm, and which was wholly in English (except familiar Latin titles), replaced the late medieval collection of Latin liturgical books which had been required in order to hold all the appointed services and sacraments.
The primary translator of the Latin texts, and the one who as editor provided in the first two editions of this Prayer Book that which became the distinctive English idiom of worship and prayer was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556). In formal prose, Cranmer was a master, having an exact ear for phrases and sentences that could be repeated a thousand times over and contained no infelicity or jarring tone. He
deliberately intended the language of the Book to be sonorous and slightly archaic; he had no intention of letting his liturgy be sneered at for being modish or inferior to the old Latin. This archaic quality was highly significant for the future of English; it saved it from being hijacked by the pompous Latin and Greek vocabulary beloved by many of Cranmer’s scholarly contemporaries.*
*D. MacCulloch, “Introduction” to The Book of Common Prayer, Everyman’s Library, 1999
The production of The Book of Common Prayer as well as of The English Bible occurred at a critical time in European and British history. First of all, because of the Renaissance the study of ancient languages had much developed and thus it was possible to import into the vernacular words from the classical languages and much develop the vocabulary. Secondly, because of the invention of printing, it was possible to produce standard texts in large quantities and therefore standardize modes of expression. So it was that Cranmer’s English style and idiom of prayer played a major part in the production of a standard English, as did also the similar work of William Tyndale (c.1490–1536) and Miles Coverdale (1488–1568) in the translation of the Bible (leading ultimately to the King James Version of 1611).
What the use of The Book of Common Prayer (along with the use of the English Bible) quickly achieved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a distinctively English way of public prayer. This was based on the addressing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the second person singular (Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine) and included various structures and forms of prayer (e.g., The Lord’s Prayer) and expressions of the Faith (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed). Thus many people came to learn by heart the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, and with these various prayers and collects.
Now it is true that the Prayer Book, as well as the Bible, used the second person singular when the reference was to one human being and only used the second person plural when the reference was to more than one. In so doing, it was following the Latin of the former Liturgy and the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible. This usage with regard to human beings could have been changed in 1662 in both Prayer Book and Bible for it was then acceptable to use the form “you” when speaking to one person, but it was not changed since apparently no-one asked for it.
In homilies, sermons and addresses, given in or after the set Liturgy in the Church of England, it became increasingly common after 1662 for preachers to use “you” in the singular and the plural. Likewise, Nonconformist and Dissenting Ministers (Congregationalists, Baptists etc.) addressed human beings in the singular and plural as “you”. Yet in the official Liturgy of the Established Church and in the ex tempore prayers of the Nonconformist pastors the use of the second person singular was most carefully preserved for the addressing of and referring to the Deity. And this state of affairs continued until after the second World War in all parts of the English-speaking world.
So it is not surprising that if we examine the editions of The Book of Common Prayer prepared for use in countries which achieved independence from Great Britain, we find that all of them maintained the form of English created by Cranmer in the mid-sixteenth century, for this form had become for all intents and purposes the English idiom of prayer. For example, the revised edition of the Prayer Book produced for the Episcopal Church in 1789, after the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, kept closely to the received Cranmerian form of language even where it included new collects and prayers to meet the needs of a new nation. And so did the revised editions of this American Prayer Book in 1892 and 1928. Even as late as 1960 the Anglican Church of Canada published a revised edition of the 1662 Prayer Book and in it maintained the traditional language of prayer and worship. However, if we look at the official records of the General Conventions and Synods of these churches in this same period we shall see that in these they used the normal language of educated people, standard English, in debates with a specific theological and ecclesiastical vocabulary.
Alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer
Changes in the English idiom of prayer and worship only came into the Anglican Family of Churches in the late 1960s when various experimental liturgies were being used in preparation for the production and publishing of new prayer books. The first were in Australia and New Zealand in 1966. The Church of England followed in 1973 with its Series 3 texts. God was now addressed as “You” in liturgy even as he was in the latest versions of the Bible, and thus “contemporary English” for prayer was born. It seems to have been a half-way house between the language of the traditional Prayer Book and the language of semi-popular journalism.*
*See further D. L. Frost, “Liturgical Language from Cranmer to Series 3” in The Eucharist Today, ed. R. C. D. Jasper, 1974.
Certainly the whole question of the use of so-called “contemporary language” was discussed at the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops of 1968 and given the green light there. And immediately before the Conference there was published Modern Liturgical Texts from the Church of England Liturgical Commission. This book contained examples of modern English texts and some arguments in favour of these being used in the Church. It was influential at the Conference.
Looking back on these years Bishop Colin Buchanan wrote:
I edited in 1968 and 1975 successive collections of eucharistic texts, Modern Anglican Liturgies, 1958–1968 (Oxford) and Further Anglican Liturgies, 1968–1975 (Grove Books). The former collection of around 16 liturgies had only two which addressed God as “you” [New Zealand and Australia], whilst the latter with another 18 had none which addressed God as “thou” except continuations of previously existing texts (such as “Series 1 & 2 Revised” was in England). The Church of England’s Modern Liturgical Texts (Church Information Office) was published in August 1968, just before the Lambeth Conference, and that publication date is virtually the watershed for the whole English-speaking world.
And of ex tempore prayer in evangelical Anglican Colleges in England from 1959 he wrote:
I had personal experience of contemporary prayer meetings in Anglican Theological Colleges as a student from 1959 to 1961 and as a staff member from 1964 onwards, and whilst AV-style English was unwavering in such circles until the mid-1960s, the shift to calling God “you” was clear and irreversible after 1965. Modern versions of the Bible may well have influenced this.*
*The Lord’s Prayer in the Church of England, Grove Books, No. 131, Nottingham, 1995
At The National Evangelical Anglican Congress, held at Keele University, Stoke-on-Trent, in 1967, Evangelicals of the Church of England addressed the question of Liturgical Reform. They declared:
Liturgical revision is long overdue. Much as we value the doctrinal basis of the services of [the BCP] 1662, we are not so wedded to their structures, contents or language as not to see the need for new forms. Some of us desire these reforms to be a conservative revision of the present services; some desire services in modern language, and strongly urge the provision of such forms for an experimental period; while others are looking for something much more radical, though retaining the same doctrinal position as 1662. But to all the period of experiment is welcome. No alarms should accompany the loosening of a legal conformity [to use only 1662], although we believe that the ideal of Common Prayer should not be forgotten.*
*Report, para. 66
In the next paragraph they added (thinking of Dix, Shape of the Liturgy, and the writings of Hippolytus of Rome), that “the proper basis of liturgical revision is not the practice of the second or third centuries, but the teaching of the Bible with reference to contemporary needs and in the light of existing services.”
In the Episcopal Church of the U.S.A. there was little or no hesitation in the looking to the works of Hippolytus of Rome for models for the twentieth century. Services for Trial Use (1970) was authorised by the 1970 General Convention for trial use during 1971–1973. It was the first “two form” for trial use, with both “thou” and “you” forms included. The Introduction explains:
The duality of form is a direct result of the comments on, and reactions to, the trial use of The Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper received by the Standing Liturgical Commission during the triennium of 1967–1970. A substantial minority of those who responded to the Commission’s Questionnaires showed a deep-seated attachment to the traditional language of The Book of Common Prayer. The Commission responded to the expressed desire of many Churchmen by preparing revised services in two forms.
However, the Psalter in Services for Trial Use (1971) only uses “you”.
We need to ask: Why was the call for so-called “contemporary language” judged to be so powerful and why was it so quickly heeded in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s? Why was the call not made and heeded in the 1920s or the 1940s? The evidence is clear that liturgists in most branches and jurisdictions of English-speaking Christendom seemed persuaded in the late 1960s and 1970s that the way forward, together with changes in the structure and content of Liturgy, was to use modern language. And those planning new translations of the Bible had similar ideas.
Therefore, when the new official Prayer Books began to appear they contained services in what was called “traditional language” and “contemporary language”. Thus if one examines the American Prayer Book of 1979 (erroneously and mischievously called The Book of Common Prayer, 1979 rather than An American Episcopal Service Book or the like), the Alternative Service Book (1980) of the Church of England, and the Book of Alternative Services (1985) of the Anglican Church of Canada, one finds that while there are both types of services, the balance is very much in favour of the innovation. And leaders in all the churches pressed clergy and congregations to use the new rather than the old, telling them that the new were more relevant, helpful and authentic. Thus people changed the habits of a life-time in terms of the way they addressed and referred to God.
In the Preface to the ASB of the Church of England we are told that:
Rapid social and intellectual changes, together with a worldwide reawakening of interest in liturgy, have made it desirable that new understanding of worship should find expression in new forms and styles. Christians have become readier to accept that, even within a single church, unity need no longer be seen to entail strict uniformity of practice.
Therefore, from now on “common prayer” was increasingly presented as using a common structure of liturgy and within it certain common elements (e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Sanctus), rather than a common, whole text.
In 1980 the “contemporary language” of the ASB of the Church of England revealed virtually no influence by the feminist movement; but, this was not the case in the new service books in the U.S.A. and Canada where the rendering of the Psalter (e.g., “Happy are they ...” for “Blessed is the man ...” in Psalm 1) showed the beginning of a commitment to inclusiveness. This minimal feminist influence was soon to grow, especially in the Episcopal Church. As further trial services were produced in the 1980s and 1990s for approval by the General Convention, it was increasingly obvious that they were accommodating more and more to the feminist lobby in terms of references to both human beings and to God. The use of so-called masculine images was greatly reduced; the number of feminine and neutral ones was much increased. The naming and addressing of God as “the Father” and “the Lord” became uncommon in the new liturgies. And this all took place as the movement for the ordination of women triumphed and the rights of lesbian women were recognized.
The Church of England began to catch up with the Episcopal Church with the publication from the Liturgical Commission of Making Women Visible: the Use of Inclusive Language with the ASB (1988).
Thus by the end of the twentieth century “contemporary language” meant much more than the language used by decent people in regular conversation or by good journalists in respectable newspapers. It meant language which deliberately rejected the old form and which incorporated the basics of the feminist movement with its anti-patriarchal and anti-sexist agenda. In other words, it was much more than the removal of archaic words and the like, it was the creating of a religious language intended to carry within itself a certain ideology.
The Mass in English
After the Roman Catholic Council known as Vatican II held in Rome from 1962–65, the momentous decision was taken to translate the Mass into the languages used by Roman Catholic people around the world. The basis (but not the details) for this is found in the document produced by the Council and named, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. While the Latin Mass remains as the primary and unifying Rite and Text, and is used regularly in parts of most or all dioceses, the vast majority of Catholics for the last thirty years or so have heard and participated in the Mass in the same language that previously had been used only for the sermon and the announcements, the vernacular. To hear ecclesiastical Latin is now rare.
In Rome it was decided by the appropriate Vatican authorities to produce one form in the English language for the whole of the English-speaking world, even though there are major cultural differences between the English-speaking populations of the world. By 1969 the International Committee on English for the Liturgy, making use of English texts produced by the International Consultation on English Texts, had produced an English translation of the Order of the Mass and this was then approved by the National Hierarchies of Bishops. This translation into English did not look to the long-established English idiom of prayer and worship, which devout Catholics had used for generations when not using Latin. It boldly attempted to create and use a contemporary or modern English, addressing God as “You”.
So at the beginning of the 1970s a revolution occurred in Roman Catholic parishes in America, Ireland, Great Britain and elsewhere as the Latin used for centuries disappeared and was replaced by a contemporary form of English, different to that form used in worship in the Protestant churches since the sixteenth century. The adoption and use of “contemporary English” especially by so many Catholics around the world had a tremendous effect upon other Christians. Liturgically-based churches such as the Methodists, Lutherans and Anglicans began to use modern, common-English texts for parts of the service (e.g., the Gloria and Nicene Creed) and began to believe that it was right and good to address God as “You”. In assessing influence we need to recall that the Roman Catholic Church is by far and away the largest denomination in the U.S.A. and has many members in other English-speaking nations.
Yet there is another dimension to this story of Roman Catholicism and the use of the English language. It soon became apparent to perceptive priests and laity, not to mention to the hierarchy, that hidden in much of the translation – first of the Mass and then of other services and of the Breviary and the Sacramentary – there were various ideological presuppositions related to liberation theology and to feminism. So it is not surprising that in recent years the Vatican has deliberately asserted its authority by not approving translations and by requiring that they be reformed and improved. And to this end there have been publications of important documents relating to the work of translation of both the Bible and Liturgical Books. For example from the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship has come Liturgiam Authenticam: On the use of vernacular languages in the publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy (2001). Having read this not a few Catholics have expressed the sentiment that if it had appeared in 1970 rather than thirty years later the history of Roman Catholicism would have been different! They infer that there was too much haste, naďveté and radical theology within the activity leading to the publication of the Liturgy in contemporary English.
Books of Prayers for Anglicans
Returning to Anglicanism in the 1970s, when liturgical experimentation was taking place, the introduction of the addressing of God as “You” is clearly seen in Books of Prayers for use at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, particularly in the Church of England. From the evangelical society, The Church Pastoral Aid Society, came in 1971 Prayers for Today’s Church, edited by Dick Williams. In a Foreword, the Bishop of Liverpool, Dr Stuart Blanch, wrote:
The Book of Common Prayer is a child of its age and reflects a prodigious insularity of thought and experience. It seldom voyages beyond these [British] shores and betrays little interest in the world-wide mission of the Church. It assumes the permanence and solidity of the social order as it then existed. It betrays little conscience for the sins of an economic system which condemned so many of its citizens to penury and squalor. It belongs to a different world, a smaller world.
And he ended: “I warmly welcome this collection [of prayers]. ... It is a book of common prayer in that it expresses our common concern for God’s world – and in that respect at least it deserves to stand alongside the Book of Common Prayer.” All the prayers in the book are in the “You” form even though it was intended to be used for the period of petition and intercession after the Morning and Evening Offices from The Book of Common Prayer.
Dick Williams, the editor, writes in his Introduction:
Nobody has ever written better prayers in English than Cranmer. But the English language is a living thing and changes. ... So this book is not a reaction against the Book of Common Prayer, or anything that it stands for. But it is an act of confidence in contemporary English.
This claim is perhaps confusing. He could have written and collected a book of prayers that related to what he saw as modern needs and concerns and he could have made sure that these prayers were in the idiom of prayer found in The Book of Common Prayer. But like most people in that decade, whether conservative or liberal, whether evangelical or high-church, he thought that he had to be committed to “contemporary English”.
And much the same is true of Frank Colquhoun whose two books of prayers, Parish Prayers (1967) and then Contemporary Parish Prayers (1975) were very widely used by clergy in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia until the Parish Eucharist tended to replace Morning Prayer and Family Service in the 1980s. Both of these books were commended by Dr Donald Coggan who was first Archbishop of York and then Archbishop of Canterbury, and an Evangelical in churchmanship.
In the Foreword to the second book, dated January 1975, Dr Coggan wrote:
The composition of prayers in the modern idiom is no easy task. To avoid the chatty and cheap, to write with dignity and a sense of awe, this is an ideal difficult of achievement. Many have recently attempted to do this – and failed.
Yet he believed that this book went “a long way to meet the needs of those who want to pray in twentieth-century language”.
Canon Colquhoun in his Preface went out of his way to explain that there is nothing disrespectful in addressing God as You instead of Thee and Thou. Many good people, he wrote,
argue that we should not speak to the Almighty in the same way that we talk to our fellow men. But clearly such an argument will not bear serious examination. It overlooks the fact that 300 or 400 years ago Thee and Thou was the customary form of address to man as well as to God. The evidence of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version makes this plain. Was it irreverent on the part of our forefathers to employ the same pronoun in praying to God as they used in daily speech one to another? If not, why should it be considered so now? We may find it difficult to accept the fact that Cranmer used contemporary language when he put together the English Prayer Book; but fact it is all the same.
Of course, there is a strong element of truth in what Colquhoun writes. However, he does not face the fact that there was an English idiom of prayer which had been in use for many years and that this language of worship/prayer although found in the Prayer Book and the King James Version did in fact exist independently of them as well – e.g., in hymnody.
Books of Prayers for other Churches
If we turn to what in Great Britain are referred to as the Free Churches we see that into the 1960s they were solidly using “Thou, Thee, Thy, Thine” to address Deity; but, less than a decade later they were slowly and somewhat hesitatingly entering the field of a new discourse.
Order and Prayers for Church Worship, A Manual for Ministers compiled by E. A. Payne & S. F. Winward, and published by the Baptist Carey Kingsgate Press in 1960, uses only the second person singular in the addressing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, even in services involving children. Likewise from the Congregationalist Independent Press there came in 1959 A Book of Services and Prayers containing orders of service and individual prayers, and once again they all address God in the second person singular.
When we peruse Contemporary Prayer for Public Worship, edited by Caryl Micklem, a distinguished Congregational theologian, from the SCM Press in 1967, we soon realise that we have entered a new sphere. Absent is the use of the second person singular for Deity and thus God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each addressed as “You”.
The content of this book of prayers “using modern language and thought-forms” had its origins in the call from the Nottingham Faith and Order Conference of 1964 to engage in bold and informed experiments in worship services. And its chief stimulus was the publication and regular use in Congregational churches of the New English Bible. The Preface declares that
Once it was only in the sermon and the notices, if then, that modern language was heard in church. Lessons, prayers and hymns were all solidly archaic, and each was the more readily accepted because of the other two. Since 1961, this bloc has been breached. Although official Anglican revisers have so far been conservative, it has come to seem plainly incongruous that the people who have just listened to the ancient gospel record in the language of their own time should be asked to make their personal, up-to-date response to the gospel in the language of the day before yesterday. In this situation modernization of the language of public prayer is the obvious starting point.
Yet Dr Micklem saw that there was a problem with hymns and wrote:
In the case of hymns, which cannot be modernized but only replaced, the incongruity is bound to persist for some years yet – until the volume of contemporary writing of words to be sung, be they hymns or carols or more like folk-song, increases comparably with the production of modern tunes.
To the subject of hymns we shall turn in the next chapter.
Thus the Editor and his team at this stage – the late 1960s – are prepared to have a mixture of styles in one service of worship. Both so-called traditional language and modern language in prayers can be used in one service as long as each group of prayers is consistent. Likewise with hymns and choruses.
The examples given above are all from Great Britain but the same story is paralleled in the U.S.A. and Canada.
Changes in Liturgy, Common Prayer and Public Worship took place in three phases. First, there was the call for renewal, involving the creation of new forms of service (a new “Shape”) and greater “participation” by the laity, but this did not necessarily contemplate a change in the way that God is addressed. Secondly, there was the call for relevancy to the present, for intelligibility and for accessibility and thus for the use of “contemporary” language; and this emotional, fervent call sat on the back, as it were, of the calls for liturgical change of structure and content. And thirdly, when the “contemporary” language had arrived, it was judged by some to be as patriarchal and sexist as the “traditional” idiom of prayer and so adjustments were made to it in order to “make women visible”. This process continues.
Looking back we may regret that the move to contemporary language and thought-forms occurred so quickly and on so many fronts, right across the major denominations in the western world. In the great frenzy and irrational movements of the 1960s, when nothing less than a social and cultural revolution was taking place, there was not the possibility or the time to recruit the most able persons, to think it all through, to search for an idiom that was appropriate, and to control the speed of the experiment. Thus the door was opened to all sorts of bathos and triviality as the winds of change blew, often at gale force. The few noble attempts to create a dignified new idiom of prayer were generally lost in the euphoria of the time. So it is not surprising that not a few stubborn congregations continued in the use of the old idiom of prayer and were happy – indeed bound by conscience – to address the Lord our God in the second person singular form of “Thou/Thee”.
In concluding, it may perhaps be claimed that there is as yet only one real and true English language/idiom/dialect/register of prayer. Experiments to create a new one since the 1960s are still in process and are far from conclusive. That is, while a majority is addressing the Deity as “You” there is yet no stability and settled content within the contemporary language that uses “you” for God.
One person committed to finding a contemporary language of prayer (or liturgical language) is the American feminist scholar, Gail Ramshaw, who describes revisions in liturgy from the 1960s as follows:
Early revisions, usually edited by committee, tended towards minimalist speech with simple vocabulary and elementary sentence structure. The revision process has continued, with churches in each decade publishing liturgical rites that utilized a larger vocabulary, more metaphoric biblical imagery, more complex syntax, and more resonant tone. Christian communities do not agree whether, taking its cue from the Incarnation, liturgical language should closely resemble everyday speech, or whether hoping to transform the profane by the sacred, liturgical language should be extraordinary speech.*
The reference to the Incarnation of the Son of God and to human speech in relation to this Divine Event/Act is important and will be addressed later in this book.
*The New SCM Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw, 2002, p. 270.
Dr Ramshaw also tells her readers that work on the development of a modern liturgical language has been assisted both by the use of the linguistic philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the insights of Paul Ricoeur on the hermeneutic of symbols.*
*See further A. C. Thisleton, Language, Liturgy and Meaning, Nottingham, 975.
Here it may be not out of place to make the point that the prose language of Thomas Cranmer in The Book of the Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) is emphatically not the street language of the sixteenth century. And it is not the normal prose of that period. It was special and formal from the beginning because it was created for a unique task. In fact the language of The Book of Common Prayer was already formal in 1600, old fashioned in terms of colloquial speech by 1662 and not more obscure in 2000 than it was in 1800.*
*See further Stella Brook, The Language of the Book of Common Prayer, 1965.
Cranmer’s prose may be said to be unique in that it was prose designed for worship from the very beginning. It was meant to be the English equivalent of the liturgical Latin (rather than the Latin of academia) of divine worship. He sought to provide in English what had been the norm for centuries in Latin.
Each human activity has its own type/style/form of language and it fell to Cranmer (with others) to produce the particular one for religious worship. (The linguistic concept of register is very important here.)
As was suggested at the end of Chapter 1, in this language of worship “thou” for the human singular is not doctrinally important, though of course it does make a sensitive distinction between address to worshippers collectively (“lift up your hearts”) and individually (thus “which was given for thee”). But for the pronouns for the Holy Trinity the Cranmerian language of worship quickly acquired and has kept a special note of reverence before God along with a sense of intimacy through communion with God.
The reason why Cranmer used the old system of “thou” for singular in all circumstances for both God and man was that this was the usage of “tu/te” in his Latin originals (and of course in the Vulgate Bible). He used “you” only once in the singular in The Book of Common Prayer and that was in the Catechism where he meant to indicate by its use that the relation to God through godparents of the child is indirect not intimate (thus “you”) but when it is personally and by faith it is direct and intimate (thus “thou”). This was totally in line with the usage of his day when “thou” was used for intimate conversation and “you” for normal and general conversation between individuals.
However, in sermons and addresses to people in churches in the 17th century and afterwards, people were addressed both as individuals and as a plurality as YOU.
So we may say that the language of prayer where both the KJV/AV and the BCP is used is this language in its most complete form. Where the RSV or NEB is used and God is addressed as “Thou” in public prayer then the idiom of prayer is being used in its minimum form.
Chapter 3 – Hymns and the Language of Faith
The people of God under the Old Covenant sang unto the Lord, as the Psalter surely demonstrates. “Sing unto the LORD with thanksgiving; sing praise upon the harp unto our God” (Psalm 147:7). Likewise Christians, Jew and Gentile, under the New Covenant have also always offered worship, praise and thanksgiving unto the Lord in song. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
Here we trace in brief aspects of this singing unto the Lord within the English language, from the sixteenth century to the present day. We do not look at the music used for the actual chanting/singing of the Liturgy of The Book of Common Prayer or for the anthems sung by choirs inside and alongside this Liturgy, but rather at the content and style of (a) the metrical psalms and hymns used in and alongside it, and (b) the psalms, hymns and choruses used with other prayer books or where there is no prayer book used at all.
The Psalter of the Old Testament, seen as a Christian book because interpreted in the light of Jesus the Messiah, and put into metrical form, was the primary form of singing unto the Lord amongst members of the new Protestant national churches of Europe, and certainly in Great Britain from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. When British Protestants sailed to America and established colonies there, they took with them the tradition of singing metrical Psalms.
In fact, there was bound up with The Book of Common Prayer in America and elsewhere the metrical version of the Psalter produced by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate, and there was a tune book available entitled The Tunes used in Churches.
For example the first verse/stanza of Psalm 1 is:
How blest is he who ne’er consents
By ill advice to walk;
Nor stands in sinners’ ways, nor sits
Where men profanely talk.
It is not our task to comment on the poetic quality of these metrical psalms or the tunes used for them. Rather, we note that all the editions of metrical psalms whether produced in Scotland, England or New England were written in the idiom of English used in the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer. So Psalm 8 begins, “0 Thou, to whom all creatures bow / Within this earthly frame ... .”
Hymnody in Traditional Idiom
With the advent in the seventeenth century of those whom we now refer to as hymn-writers but who originally wrote poetry – for instance Bishop Thomas Ken (1637–1711), who wrote “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”, Richard Baxter (1615–1691), who wrote “He wants not friends that hath thy love”, and John Bunyan (1628–1688), who wrote “Who would true valour see” – there is no change in the idiom of praise and prayer, for they wrote naturally in the received idiom of the language of worship of the English-speaking people.
Isaac Watts (1674–1748) is the best known of the first generation of English hymn-writers and much of his work was in the production of hymns based on the Psalms and interpreting them through Jesus Christ. This was a step beyond the metrical Psalms of Tate & Brady. Thus Psalm 72 becomes:
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run;
His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
And Psalm 90 becomes,
Our God, our help in ages past.
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.
And in all his Christian Psalmody, as seen in his book, Psalms of David imitated in New Testament Language, Watts kept to the traditional language of prayer. So he did also in his well known hymns such as, “When I survey the wondrous cross”.
This commitment to the received English idiom of prayer was thoroughly maintained by the greatest of all English hymn-writers, Charles Wesley (1707–1788), in the eighteenth century. In none of the 4,000 hymns that he wrote to be sung by the people called Methodists and other Christians did he address God as “You”. In fact we can say that it never occurred to him to do so. To give an example:
Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go,
My daily labour to pursue,
Thee, only thee, resolved to know,
In all I think, or speak, or do.
It has been said of A Collection of Hymns for the use of the People called Methodists (1780) that this little book of some 750 Wesleyan hymns “ranks in Christian literature with the Psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, the Canon of the Mass. In its own way it is perfect, unapproachable, elemental in its perfection.”* Unlike Watts, Wesley was able to use a variety of unusual metres which adds a pleasing dimension to the hymnody. The principles of English grammar used by the Wesleys can be read in the booklet by John Wesley, A Short English Grammar (1753 & 1761), produced initially for the children at Kingswood School. In the section “Of Pronouns” he wrote: “We say, ‘Thou, Thee’, when we speak to God; ‘You’ when we speak to Men.”
*B. L. Manning
It was during the eighteenth century that the norm of hymnody was established, and it was in the nineteenth century that hymns were codified and brought together in the substantial anthologies of hymn books that are now commonplace.
And nothing changes in terms of the address to God as we move into the nineteenth century, where high churchmen join the Evangelicals in producing hymns. John Keble, a founder of the Anglo-Catholic movement (1792–1866) wrote, “Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear” and other well-known hymns. John Henry Newman, who left the Church of England for Rome and later became a Cardinal, wrote “Praise to the Holiest in the height” and “Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom”.
The major contribution of the Anglo-Catholic revival in the nineteenth century to hymnody was in the translation of the great hymns from the early Greek- and Latin-speaking Church by such as John Mason Neale, Benjamin Webb, and Isaac Williams. John Mason Neale (1818–1866), who published several books of translations from Latin and Greek originals, was responsible for the translations we know as “O come, O come, Immanuel”, “All glory, laud and honour / To thee, Redeemer King” and “Jerusalem the golden”. Here again, in their original poetry and their translations these Anglo-Catholics used the classic idiom of prayer and worship.
And so did other translators who made available hymns from Germany, the best known of whom is Catherine Winkworth (1829–1878), who published Lyra Germanica (1848 & 1855). “Now thank we all our God” and “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation” are examples of her translation.
Though the hymns produced in the Victorian period remained within the English idiom of prayer in their addressing God, the content of a growing number of them did not remain as married to Scripture as it had been in English hymnody until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Themes not previously thought appropriate for hymnody – national, social, ecclesiastical, for example – entered the verses of hymns. Also hymns were composed for children and young people and for special occasions such as evangelistic/revival meetings. Thus we have the Gospel Hymns (1895) from Moody and Sankey and the 8,500 gospel hymns from Fanny Crosby, including, “Blessed Assurance”, and “Jesus, keep me near the Cross”. In these as in other hymns there is a particular tension between the hymn as a very personal expression of piety and the hymn as a collective statement of a relation to God in prayer and praise.
Nevertheless, whatever the content of the hymn, this long-established tradition of addressing the Father or the Lord Jesus Christ in the second person singular continued into the second half of the twentieth century. This is seen, for example, in The Hymnal of the Episcopal Church (1940) which succeeded earlier hymnals of 1892 and 1916. Here a couple of hymns by the poet Jan Struther (otherwise Mrs A. K. Placzek) in the “You” mode were included (previously published in the Oxford Songs of Praise, 1931, a book which included several using “You” to the Deity). But in The Anglican Hymn Book of 1971 published by the evangelical Church Society in the Church of England no hymns in the “You” mode were included.
Hymnody in the Modern Idiom
It seems that one can count on two hands the number of hymns that used “You” and were printed in the prominent hymnbooks for both children and adults before the 1960s. Alongside these, and perhaps dating back to 1900, there were some simple hymns, choruses and songs that made use of the common “thank you” in addressing God e.g., “Thank you Lord for saving my soul” and “Thank you for the world so sweet”. In origin “thank you” was short for “I thank you” but centuries of use had made it into a phrase to express gratitude and the “you” had no special status as a pronoun.
With the arrival of new translations of the Bible and new forms of liturgy from the 1960s, the need for hymns in the same “contemporary” language was felt and addressed on a wide variety of fronts. Some tried to update the traditional hymns of Wesley, Watts, Cowper, Newton, Newman, Pusey and others by using “You” instead of “Thee/Thou”, but this did not always work and was not widely pursued after it was revealed to be a far from easy task. However, with the advent of the feminist movement and the call for inclusivism and making women visible, efforts were made to edit and alter many traditional hymns to try to remove from them the supposed patriarchalism, sexism, androcentricism and racism in their contents. Thus not a few hymnbooks from the year 1980 or so contain [what once were] traditional hymns at the end of which occurs the three letters alt. (= text altered).
Here is an example of a traditional hymn changed to make it acceptable to feminists:
O worship our God, all glorious above;
O gratefully sing Her power and Her love;
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendour and girded with praise.
O tell of Her might, O sing of Her grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
Her chariots of fire the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is Her path on the wings of the storm.*
This is rather different from the original “O worship the Lord” and “O tell of his might.” And it has gone for what is often called “vertical inclusive language”, in that the principles of inclusivity are taken from the horizontal, where people talk to each other, to the vertical where people talk to God. By traditional believers this new hymn is judged to be heretical.
*Robert Grant, 1833. Text alt.
Meanwhile, it seemed, as the 1970s moved along everyone who had a taste for music and who was involved in church life, felt a call to write choruses and hymns in the contemporary mode and to compose simple music for them. Others tried to update certain Psalms and make them into contemporary “Psalm Praise”.
Thus by the mid or late 1970s many congregations were using a mixture of (a) traditional hymns where God is addressed as “Thou/Thee”, (b) traditional hymns modified to address God and the Lord Jesus as “You”, and (c) modern hymns, psalms or choruses where God is addressed as “You”. So alongside “Guide me O thou great Redeemer” they would sing, for example, this modern rendering of the Benedicite:
We thank you, Lord of Heaven,
For all the joys that greet us,
For all that you have given us
To help us and delight us,
In earth and sky and heaven.*
*Jan Struther, 1931.
Make me a channel of your peace:
Where there is hatred let me bring your love,
Where there is injury, your pardon, Lord,
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you.*
*Sebastian Temple, 1975
Father, we adore you,
Lay our lives before you:
How we love you!
Jesus we adore you.
Lay our lives before you:
How we love you!
Spirit we adore you.
Lay our lives before you:
How we love you!*
*Terrye Coelho, 1972.
And this mixture of the traditional and the modern continues into the 21st Century because it is generally recognized by most people that the great treasure of traditional English hymnody cannot be replaced quickly – if ever at all. Thus most modern hymn-books have a mixture of traditional and modern hymns, with prefaces to justify this mixture and to explain why it exists.
With the change in the form of addressing God in song, came also a change in the instruments used to accompany that singing. Organs went silent and pews were removed to make way for guitars, electronic keyboards, drums and pipes. The division and debate between “the trend-seekers and the traditionalists” in church music is brought out into clear focus in the ecumenical collection of essays, In Spirit and in Truth,* by eleven English writers, most of whom were full-time church musicians.
*ed. Robin Sheldon, 1989.
On the one side we learn that “we need great sensitivity to the way in which music of cultural relevance can convey by its own nature the power of the gospel being proclaimed,” and, “Rock music with its variety of styles and forms is the music of most ordinary people and it is essential that music in worship be accessible and appropriate to ordinary people.” Further, modern choruses “provide a good and simple means for us to express the feelings of our hearts to the God we love.”*
*In Spirit and in Truth, pp. 2, 23, 162
On the other side, we read that by its very nature pop music has constantly to be updated; but, in contrast, classical music has an enduring quality that can speak anew long after it has been composed. Further, no civilized society can afford to neglect its arts or in the long run ignore the insights and inspirations of its men of genius in the field of arts and music. Without their availability worship is the poorer. Further, the use of easy and familiar and pop music encourages people to think that the journey to God is quickly, painlessly and easily achieved whereas the use of classical music is more likely to fit with the biblical presentation of the way of the Cross, of penitence and faith, of hope and love.
In general it may be suggested that the worship of God – as the Holy One, his Majesty, who is infinitely above us and eternally the LORD – in words inspired by the content of sacred Scripture is assisted by appropriately chosen music that has been developed in high culture (Bach and the like) or by music that belongs to genuine folk culture (a lot of the traditional hymn tunes). The problem with various forms and types of what are called contemporary music is that they do not normally have the ability to lift us up out of ourselves into the worshipping of God in spirit and truth and in the beauty of holiness. They tend to keep us enclosed within our worlds of feeling and modern, secularist culture.*
*For further discussion see Marva J. Dawn, Reaching out without Dumbing Down: a Theology of Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995, chapter 8.
It is important also to recall that the arrival of the felt need to use modern English for worship came at much the same time as the Pentecostal Movement changed into the Charismatic Movement and entered the mainstream of both the older Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. This movement, that emphasizes the experiential and makes a strong appeal to the emotions, encouraged not only the singing of choruses in church services, but also the repetitive singing of them – and most of the songs and choruses written at this time to meet this need were in the new “contemporary” mode. Further, it encouraged what we may call the informal approach to public worship, where there is great emphasis upon feeling good about God and ourselves and little concern how we dress or whether or not we use traditional expressions of piety. Thus God, the great “You”, is here perceived as the great Friend and ever-present Spirit to help and affirm.
One of the most positive of these experiential movements is that called “the Praise-and-Worship Movement”. In good examples of this, the congregation uses contemporary music and is led through a series of affective states towards the sense of being in direct communion with God. It is as though the singing assembly is led by a carefully controlled variety of music from the outer courts of the Temple on a journey inwards towards the Holy of Holies where there is to be found and experienced the real presence of God. Praise is seen as stating truths about God – his goodness and mercy for example, while worship is seen in more relational terms as direct fellowship with God. And in the transition from praise to worship there is usually a change in pronouns. In praise God is praised by the constant use of the third person pronoun, He – He is gracious, He is merciful, He is our Saviour; but in worship, when the inner sanctuary is reached and the tone of the music changes, the second person pronoun is used, “You are my God.”
One example of the response in the 1960s to the cry for hymns in modern language from people whose general background was that of classical music and hymnody was the series of meetings held at Dunblane in Scotland between 1961 and 1969. With Erik Routley as the catalyst, clergy, poets, musicians, teachers and academics met to discuss how they could respond to the need for modern hymnody. They produced Dunblane Praises (1965) and New Songs for the Church (2 vols, 1969) and went away inspired to push along the creation of hymnody in today’s language and reflecting today’s concerns. In America similar work was being attempted and its results are seen in such publications as Songs for Today (ed. W. Balsh, 1964), Hymns for Now (1961) and Hymns for Young Christians (1967).
Then a little later came the music from the French monastic community at Taize composed by Jacques Berthier (1923–1994). This was widely received and used in translation in Europe and America. It was followed by music from the Iona Community in Scotland, which also was widely appreciated and used.
So from a variety of places and persons there became available a rapidly growing number of songs, choruses and hymns in the modern idiom. Of course, the quality of these varies greatly and most will not survive very long.
In 1969, before the arrival of official Liturgies using “You” of God in the Church of England, there appeared 100 Hymns for Today as a Supplement to Hymns Ancient & Modern, which contained a mixture of hymns addressed to God as “You” and “Thou”. More than a decade later the Preface to Hymns for Today’s Church (1982), which had been a decade in the making by leading evangelicals inside and outside the Church of England, declares that the least controversial form of revision done “has been the change from ‘thee’ to ‘you’.” For “this has become such a liturgical commonplace that no justification seems necessary.” A lot had happened in twenty years to make such a statement possible. In this hymnbook there is no use of “Thou/Thee” at all. Yet the editors seemed not to have responded to the calls of the feminists for changes in language to make them feel a part of God’s Church!
However in Common Praise (2001), which is widely used in the Church of England, and which is the successor of Hymns Ancient & Modern, the editors took the year 1900 as the cut-off point. All hymns before then were left in their original state and using “Thou/Thee”. All hymns written after that date were subject to revision to meet basic feminist requests and to call upon the “You-God”. Thus this hymnbook fits well with the new Common Worship (2000) of the same Church.
In the U.S.A. the Presbyterian Worship Book (1972) contained hymns in both the traditional and the modern form, but for many people the benchmark event was the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), which modernized most (but not all) second person singular pronouns. Believing that some of these revisions had been ill-advised, the Text Committee for The Hymnal (1982) of the Episcopal Church made a conscious decision not to follow all the modernizations in the Lutheran Book. In these latter hymnbooks the influence of the feminist movement is to be seen in the changes made to the supposed patriarchal, sexist language of older hymnody.
Dramatic changes took place in church hymnody and music from the 1960s and these ran parallel to changes in public liturgy, forms of service and ways of translating the Bible. Accompanying the changes in the language of prayer were changes both in the style of hymnody and songs and in the music used with them. In music a major change has been the introduction in many churches of a variety of forms of “contemporary” music of which traditional-type folk music is but one. This trend has in many places but not in all led to a dumbing down of both words and music in order to make the “worship service” more accessible and appealing to people who are used to listening to pop music and watching popular TV all week.
It is worth recalling that the greatest influence of modern popular culture (whose origins are in the 1960s) is in the way that it shapes how we think and feel, more than what we think and feel. Thus the very triviality of this culture, giving the appearance of being innocuous, enables it to be pervasive and this may be seen as its most toxic quality! Since it cultivates the habit of instant gratification, it can spoil the taste for something better and higher. When transferred to the realm of religion and worship, it is obvious that a partnership with popular culture can (and often does) lead to a major dumbing down of inherited Christian teaching, standards and ethics and the satisfaction with a generally popular approach to “worship”.
Further, the “worship service” has also often been seen as more of an evangelistic or outreach opportunity than as genuine worship – i.e., acknowledging the “worth” of God, and making a serious moral and spiritual effort by disciples of the Lord Jesus to offer to his Father genuine praise and thanksgiving, confession and petition, intercession and supplication. And too often the much-used word “celebration” has been of the local “community of faith” and its experiences rather than the recital and praise of the mighty works of the Lord our God for us and for our salvation.
Nevertheless, the traditional English idiom of public prayer survives in many congregations today even if in only one sphere hymnody, because they still sing some traditional hymns. Whether these are Christmas Carols, Easter Hymns, Hymns for Harvest or other occasions, they are still part of the living experience of worship for millions of people who still seem to make sense of the supposed “archaic” and “obsolete” language. And though in common worship and public liturgy most Christians today address the Deity as “You” at least in some of the hymns they still address him as “Thou/Thee”. Thus a language of faith with deep and profound roots is there to be revived, given the right conditions and intent.*
*See further, J. R. Wilson, The English Hymn: a Critical and Historical Study, Oxford, 1997 and An Annotated Anthology of English Hymns, edited by J. P. Watson, Oxford, 2002.
Chapter 4 – The You-God and the 1960s
It is commonplace to refer to the 1960s as a time of social and cultural revolution in the Western world, especially in America. It was during this revolutionary period that all the churches of the English-speaking world in their accommodation to the changing context and ethos began their dramatic move from addressing the Lord God as “Thou” to speaking to him as “You”. Amazingly it was not only the old Protestant churches (e.g., Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican & Congregationalist) but the new Protestant churches (e.g., Assemblies of God and Church of the Nazarene) who participated; and even more amazingly it was not only Protestants but also Roman Catholics, who far outnumbered the Protestants, who joined in. This was a phenomenon that knew no denominational, sectarian or kith and kin boundaries.
With little preparation, and sometimes with unbridled enthusiasm, millions of Christians, tutored by excited clergy, dropped the traditional, long-standing English language of prayer that alone they had been using (or used alongside Latin) in church and family prayers and replaced it with a contemporary form that was by its nature always open to adjustment and development. In churches, they read the Bible, said prayers, ministered sacraments, preached sermons and gave blessings in this new language that was called “contemporary” English to distinguish it from “traditional” English as found in the King James Version of the Bible and their old hymnbooks. And in doing so they were told by their clergy that by making their services of worship more intelligible and simple, more accessible and relevant, more down to earth and less elite, they would attract and hold the young people and at the same time not drive away the older folks. There was great euphoria as, with the change in speaking to God, there came all kinds of changes in what was said about him and done for him, and in the music used to celebrate his enabling and affirming presence.
Pondering this evidence of such a dramatic change in such a short time of the way millions prayed to their Creator, Redeemer and Judge, the question arises – and will not go away – as to WHY. Why did this massive change occur and why did it occur specifically in the 1960s?
Further, we ask: Why did this revolution occur in the 1960s (using this expression to cover the 1960s and the early 1970s) and not in the 1920s? Or why did it not occur later, say in the 1980s?
It may be recalled that in the 1920s the Church of England prepared a revised edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1662) which was eventually not approved by Parliament because of its supposed “Romish” trends. However, in terms of the language of prayer it was wholly in the very same traditional language as the Prayer Book of 1662 that it was intended to replace, and nobody at that time in Church, Parliament or general population in the British Empire thought this to be odd or wrong. Then, even after World War II and the social changes it caused, the Anglican Church of Canada published its revised version of the BCP of 1662 in 1960/62 and once again this was wholly in the traditional language of prayer, with no pressure for modern language.
Further, when in the 1960s the process of liturgical renewal officially began in the Church of England, the first set of trial texts called Series 1 and Series 2, with their new structures and content, still used traditional language to address God. It was only in the 1966 that the decision was taken in the Liturgical Commission to begin to look into the possibility of producing modern language services. And this occurred ostensibly because of new versions of the Bible being available. It only got into top gear after the international Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops (1968) had given the green light to the use of contemporary language for God in the worldwide Anglican Communion of Churches, even as the Lambeth Conference ten years earlier had given the green light to liturgical revision (including departures from the structure and content of the classic Prayer Book).
But why, specifically, the 1960s?
A living language does not change overnight but evolves slowly. But here, in churches in the 1960s, there was no previous development and adaptation of language to draw upon, and no models to follow. There had been no trial runs to test the market, as it were – even though a few hymns had been around for a while calling God “You”. It was done and done instantly as if driven by an irresistible force. This surely tells us that the answer to the question about timing must be in terms other than the normal linguistic reasons for change. Languages do evolve naturally but this change was not a natural evolution. It was decreed from the top but was not resisted overmuch at the bottom. The rapid move from the so-called “traditional” to the so-called “contemporary” is therefore more likely to be explained in terms of religious, social and cultural factors rather than linguistic reasons. Many people were swept along by it without consciously saying “yes” to it. There was no public discussion followed by a referendum. The winds blew and kept on blowing and what they caused to happen just stayed there, howbeit in an unstable form.
Further, the answer will probably be more than the reasons given by those clergy and leaders who set the ball rolling in terms of the adoption of “contemporary” language in the 1960s. For example, the cry of Evangelical Christians in America and Britain was for relevance, intelligibility, accessibility and simplicity. They wanted to have a simple message from an accessible Bible using intelligible forms of services in plain person’s speech in order to evangelise their fellow citizens and bring them into “a relationship” with the Saviour, Jesus Christ the Lord. They believed that the “traditional language” with its mystery and poetic quality was not, and could not ever be, effective to this end. People just did not want to understand it and, further, they were put off by it, they claimed. They needed to hear a vibrant, modern message in a language that was much the same as they used and heard day by day. In short, it was believed that God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ would only become really and convincingly available, accessible and intelligible to the majority, if these divine Persons, together with the Holy Spirit, were addressed as “You”. To keep on using “Thou, Thee, Thy and Thine” with strange verb endings for God was to put people off and to miss a great chance as changes in society were under way to offer the gospel of the revolutionary Jesus Christ to a people who craved for the “New”.
Reasons offered by scholars and church leaders for totally new translations of the Bible (such as the New International Version), and for replacements for the King James Version, the Revised Version and the Revised Standard Version (such as the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version), were in terms of the availability of better manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, better knowledge of the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible, the presence of archaic words in the old versions to be replaced, and that no distinction was made in the original Hebrew or Greek between addressing God and addressing a human being in terms of the pronouns and verb forms used. But at the street level the reason given for new versions and paraphrases was quite simple. The King James Version was not understood and modern language versions were needed to open the Bible to ordinary folk, young and old.
Young Protestant ministers were taught in their seminaries that they could not trust the KJV for it was not an accurate translation of the originals; they needed a modern, contemporary and accurate version from which to preach to a generation of young people who were rejecting the old ways. Further, young Anglican/Episcopal clergy were taught that the Book of Common Prayer was not based upon the best texts of the Bible in the original languages or the best understanding of the worship and doctrine of the Early Church. Further, it was supposedly written in Tudor English! They needed not only an accurate but also a modern Prayer Book for leading the people in prayer.
At the same time, thousands of Roman Catholic parishes had begun using “contemporary” English for their Masses and the Roman Church was being shaken from top to bottom as it embraced aggiornamento (up-dating) and reaccentramento (re-centering). The decision to go into the vernacular from the Latin by the Roman Catholic Church in the late 1960s and to have one form of English for the whole and vast English-speaking world was taken in the Vatican in Rome. It was assumed that a basic English could be utilised that was intelligible and accessible to English-speaking Catholics wherever they lived be it in North America, Australasia, the West Indies, Africa, the Philippines, or India and so on. The resulting English Mass was in a form and style that no-one spoke, that was lacking a sense of mystery and transcendence and that was only contemporary in the sense that it was not traditional.
What we need clearly to appreciate and grasp is that underneath the call for relevance, intelligibility, accessibility and simplicity, and the claims that better scholarship was being used for Bible translation and liturgical revision, were other reasons, the underground springs that supplied the streams and lakes. These were the ideas and ideologies that made the 1960s into a period of major discontent, change and revolution in the western world and in America in particular. All who lived in this period, even if cloistered in the Vatican, or drinking sherry in an English country rectory, breathed into their souls some of this new air and ferment. In fact, even those who rebelled against the innovations and changes of the time were affected by them, so powerful were they!
In short, the revolutionary decade, which most remember in terms of campus unrest, of protests against the Vietnam war, of loud music, of communes and of rapid social changes, was based on (a) human and civil rights – remember Dr Martin Luther King; (b) relativism in morals (“All you need is love”) – thus situation ethics; (c) commitment to the New – thus ditching old ideas and ways; (d) religion as social activism for peace and justice – thus marches and picket lines; (e) multiculturalism, pluralism and egalitarianism – thus variety taken as the norm and encouraged; (f) the irrelevancy of the Church as an institution thus the emphasis on community (koinonia) and on “relationships”; (g) theology expressed as psychology, anthropology and sociology so as to begin from human awareness and need; and (h) an inward turn to the self (self-esteem, self-help, self-affirmation, self-discovery and self-realization). To refer to and describe all this is not to say that it was all a disaster and bad. Rather, it is to say that the stage was set by it and through it for far-reaching and rapid changes in religion, churches, families, institutions, education, politics and so on. Changes did occur and few escaped the full force of them. We live with them to this day.
Having breathed in this new air and having been blown by this new wind, church leaders (without consciously thinking it through) felt impelled to introduce the new, be it a new language for worship, new forms of service, new designs for churches, new seating arrangements within them, new hymns, new music, new dress for clergy, new emphases for the agenda, a new ethos, a new gospel and so on. In fact, it seemed at times that the 1960s had discovered a new God, a God who was much more intelligible, accessible, available, plausible, believable, warm-hearted, friendly and less-judgemental than the transcendent God of the 1950s and of traditional Christianity. In fact, from the 1960s he had been brought down from on high to be present within the community. How could this new God be called by the old names and addressed in the old ways? From now on he (or “it” or “she”?) was “You”. To call him/her/it “Thou” was to dismiss him back to his transcendent sphere, remote from real human life and experience.
Justification for Change from the Experts
Series 3 was the name given to a series of new trial services, addressing God as “You”, produced by the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In introducing them the Commission wrote:
The change from thou to you when praying to God will be difficult for some people; but we must be careful to look at the problem in its true perspective. By a linguistic accident, the thou-form, which was a highly intimate mode of address in Cranmer’s day, has become generally obsolete; but through its survival in prayers it has acquired a sacral tone which the Reformers did not intend.*
*Commentary on Holy Communion Series 3, 1973, p. 7.
Most people apparently accepted this argument without question. They also accepted the argument presented by the translators of the new versions of the Bible – NEB, JB and NIV – that there is nothing in the originals of the Bible to justify the use of different pronouns for God and man in modern English, since in Hebrew and Greek the same pronouns are used for both.
So what people were told from the late 1960s and what many of them came to believe from the 1970s in the English-speaking world went something like this:
“There is absolutely no need any longer to address God with the archaic, second person singular pronoun (Thou, Thee with Thy & Thine and the old verb endings). It was right to use it in the sixteenth century; but, it is not right to do so today because we do not use this pronoun any more in contemporary English. We should use the same pronoun for God as we do for man for to do so is to speak naturally and normally. In fact, in this usage we are being true to the spirit of the 16th-century Reformers who spoke and wrote in the idiom of their day. Further, the Bible in its original languages supports us in doing so for there the same pronouns are used of both God and man. God was not set apart for special linguistic treatment!”
At this stage it will be helpful, we think, to attempt to sort out the truth and error in the claims made by church leaders in the 1960s and 1970s concerning the use of “thou” and “you”. Here are seven observations.
1. It is certainly true that in the languages used in the Bible and in the Church of East and West (up to the 16th century) there are two different words used for the second person, one for the singular and one for the plural. It is also true that God is addressed using the same pronoun as is man – second person singular. Thus in the rendering of the original texts into English in the 16th century the translators used the singular “thou/thee/thy/thine” of both God and a man/woman and used the plural “you/ye/your” of more than one person. They also followed the same rule in the rendering of medieval liturgical texts into English. Not surprisingly in 1611 the translators who created the AV/KJV kept to this plan as they found it in the English Prayer Book and English Bibles of the sixteenth century.
2 While the second person singular (“thou”) was widely used in the 16th century in everyday speech, the (technically speaking) second person plural (“you”) was also used as a second person singular in certain contexts. “Thou” was the form of address in an intimate relation or to a social inferior, while “you” was used in addressing those who were superior in standing and social class or not close to one. This distinction, as already noted, is even found in one place in The Book of Common Prayer (1549, 1552, 1662). In the Catechism the Catechist addresses the catechumen both as “you” and “thou” to denote a different relation of the latter to the Church and thus to God the Father – “you” when he has the faith through his godparents acting on his behalf, and “thou” when he has embraced the faith for himself and stands in an immediate relation to God as a believer.
3 By the beginning of the seventeenth century the “thou” form was obsolete among educated people. It was a rustic form and used for addressing inferiors or even as a deliberately contemptuous form of humiliation; and on the other hand it was the elevated language of love and poetry. Thus the word “thou” did have a sacral tone in the sixteenth century. This can be demonstrated from its use in Shakespeare (see e.g. Romeo & Juliet, Act I, Sc. V in the way that Romeo addresses Juliet) and in specifically prayer literature of the period. And this sacral tone became more evident from the seventeenth century onwards as “you” became the most used form of the second person singular in English for addressing human beings and “Thou” was increasingly used only to God in public prayer. As we have already noted, in the booklet, A Short English Grammar (1753) written for the children in the Methodist Kingswood School, Bristol, John Wesley, the great communicator and evangelist, stated this principle most clearly: “We say ‘Thou, Thee’ to God and ‘You’ to man.” And this rule was used by his brother, Charles, in his 4,000 plus hymns. It was also the rule followed by virtually all educated English-speaking people from the seventeenth century to the 1960s. (However, “thou/thee” was preserved for addressing human beings in certain rural dialects into the 20th century but these were the exception proving the general rule.)
4 Reasons given for the continuing use in public prayers, family devotions, all forms of metrical psalms, hymnody and spiritual songs of the “Thou” address to God until the 1960s included the following: (a) its sacral tone communicates both a sense of apartness from God who is wholly different from us and a sense of intimacy with God who comes near to us in Christ Jesus by the Holy Ghost; (b) its being grammatically singular not plural underlines and upholds the Christian doctrine that God is One God, even though a Trinity of Persons (and that to call God “You” raises the possibility of Tritheism with God as a plurality not a unity); (c) its long, deep and wide history as the focal point of the English tradition of prayer keeps the church in the full stream of English worship and devotion and preserves continuity of faith and worship.
5 Certainly the availability in churches of the “You” address to God was welcomed by many in the revolutionary decades of the 1960s and 1970s. They felt that the change in pronoun brought God nearer to the people of a democratic and egalitarian world, with its emphasis upon human and civil rights and familiar relationships. They believed that a God to whom they could talk as to a fellow traveller and seeker better fitted where they were in the great search for up-to-date-ness (aggiornamento), relevancy, and meaningfulness in life.
6 It can be demonstrated by simple comparisons that liturgies that use “Thou” have a stronger sense of human sin, of God’s holiness, of the absolute centrality of the saving work of Jesus Christ, and of the comfort of the Gospel than those which use “You”. In fact “You” liturgies seem to belong to a different level, even type, of Christian doctrine as they claim to be celebratory in contrast to what their users call the sombre nature of the “Thou” forms. Further, it is obvious that the “You” address to God not only has the effect of detaching us from our past (to which we belong in the communion of saints) but it has quickly adapted itself since the 1970s to the secular demands of society – especially from feminists to adapt the language of prayer so that it contains and celebrates the rights of women and minorities. Therefore the “You” idiom is in a state of flux and, as yet, no seemingly permanent form of it has been worked out.
7 The resistance to “You” came from the minority (a) who were less caught up in the Zeitgeist; (b) who placed a high value on the inherited tradition of the language and literature of public prayer; (c) who strongly felt that there is a real and important—even necessary – sacral tone in the “Thou” address to God; (d) who believed that the communication of biblically orthodox doctrine in and for worship is (virtually) inextricably tied to that form and idiom used and perfected over the centuries; (e) who held that the “You” form could not easily or quickly become a language of prayer if the qualities of reverence and intimacy, biblical orthodoxy and traditional devotion/piety were to be prominent, and (f) who challenged the assumptions of the liturgists that the only proper liturgical language is that of the man/woman in the street; and that language is no more than a means of communication, with no emotional, affective and numinous role. They felt that by insisting on the most commonplace language in worship the modern liturgists were making it difficult for people to have a sense of the wonder, mystery, majesty and glory of the eternal and infinite God.
This discussion of “sacral tone” prepares us to reflect more on the classic language of prayer and worship and particularly to consider its style.
The STYLE of the Language of Prayer
Let us now move on to note why intelligent and informed people, including not a few distinguished writers and teachers of prose and poetry, have stated in varying degrees of intensity since the 1970s that modern liturgies, versions of the Bible and hymns for public worship have no style. It will be appreciated that this is a larger concern than merely criticising a change from “Thou” to “You” in addressing God in public prayer. Let us presume in charity that they possibly know what they are talking about, that there is a possibility that they are at least in part right, and that we want to know precisely what it is they are saying and claiming. Further, let us confine ourselves specifically to Liturgy to keep the discussion manageable.
First of all, it will be convenient to note what it is they are not saying when they say that there was no style in the contemporary rites printed in such books as The Prayer Book (1979) of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., The Alternative Service Book (1980) of the Church of England, The Book of Alternative Services (1985) of the Anglican Church of Canada, and Common Worship (2000) of the Church of England.
They are not saying that the Liturgical Commissions produced necessarily bad or illiterate prose or that these services are not educated and careful compositions. Further, they are not claiming that those who produced them had bad intentions such as desiring to undermine the Christian religion or drive people from churches. And they are not saying that some of these services are totally unattractive or without meaning to some people, who feel that the Church must move with the times.
What they are saying is that these modern liturgies have no distinctive features of language specifically appropriate for their unique purpose as services of worship, for those distinctive and required features are not available in the modern world that gave them birth. They are also convinced that there is nothing to distinguish the language of modern liturgical rites from that of a piece of secular writing, except that technical words from the Bible and theology (e.g., grace and glory) and phrases from the old liturgy (“communion of saints”) are used by them.
To make this point clearer and explain their case more carefully, we need to make use of several technical terms. We are all aware that our language can be used in a whole variety of ways and in differing contexts and circumstances. This is referred to as register which may be defined as “a variety of language used by a particular speaker or writer in a particular context”. And when a number or group of people, who share a common interest or purpose, use the same register in a reasonably consistent way, register becomes style. Here style is not something to be praised or blamed as such for it is a descriptive not an evaluative way of speaking.
There are many examples of style in English – e.g., that used for debates in the British House of Commons, for addressing judge and jury in courts of law, for the composing of pop songs, for the working of computers, for describing American football, and so on. The form of language in each of these examples is clearly recognizable as belonging to a specific context and serves little or no purpose outside of that context.
Is there a style for public worship in English that is recognizable? Yes there is and it is that found in The Book of Common Prayer, the King James Version of the Bible and in classic English hymnody (Watts, Wesley, Keble etc.). Certainly this style was much better known in 1960 than it is today but it is still known and recognized today. People who are not regular churchgoers recognize this style immediately when, for example, the traditional forms of the Ten Commandments or the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostles’ Creed or “Thus saith the Lord” are quoted. If people hear, “And with thy spirit,” most recognize religious language but this is hardly the case if they hear its modern replacement “And also with you.” This point also applies in the use of phrases (“world without end”), clauses (“hallowed be thy Name”) and sentences (e.g., “those whom God has joined together let no man put asunder”).
The central point that the critics of modern liturgies have made is that there is no religious style available in written and spoken contemporary English. That is, there are no appropriate registers to communicate certain basic feelings and convictions – e.g., for awe and reverence towards superiors, for earnest petition of what we cannot demand as a right, and for love which we know we are unworthy to express except by permission of the beloved. Social structures have changed and contemporary language has changed with changes in society and culture (and thus modern language is disposed towards the democratic, egalitarian and utilitarian). However, the absolute need for certain forms of expression, relatedness and address in the public language of worship has not changed because of the need to communicate certain givens (e.g., concerning the nature and character of God and the situation and need of man) that are there in the basic Revelation to which the Holy Scriptures witness.
It is believed by the critics that the creators of modern liturgical texts had a most difficult and probably impossible task, for they sought to produce in a modern form of language a style that the language itself could not in its late twentieth-century modern forms deliver or allow. The reason for this is that it does not contain a register of what may be called the basics of a modern religious language that can communicate at one and the same time reverence before a transcendent, holy God and genuine intimacy with him in communion, fellowship and friendship through his grace. Sometimes half-aware of this, modern liturgists have sought to make use of the traditional language of prayer (e.g., the verb, “Grant ...”) here and there; but since this usage is wrenched from its original meaningful context and placed in an unfamiliar context it does not work and it sounds and feels odd.
Reason requires, contend the critics, that we accept that there is available only one genuine religious style and that this traditional language of prayer and worship has the real potential to put people in the right mood and disposition for reverence and attention before God and for intimate communion with God (if he graciously makes this possible). It alone has the potential and wherewithal (as God allows) to make possible the subtle and varied relation of the worshipper to the Holy Trinity, who is Creator, Redeemer and Judge. While modern forms of English, using theological terms, may take pilgrims some of the way towards worshipping the LORD God in spirit and in truth and in the beauty of holiness, only the genuine style of traditional language of public prayer can do the work really well (again as God graciously permits).
The fact that the traditional language/style of prayer was fashioned in a form of Tudor English and then was used everywhere by all until the 1960s is, we suggest, part of the providence of God that we must accept.
It may be recalled that the Tudor period was a time when the social structure of England required uses of language that expressed deep reverence and subtle degrees of relation and affection. The appropriate registers were there for conversion to use in worship and careful selection by Archbishop Cranmer and the translators of the Bible (particularly Coverdale and Tyndale) and subsequent publication in uniform printed form for public use gathered them into a style which daily usage both sanctified and made familiar. This style was preserved from generation to generation through use of Bible, Prayer Book, Metrical Psalms and Hymns, even while the everyday usage of England changed in many ways (e.g., “you” quickly came to serve for both second person singular and plural).
For centuries the English-speaking world kept to the idiom of prayer created by men as they were guided by the Holy Ghost. It took a revolution, that of the 1960s, to undermine this consensus and usage. Happily it is not completely forgotten and destroyed and may rise again from where it is buried.
Perhaps the above explanations will help to show why it is that so many people (especially American Episcopalians) in the 1970s and 1980s believed that their church had been taken from them, and they ceased to attend services regularly. They were not able, try as they may, to express with clarity what had happened except that they knew it was more than the loss of “Thou”; and they were not able to find in the language of the new church services and Bible versions a style which worked for them. What they were asked to use – even compelled to use by over-enthusiastic clergy – seemed to present to them not a gracious God before whom they were to be filled with awe and reverence, but a God who had come too near to them, who was present without holiness and majesty, and who made them feel uncomfortable in the wrong kind of way. The new “You” did not seem to be the same Deity as the old “Thou”. They became disoriented and dejected. It is probable that only a full exposure to the familiar style will restore their ability to worship the Lord our God in public prayer.
Perhaps also the points made above will raise for some the possibility that it is exceedingly difficult for the modern Church – especially the massive Roman Church which has gone from the numinous Latin to the cosy vernacular – to recover in worship a genuine sense of awe and wonder, reverence and attention, before God the all holy, the all beautiful and the all powerful, and at the same time create a sense of spiritual friendship and communion with him through and in Jesus Christ. The difficulty is in the absence from modern language of the necessary registers to achieve these ends. So it is not surprising that most modern forms of worship across the vast array of denominations is, in terms of words, music and ethos, of the free and easy, charismatic and comfortable, kind. While they produce a familiarity with the God of immanence, they do not easily move the heart to communion with the transcendent, holy One.
We, therefore, call for space and place within the modern Church for worship that is in the traditional style. We are not opposed to the creation of a contemporary language whose style is truly supportive of Christian worship. Our problem is that we do not know how the modern Church is going to find a style of modern English that is truly a worthy and appropriate vehicle and means for the provision of worship that is faithful to the teaching of the Bible and the accumulated insights and wisdom of the centuries. As we have explained, the necessary registers seem to be lacking for the provision of the same in contemporary language and culture, and so, with the best will in the world, what we produce in the contemporary forms is language that is without the right style. It seems to be not much more than the adoption of a secular idiom into which a variety of irreplaceable theological words and phrases has been slotted.
Chapter 5 – Why Language Matters
Writing or reading a book about language imposes certain unavoidable frustrations. There are, for example, no numbers to crunch, as in a treatise from one of the natural or social sciences. Meaning cannot be reduced to equations. If we say, “Out of X-many billion speakers of the English language in the past one thousand years, only Shakespeare writes Shakespeare,” what have we proved? Is Shakespeare statistically irrelevant to the use of the English language, or is he a unique and invaluable master, even a creator, of the English idiom?
Unless we are willing to take our more or less universal inability to write as well as Shakespeare as evidence of his worthlessness to our own speaking and thinking or as a demonstration of his uselessness to our own understanding of what it means to be a human being, then we are forced into a world of words and meanings. We are forced to contemplate matters of history and tradition, and we cannot avoid comparing one grammatical structure against another, since we have agreed in principle that “how something is said” matters a great deal and cannot be totally separated from “what is said”.
“Style” (the consistent and distinctive choices that a writer makes when writing) is not an “add-on” to meaning. Style is the method by which meaning is achieved. Most people, of course, never think of style, any more than they think about the technical definition of “prose” when they open their mouths to speak. But they do speak a language that is the raw material of prose, unless they are intentionally quoting or speaking in poetry. And they do conform to a style, or really a variety of styles, depending on the time and place. When a mother demands of her child, “Do not speak to me in that way,” she is making a sophisticated judgement about style, whether she has the vocabulary to explain that judgement or not. The language of her child’s clique at school is inappropriate in the home and while speaking to a parent.
Thus, ignorance of an analytical vocabulary to discuss language and its forms is the true irrelevance. The power of language to express truths or falsehoods, to wound or to heal, to elevate or to debase, is not diminished by even a general lack of a language about language. Just as ordinary people can navigate their way through the physical world without a knowledge of higher mathematics or physics, the same ordinary people make judgements about language and style constantly. Whether they have heard of Newton’s Law of gravity or not, they know that dropping a hammer on their foot will hurt. Likewise, whether or not they can tell a noun from a verb, they know that words can hurt, and they know what they like to hear or to read.
The difference between language and physics, however, is twofold. First, although both disciplines require close observation, the study of language (as is also true of the use of language) depends more heavily on judgement than the study of physics does. The physicist strives to describe the physical world as accurately as possible. The student of language, on the other hand, once he has described various samples of language, must discriminate among them, evaluating each in terms of time, place, audience, purpose, effectiveness, and most of all, meaning. The hammer mentioned above falls on everyone’s foot in much the same way, but understanding words requires judgement. “Brutus is an honorable man” means something rather different on the lips of his enemy, Shakespeare’s Mark Antony, and on the lips of Brutus’ friends.
The second important difference between language and physics is that most people do not consider themselves physicists because they have not studied physics seriously. In contrast, many people who have expended little or no effort in the study of language consider themselves experts and resent any sort of discussion of language, technical or not, that might cause them to question their own expertise. Certainly, they know what sorts of language they like or dislike, but a request for an explanation of their preferences is interpreted as either the rudest sort of intrusion on their feelings or as some sort of academic hocus-pocus. In other words, they judge that all judgement is wrong, except for their judgement of judgement itself.
The only way out of this circular and self-inflicted prison is study, of the sort that humbles a student before his great subject matter. Language is both a structure and a process of meaning that takes place in history, as millions of other people make choices and judgements that might not be one’s own. Language is a continuity, received from the past, living in the present, and moving on to the future. And the study of language reveals, as Jacques Barzun notes, that prose “is as artificial as verse”. He explains further that prose “is the written form of deliberate expression, a medium than can become an art.”*
*From Dawn to Decadence, 2000, p. 353
The goal of the student of language, then, is not omniscience, but rather an educated judgement in the realms of meaning and the artful use of words that is communicable to other such students and meant to be tested by their judgement in turn. In this way, judgement is more than a preference or an assertion of the will, but a mind informed by numerous examples of the power and the use of language, through literary experience, either as a writer or a reader.
Except for a few possessed of genius, it takes a life-time to learn one or two languages really well, and the English language is a particular challenge. The scope of English expression in history, the fluidity of English structure, and the wealth of the English vocabulary keep most of us students for life and dare us to call ourselves “experts”.
The Mystery of Person
The developed English idiom of prayer, Bible translation, hymnody, and theological expression is an excellent example of the way that consistent choices (style, vocabulary, structure) shape the meaning of language over time. To abandon that religious dialect is to abandon meaning as well as form. Such an abandonment, likewise, would constitute the breaking of a connection with the religious thought and expression of other Western European languages, along with obscuring certain elements of meaning of the Holy Scriptures in their original languages.
The various schools of developmental psychology tend to agree that the first great intellectual task faced by every infant is the discovery that he is not a universe unto himself – that he is not alone. Most commonly, this mental breakthrough is accomplished by recognizing his mother as another being who exists, acts, and wills apart from him – a person. Moreover, when the infant discovers that his mother is a person, it follows that he is a person as well, in relation to her.
The whole business of grammatical person is the effort to express in language the mysterious reality that each of us is not alone and that we each exist in relation to other persons and things. And this reality is “mysterious”, in that an acceptance of it proceeds from a moment of insight or revelation, and a human being may spend a lifetime, perhaps eternity, pondering its significance. Furthermore, those poor souls that do not appropriate this insight or reject it in favor of permanent solitariness in their thoughts tend to be flawed, dangerous persons, of the sort that psychologists call “sociopaths”. Thus, the first person singular is the “I”, along with its associated grammatical forms: “I am”. Mother and I, or any other person or group of persons with whom we each face the rest of reality and existence, taken together, are the first person plural: “We are”.
Naturally enough, the way that we acknowledge the existence of other persons is to attempt to communicate with them – to speak to them. The grammatical forms that we use to speak to others are called “the second person”. In today’s secular English, the pronoun “you” and its associated forms are used both for the singular (when speaking to one person) and the plural (when speaking to more than one person). This arrangement may sound simple enough, but it is not, and we will return to it in a moment, after we have considered the third person, a grammatical perspective on reality that allows us speak about other persons, rather than speaking to them, and to differentiate among persons and things.
“Nouns” are simply names (from the Latin nomen), and they are all third person. Proper nouns are the names of particular persons, places, or things (Bill, Africa, Titanic), and common nouns are names in general (man, continent, ship). To give a name implies the recognition of a separate existence from oneself, knowledge that can be shared with others, and perhaps power over what is named. To learn a noun or name is to enter a fellowship of language, knowledge, and meaning, and to gain the ability to speak objectively about a person, place, or thing, declaring into which of these three categories of being he, she, or it (the third person singular pronouns) appears to belong. A noun may also be plural, so that the third person plural pronoun is “they”.
The “pronouns”, which are words that stand in for nouns and names, maintaining the person, number, and gender of the words they represent, only make sense once we have understood the consciousness that lies behind language and the power of the nouns themselves as names. Likewise, the “verbs”, the words that express action or a state of being, can only be understood when the person and number of their subjects (the nouns and pronouns about which they make a statement) have been sorted out.
A simple sentence such as “Bill Smith is hungry” is a remarkably complex instrument of meaning, even if we ordinarily ignore its complexity, since it assumes that there is someone to speak it, that there is someone named “Bill Smith” to speak about, and that Bill Smith’s state of being and needs can be known and communicated to at least one other person. A sentence may be right or wrong (Smith may have just eaten his lunch), but it is always in some sense a statement about the nature of reality, so that the language we use is constantly reinforcing what we believe or do not believe about existence. This constant and unavoidable reinforcement is the power behind the ancient maxim “lex orandi, lex credendi” – the rule of our praying is the rule of our belief.
We will come to believe whatever we pray, so we ought to choose the language of our prayers with great caution, since there is great danger in choosing unwisely. The traditional means of coping with this danger has been tradition itself. Developed idioms, dialects, and styles of prayer are the products of centuries of human living in relation to God, for good and for ill, as well as direct supernatural intervention. Our Lord and his Apostles, for example, did not have to develop a new religious idiom of their own. They inherited a religious vocabulary and grammar that the heavenly Father had nurtured among his Chosen People over a period of almost two thousand years. Thus, to read the Psalms today, either in the original or in faithful translation, is to share the religious idiom of Christ and the Apostles and to have our own minds shaped by their prayer.
We ought never to forget how much of our inherited religious language, including the traditional English dialect of prayer, is a given – not just a habit or a convention, but a structure built on the inspired Word of God. The Scriptures have more to say about language than most of us recognize. Adam’s original dominion, for example, is expressed by his naming of his fellow creatures, an invention of nouns (Genesis 2:20). The remnants of that linguistic dominion, and the human unity that came from it, are removed for abuse at Babel (Gen. 11:9). In fear and trembling before the burning bush, Moses does not dare to give God a name, but humbly asks that God name himself (Exodus 3:11). A commandment binds all men not to take the Name of the Lord God in vain (Ex. 20:7). Even the one Name above every other Name, Jesus, the Name by which all men must be saved, is given by a heavenly messenger (Matthew 2:21; Acts 4:12; Philippians 2:9). And the divisions of Babel began to be healed at Pentecost (Acts 2:6–11).
As Christians, whose Lord is the Living Word of God, we must take words seriously. When Moses received his answer at the burning bush, the words “I AM THAT I AM” changed the world and mankind’s understanding of God, establishing forever the basis for the idiom of prayer in all languages (Exodus 3:14). That First Person Singular statement of eternal, personal being imposes the limits of our religious language, so that we must pray forever with all the redeemed, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The LORD is the I AM THAT I AM, the Holy Name of God, and our Lord Jesus Christ completed this divine self-declaration when he commanded that his disciples baptize “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). Every word in the Nicene Creed follows from this complete, divinely revealed Name of God, who is both One God and Three Divine Persons without division, confusion, or inequality of being.
Even with so much divine assistance, however, expressing the revealed nature of God, let alone responding to him in prayer, is hard work. Decisions have to be made about vocabulary and grammar, not just for the sake of art or convenience, but for the sake of truth, love, humility, and obedience. Who would have dared, for example, to call God “Our Father”, if his only-begotten Son had not taught us to do so and made possible our adoption by grace? Thus it was that the language of the New Testament was built on the language of the Old Testament and the preaching of our Lord. On this perfected Scriptural foundation, the Christian Greek and Latin of the earliest missionaries were constructed. Then, as these missionaries entered each new land, they faced the challenge of conforming the local language to the received forms of Biblical expression and thought, with the long-term goal of developing a genuinely Christian idiom among each of the converted peoples.
These local Christian idioms existed alongside theological dialects of Greek and Latin for centuries, if only for private and popular devotion, and they did change and develop as their base languages also changed and developed. But so, then, did the Latin and Greek of Christian worship and scholarship. A pagan Greek fishmonger of the second century did not mean what his Christian neighbor meant when he used the word that we have inherited as “Eucharist” or the word that we translate as “Testament”. St Jerome’s idiom and style in his Latin Bible were quite different from those of the great Roman exemplars, such as Cicero, or of the merely ignorant. When early Christians spoke of “sacraments” in a specialized Christian way, they made their Roman neighbors nervous, since those neighbors took the word to mean “oaths” and to imply dark conspiracies. It is a populist fable that the languages used by Christians were ever completely interchangeable with their secular counterparts.
The Language of Relation: Basic Grammar
What the Biblical languages, Latin in its various periods, and the multiple local languages and dialects of evangelized Europe had in common, besides some shared religious vocabulary (“angel” is recognizable as “angel” in more or less all of them), was a grammatical instrument for expressing without doubt or confusion a one-to-one relation of persons – the second person singular. In modern secular English, the all-purpose “you”, used for singular and plural, requires us to determine from the context and the external circumstances whether one person is addressed or many. In contrast, every one of these other languages and dialects (which, taken together, form the linguistic backbone of Christendom), including the English maintained within the traditional English idiom of prayer, possesses a set of pronouns and verb forms that express the singularity of the person addressed, by themselves, in speech or in writing, without the need of further clarification or explanation.
“Thou” is the English version of this specific second person singular pronoun, but it has recognizable cousins in all of the major European languages: su in Greek (tu in the Doric dialect); tu in Latin and the Romance Languages; du in German and the Scandinavian languages; and so forth (see the Oxford English Dictionary). The idiom or register of Christianity in each of these languages possesses the ability to distinguish between the singular and the plural, and that ability unites them in the forms of their religious expression and thought across the ages, despite their other obvious differences.
Some, enamored of the linguistic and liturgical experimentation of the late twentieth century, have scoffed at this connection, arguing that “thou” and its equivalents did not begin as specifically theological forms of expression. This observation is true, but it is as incomplete as observing that both hymns and pornography can be written with the same alphabet. It ignores the fact that religious idioms are intentionally developed from everyday language, and that it is precisely that development that makes specifically theological language meaningful and useful. It also ignores the fact that the secular dialects and registers of languages also develop over time and that they can develop in ways that make them less fit for prayer or Bible translation.
The divergence of secular and religious dialects is no theory. The employment of the all-purpose secular “you,” for example, makes rather a hash out of the translation of the Sermon on the Mount, where some of our Lord’s commandments are addressed to the individual believer (“thou”) and others are directed to the body of believers (“ye” and “you”). Besides the fact that such a change from the Christian dialect of English, exemplified by the King James Bible, forces the preacher or teacher to keep referring to the original Greek text for clarity, those without Biblical languages can easily be led astray.
An American syndicated columnist, Leonard Pitts, Jr, has admonished Christians for sometimes praying in public, dismissing them as hypocrites with the aside, “Never mind that Christ himself said, ‘When you pray, go into your room, close the door’.”* If Mr Pitts had read his Scripture within the developed tradition of English theological language, he would have recognized at once that the words “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet” were addressed to the individual disciple and not to the whole congregation (KJV: Matthew 6:6). If he does not read Greek, he could, of course, learn to do so; but despite the complaints that some make about the “difficulty” of “thee’s and thou’s”, that bit of traditional grammar within one’s own language is rather easier to learn than an entirely new language. Mr Pitts’s error also illustrates the truth that neophyte and expert alike must follow some linguistic tradition or other in order to read the Scripture with understanding.
*Savannah Morning News, 9 June 2000
The disconnection of the Scriptures from the Biblical, the general European, and the specifically English traditions of religious language is a real loss for those who would know God’s Word. Translating the Scriptures into the modern secular dialect, often called enthusiastically “today’s English”, misses the point that their interest and message are not limited to “today”, but extend back through many “yesterdays” and look forward to “forever” (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Such a change represents a breach of linguistic communion with the Christians of the past, and perhaps with those of the future, who may be tempted to adopt yet another new idiom.
More tragic still may be the linguistic gap that has been imposed by the modern secular idiom between one person and another, especially among the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity and between the One God and the particular human being. The modern secular dialect cannot help but have such an effect, to a greater or lesser extent, since it was originally developed for the purpose of establishing distance between one person and another and then developed further to assert a relative equality and interchangeability among persons. Secular and religious English have diverged, and the traditional religious idiom of English was preserved, has been preserved even today in certain quarters, alongside the secular idiom, because the religious idiom can express a simple, dynamic, natural “closeness” between persons that the secular cannot without a footnote or some other words of explanation.
To compress a great deal of history, we can say that the development of the secular idiom began in the Middle Ages, when lesser members of the nobility began addressing their superiors in rank in the plural. Phrases such as “your majesty” and the parallel use of the “royal we” (“We are not amused”) are relics of this age. This use of the plural for a single person was an instrument of social separation, in essence a statement that “I am as apart from ‘you’ as I am able to make myself.” A similar device of distance, adopted more wholeheartedly in other European languages, was the use of the third person in addressing another, although it still persists in certain formal English locutions, such as “Does the General have any further orders?”
Despite this developing language of distance, “thou” and its equivalent in other European languages continued to be used, taking on the significance of an explicit expression of closeness and one-to-one communication, both positive and negative. A close friend or husband might address a woman as “thou,” expressing love. An enemy might employ “thou” as an insult, as in “Thou fool” (Matt. 5:22). “Thou” might even be a fighting word, as in the Spanish ˇTu madre!
To the great benefit of their expression, the mainstream of European languages has maintained a form of “thou,” used as a pronoun of closeness, as did English religious, regional, and poetic idioms. Long after “thou” was archaic in secular diction, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”* In 1923, the philosopher Martin Buber published his “Philosophy of Dialogue” in the book I and Thou (Ich und Du in the original German). He held that addressing “the other” in the closeness of the certainly singular second person was essential to the meaning and understanding of existence.
*Sonnets from the Portuguese, 1850
Unfortunately for secular English, from this religious and philosophical perspective, the universal use of the plural “you” spread among English speakers to all classes of people, in part as fashion (“I speak as the nobility do”), in part as flattery (“You are important”), and in part as the leveling connected with the development of a commercial culture (“You and I are the same for the purpose of business”). There were dissenters from this process, most notably the seventeenth-century Society of Friends. Their modern descendants still adhere to what they call “plain speech”, using “thee” and “thou”, in accordance with their founder George Fox’s teaching that the use of “you” as a singular pronoun is both grandiose and prideful.
The retention of “thou” in The Book of Common Prayer and the English Bible of 1611 (KJV), however, represents more than mere dissent, but rather a conscious decision to maintain, alongside the secular idiom, a specifically religious idiom, able to express the religious relation between particular persons and capable of translating the Scriptures accurately within a tradition of language that had begun with the Scriptures themselves. Furthermore, unlike the innovators of the twentieth century, the reformers, compilers, and translators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not attempt to invent a new idiom based on the secular dialect of their own times.
Rather, they immersed themselves in the religious English that had preceded them, as long as there had been an expression of Christian truth in English. They drew on the English language of preachers and saints; they took up the prayers of kings and commoners, public and private. The language they chose was understandable, not because it was the language of the streets, but because the faithful had used its “raw material” all along. Their accomplishment was not invention, but the adaptation and application of the existing English religious idiom to replace Latin as the language of common public prayer, biblical translation, doctrinal statement, and the formation of souls.
Charges of “archaism” against this form of language are as beside the point as the moral innovators’ claim that chastity is obsolete. Cranmer and the others knew that they were incorporating the past into their present. A living continuity between past and present is the difference between tradition and archaeology, and not to maintain such a continuity is to render the Gospel, given in the historical past, an archaeological relic.
This judgement that continuity is necessary, moreover, is not unique to the English Reformers or to the thousands of speakers of English who have maintained the English religious idiom into the twenty-first century. The new liturgies and bible translations in the other European languages have maintained at least this: the use of a specific second person singular pronoun, their equivalent of “thou”, whatever their secular dialect happens to prefer. By insisting on the use of the secular English dialect, the innovators have cut themselves off, not only from the language of their own past, but also from the present of the rest of the European religious dialects.
As described earlier, the all-purpose “you” of secular English is in its origins an instrument of social distance, commercial equality, and personal interchangeability. The question, “How do you get to the mall?” is not asking how a particular person gets there, but how anybody at all gets there. One need not abandon this form of communication, or condemn the reasons behind it, in order to appreciate that it is inadequate to the expression of Christian truth.
To describe the Eternal Father as saying to the Eternal Son, “You are my son,” or the Son as saying to the Father, “You are my father,” is to misrepresent their relation within the Blessed Trinity. Without the constant insertion of a long theological discourse on the nature of divinity and of the Godhead, such statements in the modern secular dialect, just as they are meant to do among men, impose a social and commercial distance, as well as a functional interchangeability of Person, upon the mystery of the Three-and-One.
This imposition affects the non-liturgical churches of the English speaking world, just as much as it distorts the praying and thinking of the churches with liturgies, where the invocation of the “You-God” constantly tempts the unwary into a practical unitarianism of interchangeable divine persons. Similarly, under the influence of bible translations into the secular dialect, non-liturgical pastors in their self-written and extempore prayers far too often simply lose track of which Person of the Blessed Trinity is being addressed.
The central issue here is the formation of the human heart and mind by language. The eternal Oneness and infinite particularity of the “I AM” of God ought to wring from us the humble, singular admission “Thou art”. The traditional English idiom of prayer maintains this sacred “I-Thou” relation between the One God and the particular person. It asserts the undoubted Oneness of God every time he is addressed in absolute, singular fidelity to revelation. And in turn, as in the administrations of the historic Book of Common Prayer, when the particular person is addressed as “thou” or “thee”, the miraculous, graceful closeness of that person to the One True God is proclaimed.
The statement that “Christ died for thee” in the words of administration at the Holy Communion brings each of us to a focused moment of faith and judgement: each of us believes in particular, as a created “I” in a relation of grace and salvation to an Eternal “Thou”, who is the self-revealed “I AM”, or goes away empty and alone. Even the most compliant to the new regime of secularized expression must sense some of this reality as they awkwardly recite one of the revised versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
The Language of Relation: Structure
Lest we leave the impression that the value of the historic English idiom of prayer is limited to the matter of “thee’s and thou’s”, let us consider briefly two other matters of the language of religious relation that have been abandoned or confused by the turn to a secular idiom: first, the relative clause and, then, the “sense of occasion”.
Phrases and clauses are groups of words intended to express what cannot be said by a single word. We use the phrase, for example, “the white dog”, because there is no single word for a white dog. What sets a clause apart from a phrase is its internal structure of subject and predicate (what is being asserted about the subject through the use of a verb). As we saw earlier, there is no one word for the complex statement “Bill Smith is hungry”, which sort of statement is called an “independent clause” because it may stand on its own grammatically.
Another sort of clause, however, called “subordinate” or “dependent”, cannot stand alone but must be an element of a complex “sentence” (or “complete thought”), built grammatically on at least one independent clause, the bare minimum for a sentence. A “relative clause” is one sort of subordinate clause, and it is called “relative” because the truth or meaning of what it describes (as is true of a single adjective) can only be determined in relation to whatever else is being said. Just as the adjective “red” rather hangs in the air until we relate it to a noun (a “red ball”), so does a relative clause, apart from its complete sentence. Relative clauses allow for the expression of more complex ideas and experiences than a simple declarative sentence, such as “Bill Smith is hungry”.
For example, let us add a relative clause to our statement about Smith: “Bill Smith, who is a glutton, is hungry”. The words “who is a glutton” only make sense in relation to the rest of the sentence, and they are a descriptive and explanatory claim, based on experience or some other form of knowledge, not only about Smith himself, but also about the likely reason for his hunger. The complete sentence, with its relative clause, may be true or not, but its mode of expression has certain advantages over trying to express the ideas contained within it by two declarative sentences: “Bill Smith is a glutton. Bill Smith is hungry.” The separate statements may each be true or false, but the relation between them is less clear than in the more complex structure with its relative clause.
The declarative sentence “Bill Smith is a glutton” expresses an absolute judgement on his character, with the implication that the person making this statement has the right or authority to do so. There is nothing tentative or cautious about it. The equal structure of the two statements gives them equal weight, and they could logically be combined into “Bill Smith is a glutton and hungry.” What goes missing is the limit that the speaker using a relative clause places on his information about Smith’s gluttony. Smith may be a glutton, but he may also be hungry for a variety of other reasons, such as missing his lunch.
The relative clause, while reducing the speaker’s claim of authority over Smith, also preserves Smith’s particularity and his freedom to act or to respond for a variety of reasons. It is descriptive, rather than definitive. It is adjectival, in that it is, like an adjective, an answer to an implied question. What kind of ball is it? A red ball. What sort of person is Smith? I’m afraid that he comes across as rather a glutton.
Now apply these observations to our direct address of God in prayer. For example, the Book of Common Prayer collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, in the traditional English dialect of prayer, begins: “O God, who declarest thy almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity ...”. Its “contemporary language” counterpart in the American prayer book of 1979 revises in favor of the modern secular idiom: “O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity.” The former employs a relative clause, the latter a declarative sentence.
What difference does this make? The traditional collect approaches God within a relation of revelation and humility, answering the implied question “Who am I that you worship?” in a manner that contains within its very relative structure, “Thou art the Eternally singular ‘I AM’ whose grace and mighty acts have taught us, thy creatures and now adopted children, to describe the exercise of thy almighty power as accomplished chiefly through works of mercy and pity.” The contemporary language implies something rather different, a statement to the effect that “We, in some sense equal persons with you, or not so different that we should not address you in the same manner that we address a clerk at the drycleaner’s, hereby stipulate and define that you demonstrate your almighty power in showing mercy and pity.”
Of course, most people praying either collect are not thinking of relative clauses, declarative sentences, grammar in general, or dialects of English. And that’s the problem. Like it or not, the habits of their minds and the nature of their approach to God are taking form from the language that they use. The traditional collect, with its use of relative clauses, is a key element in Western Christian thought and prayer, with clear connections to the prayers of the Eastern Liturgy. This mode of expression is of the Whole Church, and the developed English idiom of prayer has preserved it intact. The same cannot be said of the prayers adapted to the secular idiom.
Nor is it proper to assign this defense of traditional structures of language, whether in the collects or in other portions of the liturgy, to some species of Anglican nostalgia. The Roman Catholic Church, whose revised English liturgies often have led the way in linguistic innovation, has begun to express the same misgivings about the effect of a secularized idiom on its people. On March 16, 2002, the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a document entitled “Observations on the English-language Translation of the Roman Missal”. The very first item in its second section, “Examples of problems in grammar, syntax, and sentence structure”, was the need to replace the relative clause in the collects.
The Language of Relation: The Sense of Occasion
While a complete analysis of the language of the new liturgies would require volumes, let us conclude this chapter with a few thoughts about the overall affect of the traditional and secular dialects on religious feeling, in particular on the sense of the significance of worship as an occasion.
It may seem an odd place to begin, but we would ask you to consider a motion picture, The Edge of Darkness, an American patriotic film produced in 1943, about the heroic struggle of a Norwegian village against Nazi occupation. Near the climax, a Lutheran pastor agonizes in his church about how far to go in resistance to the Nazis. He prays on his knees with “thee’s” and “thou’s” in the most solemn way. The point is not that he would actually have been praying in Norwegian, in which language he would have been using the equivalent of “thou,” but that the only way to capture the seriousness of his crisis of conscience for an English-speaking audience was in the most exalted language, in the familiar idiom of religious English. Similarly, the townspeople finally go to war singing “A Mighty Fortress”, and they are joined by their pastor, who leans out of his bell tower, still dressed in his gown and ruff, with a Thompson machine gun, to mow down a row of Nazi executioners about to murder his friends.
The details of this melodrama may not matter, but the need in the midst of World War II for a sense of higher purpose and a clearly stated appeal to divine justice was real enough. Note, too, that this example of the power of traditional language among ordinary people comes from only twenty years before the Second Vatican Council and the first experimental “new language” liturgies. This is a very brief span of time, especially when we consider that twenty years ago, in 1983, the language of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 book (including its trial forms) was already ten years old. The English ASB, now withdrawn as obsolete, was three years old, with a long trail of experiments behind it.
Popular culture changes, but it does not change that quickly. The ongoing appeal of the “new language” to some is clearly neither its intelligibility (The Edge of Darkness is shown frequently on American television, with few complaints that it cannot be understood) nor its actual newness. It is the same old experimental liturgical language of forty years ago and the same old secular dialect that began to develop in the Middle Ages, as used on the street corner or in fifty-year-old newspapers. The “new language” is desirable to some precisely because it is not the language of religious tradition and because it is the language of their mundane affairs. It does not require them to enter a world other than the world they know.
What an old movie illustrates, a part of popular culture itself, is that worship is an occasion when it is neither a rejection of those things that properly belong to the modern world nor an escape from the modern world itself to enter solemnly into the presence of the God of Ages, in language as well as in attitude (which will be shaped, over time, by language). Traditional religious language is an entrance into the awesome courts of the Lord God, a great King. The developed secular idiom of English, in contrast, must always, to some extent, as it was intended to, create a sense of a meeting of equals and a marketplace of ideas.
It is not that the secular idiom is “bad”, but rather that it is the wrong instrument, the wrong language for drawing close to the God of the Bible. Doubtless, through the grace of God, many who pray in the new idiom do draw close to him, while some who pray in the old religious idiom just go through the motions. We would not dare to judge individual souls, but it appears demonstrable to us that one sort of religious language can be an aid to godliness and another sort an impediment, not just as a matter of personal preference, but on the grounds of revelation, history, and the nature of language itself. In the end, including the matter of language, one must choose to submit himself to the kingdom of God or to the kingdom of man.
We have outlined a great deal of history in this book, ancient and modern. We have also asked our readers to make an objective examination of the specific form of language, of the English idiom, that they use in the most important activities of their lives: the address of Almighty God; the translation and study of his Word; and the delivery of his Gospel of life to others. Our central thesis has been that the traditional English religious idiom, solidly in place as one part of the living whole of the ordinary English language, from the beginnings of English as a Christian tongue until the 1960s, is the most natural, flexible, and effective form of English that we possess together for these great tasks.
The proper use of religious language, which demands of each of us a clarity of purpose, heart, and mind, as well as an intentional submission to God’s Truth, is hard work. No religious idiom by its mere existence can do away with this element of labor in the worship of God, or else our common English words for worship, “service”, “liturgy”, and “office” would not be derived from words that mean “work” in their original languages. On the other hand, the traditional English religious idiom bears with it the assistance and the context of centuries of the work of prayer as undertaken by the saints of old and by our fellow English-speaking Christians of today who continue to give living voice to that idiom of holiness.
Since the experiments with new forms of religious expression began in the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, all of which were based self-consciously on a secular idiom of English at the expense of the traditional religious idiom, the ordinary English-speaking Christian may have grown fatigued through the apparently endless publication of new liturgies and new Bible translations with the whole matter of religious language. Our purpose here is not to add to that fatigue, but to answer the perfectly legitimate question, “Do all these details really matter?”
A World Language
Of the 193 independent nations of the world, thirty use English as their sole official language: Antigua and Barbuda; Australia; the Bahamas; Barbados; Belize; Dominica; Fiji; The Gambia; Ghana; Grenada; Guyana; Jamaica; Kiribati; Liberia; Mauritius; Micronesia; Namibia; Nigeria; Papua New Guinea; St Kitts and Nevis; St Lucia; St Vincent and the Grenadines; Sierra Leone; Solomon Islands; Trinidad & Tobago; Uganda; the United Kingdom; the United States of America; Zambia; and Zimbabwe.
Of the remainder, English is one official language alongside one or more other languages in twenty-six nations: Botswana; Cameroon; Canada; Cyprus; India; Ireland; Kenya; Lesotho; Malawi; Malta; the Marshall Islands; New Zealand; Pakistan; Palau; the Philippines; the Seychelles; Singapore; South Africa; Sri Lanka; Surinam; Swaziland; Tanzania; Tonga; Tuvalu; Vanuatu; and Western Samoa.
Of course, some countries that have English as an official language may have many citizens who do not speak English, as in India, for example. On the other hand, many nations where English is not an official language have many English speakers, as in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Malaysia. Altogether, then, we can estimate that the number of people speaking English as their mother tongue or as a first language is about 400 million.
These are a great many souls, and they ought not to he deprived of their rightful inheritance of the English language, whole and entire, including the traditional English idiom of worship and of the translation of Holy Scripture. Imagine, too, the outrage that would follow from an announcement, foreign or domestic, that the people of any or of all of these nations were unfit to learn, or incapable of learning, the concepts of the natural sciences and their accustomed expression in the English language. A similar outrage should confront efforts to disconnect so many millions of people from a millennium of Christian thought and worship in their own English language, and particularly from the idiom of English expressly developed for Christian expression.
What these simple numbers make abundantly clear is that the use and transmission to future generations of the traditional English idiom of private prayer, public worship, and biblical translation actually do matter to more than a tiny few. If only ten per cent of the English-speaking peoples of the world were affected by the question of religious idiom, even if the rest of the world judged them obstinate or old-fashioned in their use of the traditional idiom of faith, that ten per cent would still encompass forty million men, women, and children with a need to draw close to God in a form of language that they recognize as holy. And in an era that makes much of ecclesiastical “unity”, what will be the effect on the unity of the great communions if their English-speaking children around the world grow up without a single, memorable prayer in common, not even the traditional forms of the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm?
A factor that can distort such considerations is the sheer power and influence of so-called “American English” and (to a lesser extent in the third millennium) “British English” in the whole world. With or without anyone’s approval, “American English” has become the de facto international language of diplomacy, technology, aviation, commerce, and a variety of other human endeavors. The scope and size of the North American economy, with its military and financial ties to so many allied or client nations, renders this state of affairs unavoidable, for the time being at least.
It is easy, then, to leap to the dubious conclusion that “American English”, or some derivative of modern industrial English, is the universal “contemporary idiom” for all purposes, rendering all preexisting English idioms obsolete. Thus, the Churches in North America and in Britain have a particular obligation to exercise a degree of modesty in their efforts to set new standards and goals for religious language, however enthusiastic their liturgical commissions may be. Simply put, churches in modern industrial nations have the material resources to produce more than their fair share of trial liturgies, new or revised hymns, and multiple new translations of Holy Scripture. This set of circumstances may give the industrial West the loudest voice at the English-speaking “table”, but experience teaches that the loudest voice is rarely, if ever, the wisest or best by virtue of its volume alone.
A Way Forward
Although we have offered a variety of criticisms of various new liturgies and new Bible translations, based on what we take to be their conformity to a secularized dialect of English, we have no desire to snatch anybody’s Bible or prayer book from his hands. While the English-speaking churches’ forty years of experimentation with “contemporary English” are a mere drop in the bucket in comparison to the long history of Biblical language and expression, or even in comparison to the history of the developed English idiom of the Christian faith, those same forty years represent most or all of a lifetime to great numbers of living people who are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whatever the arguable defects of the new idiom, the new idiom is what they know. What has served for many Christians, however imperfectly, as a way to God, could not, even if that were practicable, be suddenly taken from them without loss of charity. (This of course cuts both ways, as many Christians suddenly deprived of their traditional forms of worship will testify.) Every approach to religious language that does not begin and end in charity is against the Word of God, so that whatever it was meant to be, the form of words being promoted ceases to be “religious language” in any meaningful sense and becomes, at best, the crude language of power and politics, and at worst, a weapon to be used against the faith of others. Charity is patient, kind, devoid of pride and envy, and places the welfare and happiness of others ahead of all self-interest (1 Cor. 13:4–5). These qualities, however, do not mean that charity is mentally or spiritually “soft”, careless about details, or required to adopt a policy of “anything goes”.
After forty years of experiments aimed at adapting the secular idiom to religious expression, whoever has sponsored them, it is now clear that this particular set of experiments has failed. A new religious idiom of English has not been discovered or achieved. If it had been, then plans for further wholesale revisions of language and for further new liturgies, without an end in sight, would be unnecessary.
Put another way, a dead-end has been reached, and the only option is to turn back to search for the true road ahead. How, practically, that should be done is, after the experience of the last forty years, no easy question. The search for the true road must, however, begin at the last point where we had our proper bearings and shared a genuinely common language of religion – with the traditional English idiom of prayer and the traditional liturgies in English. The road forward cannot, if it is a road, stop there. It is a general truth that language evolves, and a language artificially fixed becomes less and less likely to lead anywhere. One of the liturgical revolution’s greatest disservices to the future development of the English religious idiom was to freeze the traditional liturgies as they were in the 1960s. Whether those liturgies were outlawed or simply shoved aside, those who continue to pray in the traditional idiom remain understandably afraid that if any changes are made to the traditional forms, they will be made by the same people and in the same spirit that set out to destroy them. This caution, however, can obscure, even for those with the greatest loyalty to the traditional religious idiom, the fact that the traditional idiom has always been a living language, and not a relic incapable of further growth or improvement.
The damage can be repaired. The traditional English idiom of prayer has always grown and developed whenever it has been allowed to do so in the lives of ordinary English-speaking Christians. It will again, God willing, if those who worship in the traditional language are simply given the peace and the opportunity to move forward once again in the ordered Christian way of life that gave voice to its faith through the centuries in the English religious idiom.
Not for lack of trying, the attempt to graft the Christian religion on to the secular idiom of English has borne no fruit in a new religious idiom. There is, therefore, a far better chance that new shoots will spring from the old root of the English religious idiom than from the lopped off and discarded branches of the worship committees. The essential question, however, is never going to be “whose language prevails?” but rather “what language takes us closer to God and opens our hearts to his truth, light, and grace?”
For some fifty generations, English-speaking Christians have shared an idiom of faith and fellowship under the Providence of God. That is a fact, as well as the logical starting-point for all our further considerations of religious language in English. Where that same Providence will lead us in the future we leave to God’s judgement. But as we await his good pleasure, let us hold to that form of godliness and of godly language that we and so many before us have found to be true.
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