Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Importance of Good Liturgy

Damien and I have a monk friend, who does a lot of monkery according to the rule of St Benedict, whose teaching on wine he finds most agreeable. His prime focus is the sacred liturgy, and he devotes a lot of his time to helping others with their liturgical formation. He's a wonderful man. A point to which he always returns is the necessity of beauty infiltrating all the senses in order to elevate the mind to a level of transcendent worship of the one God, Living and True. Nothing is more important than this - in the gospel our Lord chastises Martha for worrying about everything, and praises Mary for choosing to spend time with Him. The Catholic Church has in recent times done a fairly poor job where beauty is concerned; translations are increasingly ugly, the mass has been thinned out, and music is all over the place. As a linguist, the translations are the part I find most repugnant. I want to look at the Common Book of Prayer and see how the Anglicans are doing for beauty.

The first thing which strikes one when looking at this little book of heresy is that there is a huge amount of variety. "I confess to Almighty God..." may be nice and convenient, but is there any reason at all why things couldn't be spiced up? Check out these little prayers of confession for Christmas (there are several according to the time of year/occasion):

"The Virgin Mary accepted your call to be the mother of Jesus. Forgive our disobedience to your will. We have sinned: forgive us and heal us."

Or this:

"The wise men followed the star to find Jesus the King. Forgive our reluctance to seek you. We have sinned: forgive us and heal us."

The Roman Missal does of course have season specific prayers, but they absolutely drench the Anglican liturgy, and it is beautiful.

The second thing which strikes one is the antiquity of the language, particularly in the psalter. Anglicans don't seem to think that the common man is so stupid that leaving in traditional second and third person singular verb endings and the second person pronouns would completely confound him. Nor are they afraid to use words whose meanings have changed but remain perfectly clear from the context. These principles create truly beautiful translations, such as this:

"...He sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty,
He shall come again to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
The Holy Catholick Church..."


"...He remembering His mercy,
Hath holpen his servant Israel,
As He promis'ed to Abraham and his seed, forever."

The sense of tradition, the sense that one is pronouncing the same creed as our forefathers since the 16th century, not 2008, is profound and important. It reminds us that we are not saying the creed 2000 years after the death of Christ, but throughout all ages. This is one of the motivations for using Latin, but just because we have translated the missal from Latin doesn't mean we ought to throw away the underlying principles of beauty of language, as indeed we have.

I'm writing this primarily because I love Anglican things, and I don't actually expect the Church to change anything because some anonymous, indignant student writes a blogpost complaining about Her dreadful choices. Nevertheless, I really really hope that someone, somewhere in the Vatican, has common sense enough to stop this awful 'Good News' business where the text should quite clearly read, 'The Gospel'.


  1. A lot of the new translation simply does not roll off the tongue and I am sure that once the dust settles there will be a number of nips and tweaks to amend the defects of the language. Even so as a genuine attempt to drag the words of the Mass in the English speaking world back into line with the original Latin, and indeed Continental Europe where such wholesale liberties with the text were never taken, it is very welcome indeed. Perhaps for Anglicans who have grown up with it The Book of Common Prayer has a resonance and power but for those without an atavistic tie much of the language can seem affectedly archaic and bordering on the comical. Your points about the throwing away of the beauty of the language that should be an intrinsic part of the Mass are extremely pertinent yet you are negative about your ability to affect change. Given the Holy Father's recent telephone calls and letters to humble members of the Church, I am not without hope that a letter from you and Cosmas asking for some infelicitous phrasing to be amended would make a difference. Nothing that sounds as though it belongs in Spamalot though, please!