That we finally lose not the things poetical

I’ve long thought that there is a secret organisation at work in the church: the Campaign for the Abolition of Poetry. The CAP is dedicated to hammering flat the language used in liturgies, hymns and biblical translations, turning “difficult”, “alienating” poetical language into “accessible” prose.

The CAP’s motto is: “And the rich he has sent away empty”. Membership is open to all who truly believe that “low murmuring sound” is an improvement on “still small voice”.

Revd Bosco Peters’ latest post inadvertently highlights one of the CAP’s most spectacular triumphs in recent years. Here is the collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, from the Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy;
Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy;
that, thou being our ruler and guide,
we may so pass through things temporal,
that we finally lose not the things eternal:
Grant this, O heavenly Father,
for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

Revd Peters quotes the 1979 US version of this prayer, which modernises the language slightly but is otherwise recognisable as the same profound, moving and beautiful prayer.

And here is the ICEL version as used in the Roman Catholic Church:

God our Father and protector,
without you nothing is holy,
nothing has value.
Guide us to everlasting life
by helping us to use wisely
the blessings you have given to the world.

Revd Peters describes this as “the same prayer”. Well, yeah, technically. But the ICEL version is so bland and dull that it makes me want to weep. It literally causes me physical pain to see the two versions side by side. But the ICEL version is simpler and more accessible, which I suppose is what counts in the end. </sarcasm>

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30 Responses to That we finally lose not the things poetical

  1. The Dotterel says:

    Personally, I’ve always thought the Cranmer is the equal of Shakespeare. And if God deserves magnificent cathedrals, doesn’t he also deserve fine prose?

  2. Phil Walker says:

    I’d be willing to argue that the RC prayer is not the same as [the] TEC one. It misses out the importance of trust in the opening line, it interprets ‘strength’ as ‘value’, it avoids asking for mercy, it doesn’t name God as ‘ruler and guide’, it completely turns around ‘pass[ing] through things temporal’ by making it into ‘us[ing] wisely the blessings of this world’, and it fails to pray explicitly through the mediatorial work of Christ. Frankly, I reckon you could pray that in a synagogue without too many problems, which suggests that it’s probably not distinctively Christian.

    On the more general point, I’m always a bit stuck. On the one hand, I agree with you that poetic prayers and elevated language are worthwhile. But on the other, I’ve heard too many people say they don’t understand it. Obviously the ideal would be for people to understand the higher language; but we have to deal with the church as she is, not as we would like her to be, and I would sooner people understood the gospel in the vernacular than that they didn’t understand it in a more beautiful tongue.

  3. John H says:

    Exactly. And even more so: buildings can be a distraction and a drain as much as a benefit – much as it pains me to admit it! – but the Word is at the heart of the Christian faith.

    To continue the analogy: I’m not advocating an antiquarian attachment to archaic language. Some modern liturgy is very good (some of the C of E’s more recent stuff), just as some modern church architecture is very good.

  4. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    buildings can be a distraction and a drain

    A drain most certainly, so long as we’re only ever interested in the preservation of very old ones, for historic rather than religious reasons. A beautiful worship space need not be a drain though. And a distraction? Hmmm… I’m not so sure.

    …but the Word is at the heart of the Christian faith

    The Word became flesh and Tabernacled among us, and we beheld his glory.

    Very un-Lutheran of me, I suppose. Am I bovvered?

  5. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    I would sooner people understood the gospel in the vernacular than that they didn’t understand it in a more beautiful tongue.

    I would too. That’s why sermons are preached in the vernacular. But I would presently argue though that the liturgical texts of the Liturgy itself are not principally concerned with the communication (i.e. making understandable) of the Gospel, but rather a means by which we participate in it. And since its the Liturgy there’s a whole lifetime available for instruction regarding the more flowery bits.

  6. Phil Walker says:

    I would presently argue though that the liturgical texts of the Liturgy itself are not principally concerned with the communication (i.e. making understandable) of the Gospel, but rather a means by which we participate in it.

    H’m. I can’t see why you wouldn’t pray in Latin, on that basis. Surely participation and comprehension cannot be thought of as being engaged in a trade-off?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for profundity and stretching people. But I fear that sometimes we think something is profound simply because we don’t understand it. It might just be incomprehensible. 😀

  7. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    H’m. I can’t see why you wouldn’t pray in Latin, on that basis

    Ooh. Latin! I love Latin! 🙂

    I can’t see why either. And, to some degree, neither am I against it. After all, Lutherans continued with Latin masses in major ecclesiatical centres well into the 18th c. at which point rationalistic considerations hostile to a whole host of things found themselves hostile to the Latin masses as well. Latin in Lutheranism is probably moot today though; it’s been so long out of the tradition.

    I understand the concerns. But I don’t think participation and comprehension are engaged in a trade-off in the retention of traditional liturgical language and usage. One participates in such language throughout a lifetime. Thus one learns to comprehend it as much as any other language. We all say “Amen” don’t we? Even those of us who aren’t Aramaic speakers?

  8. John H says:

    JRH: I didn’t mean a distraction in the sense of distracting from the immediate experience of worship; more in terms of diverting the energy and attention of the church more generally.

    In any event, I was basically wrestling in that comment between my personal love of good church architecture, and an awareness of the primacy of the Word. The early church didn’t have particularly impressive buildings, but it did have the Word. And I’d say we “behold” the “tabernacled” Word among us in preaching and the sacraments rather than architecture, even today.

    Phil: I agree with JRH that liturgy needs to be seen as a lifelong learning process. I grew up reciting the Nicene Creed every Sunday between the ages of 8 and 14, as a choirboy. Did I understand what I was saying? No, but that – and the other aspects of the liturgy – formed and shaped me.

    Fears about the liturgy being “incomprehensible” tend to be based on a fear that if people don’t understand absolutely everything on their first visit then we will never see them again. As one writer put it, people don’t go to their first baseball match with that expectation, so why should the church be afraid of being seen as something which you need to “get the hang of”?

    Hence the Church of England has bottled it and introduced ICEL-style simplified collects to “sit alongside” (i.e. supplant) the traditional versions, after complaints over comprehensibility of the collects originally included in Common Worship: because it no longer has the confidence that people will “grow into” the collects over years of repetition. If it can’t be understood by pretty much everyone first time round – out it goes.

  9. Paul Huxley says:

    As much as I hate the word, there is a balance to strive for.

    I thoroughly agree with the above. And at the same time some archaisms can be avoided without making things sound ugly.

    ‘Thee’, ‘Thou’, ‘Thine’ and ‘Thy’ are prettier than their modern equivalents but normally a simple substitution doesn’t wreck anything and for unchurched people it helps a lot. However, we ought to start a CACAP (Campaign for the Abolition of the Campaign for the Abolition of Poetry) before it’s too late.

  10. John H says:

    Paul: agreed I can live without “thee” and “thou” and so on. As I said in my post, the 1979 US BCP version of the prayer is fine. C.S. Lewis argued that the BCP should have continued to be gradually modernised in its language here and there, as it was until the late 18th century. As it was, the BCP got stuck in its archaic (but admittedly lovely) language until both its language and theology were swept aside.

    Phil: to go back to your very first point, re lack of mention of Christ: to be fair, the Roman Catholic collects all end with: “we make our prayer through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever”, but this isn’t printed separately in each collect.

  11. J. Random Hermeneut says:

    I’d say we “behold” the “tabernacled” Word among us in preaching and the sacraments…

    Well, yes. I guess the point I was driving at was the incarnational character of God’s self-revelation. John means principally — the God/man Jesus = the Logos. It means more, not less, than a simple “blah, blah, blah…” out of a confused curate on a Sunday.

    In fine, I loathe iconoclasm and all of its works and all of its ways. I suspect the Campaign for the Abolition of Poetry is a variant of iconoclasm. We use poetic and liturgical language not just because it means something but because it also symbolises something – often a polyvalent sort of symbolism. The CAP seems to me, somehow, a bit anti-incarnational.

  12. Phil Walker says:

    Ah, my apologies to the bishops then. Well, on that *specific* point. 😉

    Fears about the liturgy being “incomprehensible” tend to be based on a fear that if people don’t understand absolutely everything on their first visit then we will never see them again.

    Oh, indeed, and that’s not my position at all, hence my disclaimer about being in favour of profundity. I’d sooner someone never came back with a lot to think about than kept coming for absolutely nothing worth contemplating. But that’s my point: incomprehensibility merely for the sake of seeming deep is a Bad Thing; profundity which requires thought and reflection is a Good Thing. Sooner speak five words with my mind than ten thousand in a tongue, and all that.

    I’m all for poetry, but I want the poetry to serve the gospel, rather than displace it.

  13. steve martin says:

    I like the latter version much better.

  14. John H says:

    Steve: any particular reason?

  15. steve martin says:

    Oops!!!

    I meant to say former.

    The latter version is Pelagian to the core.

    Sorry about that.

  16. John H says:

    Steve: LOL! Thought we had a controversy on our hands, there. 🙂

  17. steve martin says:

    LOL!! Sorry…maybe next time!!!

  18. Yes, but…I prefer the traditional Cranmerian (?) language myself, and I second what you say, John, about the danger of losing the poetic, but as a pastor I have ministered in a rural congregation where the average level of education was Year 10, and the traditional collects, or the even the lections from the old RSV or new ESV, were not clearly “understanded of the people”. Call it a failure of the modern education system if you like, but it is a problem the evangelical-minded minister must address. So, I opted for the modernised collects and the NIV for the lections, even though I used quite often to cringe at their banality. Occasionally I even chose to re-read the Gospel text before the sermon in an even more simplified translation than the NIV, sometimes my own. Yes, if only C.S. Lewis had been listened to in the period between 1947 – 1977 (RSV-NIV) especially, also in regard to Bible versions! A great opportunity was lost, we might have been able to bring the people along with the revisions of the commn texts every decade or so, and also might have avoided the plethora of modern translations.

  19. Jesse says:

    I love the post. I also notice something more clearly that I’ve felt in similar discussions before: the comments are vaguely dismaying. Not hugely, just vaguely. The direction they’ve taken seems to indicate the raging success of the CAP.

    Whatever happened to teaching? Shouldn’t the first instinct – when whatever prayer or passage seems incomprehensible or alienating – be to ask and have answered the questions: Why this? What does this mean? Instead any conversation about language drifts to when and to what degree poetic language should be allowed, thoroughly accepting the terms of the CAP.

    But, was the poetry or traditional language in question introduced to serve itself or be incomprehensible? Certainly it can come to do so but even then why not ask: what was this originally? It is as though it can be taken for granted that any poetry to be kept in the liturgy must be justified and defended but not taught to us. This makes me wonder if the CAP has won.

    And we happily oblige, defending language without asking why it is the suspect and why they do not wish to learn.

  20. Paul Huxley says:

    I know a guy who ministers on a housing estate in Roehampton, London with some of the least (formally) educated people you’re likely to meet in the UK. And he preaches long expositional sermons (from the ESV, I think) and teaches many of them Biblical Greek. And he’s doing a great job from what I can tell.

    He would probably want to say; don’t underestimate people. If they’re filled with the Spirit of Christ they will want to hear the Bible. They will want to hear the gospel proclaimed powerfully. More accurate but difficult translations won’t stop them, at least if you take the time to properly explain them.

  21. John H says:

    Revd Henderson: thanks for your comment. Those of us who love the old prayer book’s language do need reminding from time to time that (as Alan Bennett put it) “Cranmer did not die for English prose”.

    Hence my concern is not over modern language, but banal language (and I don’t have the slightest problem with churches still using the NIV – especially since I’m not a great fan of the ESV).

    There is liturgy out there which manages to be modern without being banal: the Church of England’s “Common Worship: Daily Prayer”, for example. Apparently the RCC is in the process of retranslating its liturgies, and restoring some of their poetry in the process. So it’s not a clean sweep for the CAP…

  22. John,
    Yes, that should be our goal, modern but not banal…well put.

    Paul,
    I take your point, and every blessing to your friend’s work.
    But this or that isolated example doesn’t get us ’round the reality that there is a widening cultural and linguistic gap between those with education and those without. Must we require university level English for the Gospel to be understood?

    PS
    I must say, the more I’ve read/used the ESV, the less happy I am with it as the purported “English standard version” for the 21st century.

  23. Paul Huxley says:

    “Must we require university level English for the Gospel to be understood?”

    That would be awful wouldn’t it? I’m all for every attempt to make the true gospel as accessible as possible (so long as we don’t attempt to change the gospel in the process). At the same time, if/when such people are converted, presumably we want to equip them as well as possible in their Christian lives. That’s going to involve teaching the easy and the hard bits of the Bible. I challenge anyone to explain 1 Peter 3 comprehensively without taxing their congregations’ brains. We want people always to be moving on in knowledge and wisdom. The question here is ‘Where does poetry/liturgy come into that?’.

    I guess my answer is that somewhere amongst sermons, participatory prayers and songs we need plain, simple, obvious statements (eg. the Apostle’s Creed). But also, we need something more poetic at times. I’d take simple gospel truth over poetic nonsense 1000 times out of 1000. But the Bible combines gospel and poetry (even to the detriment of clear communication at times), and I don’t see why we shouldn’t do likewise (I’m not suggesting that you do – just thinking out loud).

    On the ESV, I’d be interested to hear why you’re becoming less satisfied with it. I’m no ESV fanboy, although it is my primary translation. Have subscribed to your blog, maybe I’ll find out some day.

  24. Paul,
    I think we’re essentially in agreement. Yes, you do need to stretch people once they have been grounded in the basics. I like your suggestion of basic plus more advanced elements in the liturgy, which is basically what I try to do.

    As for the ESV, I’m perplexed myself as to why I don’t rate it higher, given that it is basically the RSV, a translation I liked and used exclusively in the first years after I returned to the grace of my baptism. With the obviously needed corrections made and the language updated, it would seem to fit Lewis’s paradigm of how to go about updating religious and liturgical texts perfectly, and yet I’m not completely satisfied with it. It’s certainly not a bad version, let me hasten to add. But perhaps I expected too much from it? Or it came fifteen years too late? My first thought is that it’s a language issue, as I find myself appreciating the work of the Revised English Bible translators/revisers all the more lately (I know, that really is university level English!), which might indicate that the ESV is too “mid-Atlantic” for my tastes. I may have to sit down and put my thoughts to paper, in which case, yes, I will post them.

    Thanks for subscribing to my blog, btw – I hope you enjoy it. You might like to check out ‘What Sasse Said’ as well.

    Thanks John, for leave to repond to Paul.

  25. John H says:

    I find the NRSV’s language preferable in almost every place where it differs from the ESV (am not qualified to comment on quality/philosophy of translation). The few exceptions to that normally arise from the NRSV’s gender-neutral language. I’m generally in favour of the NRSV’s approach to this, but not when it comes up with horrors like translating Ezekiel’s “son of man” as “mortal” (which just conjures up in my mind visions of bad sci-fi monsters: “Die, mortal!”).

  26. John,
    Yes, the NRSV has a very high literary standard, which I appreciate, and their translation philosophy of “as literal as possible, as free as necessary” is a good one. But I think on matters other than style the NRSV is a bit like the curate’s egg – good in parts. My experience with it is that it is generally more accurate than the NIV, especially in the OT. Apart, that is, from those places where the biases of liberal scholarship have resulted in some questionable readings appearing in the main body of the text while equally well or better attested readings/word choices are relegated to the margins. Most lay readers are not equipped to judge such matters, so that is quite tendentious. And yes, the gender-neutral language is indeed problematic in many places, such that I think it can be questioned whether NRSV should be used in the public reading of the scriptures. That’s my view anyway, and I hasten to add it’s an amatuer one.

    Btw, for those who don’t have access to a fully annotated Greek NT, the NKJV provides helpful marginal notes that provide useful textual information on disputed readings – one doesn’t have to subscribe to their Majority Text primacy theory to benefit from this.

    We still await the “perfect” English version, I guess.

  27. joel hunter says:

    Musing a bit here, but I wonder if all literacy is created equal? From a historical perspective, it would appear that increasing literacy rates are directly proportional to prosaicness. Thanks to the miracle of modern education, more people can read The Sun. I daresay that the lexical issues of translations, modern or ancient, are virtually irrelevant. We have educated ourselves out of feeling and thinking symbolically. We have constricted what can be thought and experienced. We live one-dimensionally. No translation of, for example, Isaiah, can withstand the reductive mind of the contemporary spirit.

  28. Joel,

    I find your comments intriguing but a bit cryptic – care to expand further?

    One thing I would first say in reponse, though, is that for a Christian who takes the inspiration of scripture seriously, the lexical issues of translations can never be irrelevant. A mistranslation of even a single word can echo through the centuries with disastrous results spiritually, cf. Augustine’s reliance on a Latin Bible and his doctrine of justification.

    But to say that may not be addressing your main concerns, which seem to relate to the culture in which literacy functions and the way that culture limits functional literacy within certain bounds (?). If that is what you are pointing to, could I suggest that a rediscovery the the Bible’s metanarrative and of our place in it might provide an antidote to the cultural impoverishment around us.

    Have you ever read Q.D. Leavis’s ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’? It’s over 70 years now since first published, but it’s a classic and is still in print and many public libraries carry it (or used to!). It provides a very interesting study of literacy in England over the centuries. It occurred to me that it would provide good background for this discussion, particularly her discussion of the Puritan’s impact on literacy, and I would add the Christian religion generally. No doubt many other books that I have not yet read would also contribute to the discussion – I must confess once again that I’m only a vitally interested amatuer in this subject.

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