Good Manners: The Place of Public Language

Good Manners: The Place of Public Language

by Kenneth Hamilton

 

Manners Makyth Man. The motto of William of Wykeham’s Winchester College is well known, but the idea it expresses is not much in circulation in these days and probably seems as dated as the motto’s spelling. It is not that good manners have ceased to be valued at all. In countless homes parents continue to urge their children to remember “the magic word, Please.” Employees of businesses serving the public are instructed to address the clients by name (usually read off their credit cards) and to send them on their way with the injunction to “have a nice day.”

Complaints about the rudeness of people who push themselves forward or otherwise make a nuisance of themselves are frequent, and such complaints are made not only by the elderly. Common decency in behaviour is still expected and is widely forthcoming more widely than some who see nothing except moral decay in contemporary society are willing to admit. What has almost been forgotten, however, is the understanding of manners as an element in the civilized conduct of life far more inclusive than avoiding offensive speech or actions and retaining some polite conventions such as saying, “Thank you” and, “You’re welcome.”

Essentially, manners is a word indicating habitual behaviour. Good manners are marked by behaviour appropriate to the time, the place, and the persons involved in any social interaction. Knowing what is appropriate in every instance is what makes us mannerly human beings. In a highly formalized society — France in the seventeenth century, for instance, where everything from architecture to tying a ribbon was covered by strict rules there is no doubt about what is acceptable and what will be called “barbarous.” Once the class-structure of a society becomes fluid and tradition no longer is the court of appeal in all questions of how to behave in public, though, such certainty disappears.

The extraordinary rate of change in the social fabric of recent days, together with an unprecedented revolution in public morality, has taken away most of the support which our traditions used to provide and left the task of deciding all matters of behaviour almost wholly in the hands of the individual. (The other side of the same coin is that many modes of behaviour formerly considered an individual responsibility are now regulated by law.) Small wonder that there is presently so much being said about the breakdown in good manners and so little in the way of concrete suggestions about improving the situation! For in manners the public and the private realms meet. When there is confusion about either or both, what is appropriate behaviour becomes a nightmare to deal with.

My purpose in raising the issue of manners today is not to pursue the moral dilemma felt, of necessity, by most thinking people. It is to consider the language of the Book of Common Prayer. That the language of the B.C.P. is stately, sonorous, time-hallowed, and rhythmic nearly everyone even those who think it inappropriate for present day use — agrees. But good-mannered? My answer is simply this. Good-mannered behaviour is appropriate behaviour. The language of the B.C.P. is fully appropriate to its use, which is to allow people of all ages, temperaments and social backgrounds to worship Almighty God and His Christ together; to remind them through the liturgy of the essentials of the common faith they profess; to nourish them by means of an informed participation in the Church’s sacraments; and so to unfold to them the Word of God that they do not confuse obeying God’s will with the hopes and aspirations of the unbelieving world — the secular “gospel” to which they are exposed every day of their lives.

The good manners of the language of the B.C.P. has nothing to do with gentility; although it has everything to do with edification, in the sense of building up the body of Christ. Its appropriateness lies in its being so unashamedly a public language, clearly distinct from the language used in conversation between individuals or small social groups.

In private devotion what is appropriate language is wholly determined by the nature of the individual’s relation to God. St. Teresa of Avila would on occasion berate God for his unscrupulous interference with her own plans. For her, the words she used were her way of acknowledging God’s Sovereignty.

They would be words highly inappropriate, however, for public worship. In church the individual occupies a double position. On the one hand, he or she is alone before the Almighty, a single worshipper carrying a private experience and individual thoughts known to no other person. On the other hand, this very private individual is a member of the Body of Christ sharing a common faith, confessing common failings and needs, and united not alone to those present in the building but to all other Christian worshippers and also to the Church Triumphant in Heaven. The language of public devotion has to meet this two-sided situation, neither emphasizing the community so that the individual is excluded nor encouraging individuals to forget the communal nature of worship.

The B.C.P. balances these requirements in a masterly fashion. It provides a language that is at once fully personal and at the same time ‘’elevated” so as to be always a reminder that the worshipper is part of a community met together to make a public confession of its faith. That public language must be language elevated above common speech was something taken for granted by previous generations yet now almost forgotten with unhappy results.

The Christian culture emerging from the collapse of the Roman Empire developed a structure of education deriving from Classical civilization. Prominent in that structure was Rhetoric. Rhetoric supplied the training needed by all who aspired to enter public life — notably law and politics — where the right use of language enabled a speaker to set out an argument so as to engage both the minds and the emotions of an audience.

With the coming of modern times Rhetoric dropped out of the educational curriculum, but the study of Greek and Latin remained long the core of education and kept alive the classical tradition. (Karl Marx, for one, followed Aristotle’s Rhetoric closely when preparing The Communist Manifesto.) It is noteworthy that pulpit oratory into this century was an inspiration for politicians. The oratorical styles of Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker were instantly recognizable by those who had worshipped in Baptist churches. Thus Rhetoric as a discipline was kept alive in the churches after it had begun to wither elsewhere. The elevated language of the Prayer Book, of course, continued to instruct Anglicans even if they were unaware of the tradition from which it had sprung.

The genius of Archbishop Cranmer was to combine the historic traditions of Christian worship with the Reformation emphasis upon the centrality of Holy Scripture. He used words which were sonorous, yet his style was free from the over-complexity of much English prose of his Age. By 1662 the English language had changed greatly. The Restoration divines who produced the Prayer Book of that date, nevertheless, did not try to update the Tudor English of the earlier Prayer Books. They knew how public language always favours old-fashioned modes of speech because of the need to preserve links with tradition, just as it uses cadenced sentences to make its pronouncements memorable.

These conditions apply to all public language, since what is without elevation and merely contemporary will never make a lasting impression. Take the Gettysburg Address, for instance. In the eighteen-sixties few Americans would have been likely to say, “Fourscore and seven years ago” when referring to an event eighty-seven years past. By using this archaic form of words — and by following immediately with the reference to “our fathers” Lincoln ensured the intended effect of his speech on his hearers and its survival as a monument in the history of his nation.

And the war-time speeches of Winston Churchill, which so heartened Britain in the desperate wartime years and which today are so quotable, with their balanced phrases remind us how Churchill formed his oratorical style deliberately on the model of the eighteenth-century prose of Edward Gibbon. Continuity with the past, indeed, is the life-blood of public language. Everyday good manners consist in giving deference to other people not behaving as though we alone matter. Good manners in public discourse require us to associate ourselves with former generations, remembering always that we are the heirs of their struggles and achievements.

The language of the B.C.P. has made the book valued beyond Anglicanism, so that it has become part of the heritage of all English-speaking peoples. (The Oxford Book of Quotations gives us almost as many entries from it as from the Bible.) Good traditions have this effect. Their excellence spills over into the community at large, enriching everybody. Yet there can be no doubt at all that Anglicans themselves carry the responsibility of preserving what has been central to the Anglican tradition throughout its history.

In a real sense, Anglicanism without the Prayer Book is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. In the B.C.P. Anglican faith and worship are enshrined in a unique manner, one hardly paralleled in any other Christian communion. The book has been the measure of Anglican devotion and Anglican theology (the law of prayer, the law of belief). It is a model of instruction in how to participate in public worship. Flexible, without presenting the worshipper with a bewildering array of choices, it soon becomes familiar and there is no confusion about what is coming next. With use, familiarity is such that concentration upon the words being said becomes natural whether or not the book is opened. For the aged, memory of the services remains even after other memories begin to fade. For the young, an understanding of the communion of saints is made easier as they repeat the same prayers said by their elders and countless others before them. For those who are not “birthright” Anglicans, the introduction into a venerable tradition is frequently all the more valued because it opens up a wider vision than that of worship seemingly tied simply to the present moment in time.

The desire to be tied to the present, however, seems to be the motivation behind the movement to replace the B.C.P. with a contemporary liturgy. At any rate, the language of the B.C.P. is supposed to be outdated and hard for folk today to understand. Although thousands of the unchurched continue to recite the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form without visible discomfort, the assumption is that Christian congregations cannot afford to worship using words making church services look out of touch with the modern world. Being at all different is to make it difficult for those in the secular world to join the Christian community.

If being different (and looking old-fashioned) is the reason for demanding radical changes, it is surprising that the first consideration was not a move to abolish clerical vestments; for nothing else is so blatantly out of tune with our times where the young (and the not-so-young) have adopted a uniform of jeans and T- shirts. Yet apparently an up-to-date liturgy was to do the trick of making church-going acceptable to the present generation. The thees and thous, the -ests and -eths of the B.C.P. were the primary obstacles to bringing Anglican churches into the twentieth and twenty-first century.

Probably because the T.V. screen (which brings celebrities right into our living-rooms) has become the leading mode of communication, the evident fact that churches remain places where public language is a necessity was totally overlooked. The new liturgies do not read badly on the printed page, though they are scarcely memorable. For the most part, though, they are banal when given delivery in church and more than a little tedious. Consider, for instance, the response And also with you in contest with the traditional And with thy spirit. The former is flat both in meaning and in in rhythm, as well as being reminiscent of children throwing back an insult hurled at them.

When public language is given up in worship, the atmosphere of reverence is hard to generate and still harder to maintain. This is partly because of the lack of elevation in the words themselves and because of the absence of marked rhythms in the sentences. It is partly consequent, as well, upon the inevitable way in which language transported into church from the home and the street does not shake off the associations it has gathered in its normal settings. All these considerations combine to create problems when God is called You.

Originally, God was addressed as Thou to indicate the relationship between a Gracious God and his children. People said to a king, “If it please your Majesty,” but to God, “We beseech Thee, Almighty God.” With the falling out of use of the intimate thou (still preserved in the Frenchtu), Thou in most minds took on a sense of referring to the Otherness of God. On the other hand, both the Bible and the Prayer Book witnessed to the truth that Almighty God and the Heavenly Father were one and the same. The archaic form of address continued to indicate a unique Being.

But a You-God has no particular status. He is not differentiated from any of our fellows to whom we may say, “You’re something else”’ or perhaps, “Get out – I mean you!’’ When we pray saying, “Thou who art . . .” it is clear that we are confessing our beliefs. But when we pray, “You are . . .” it looks very much as though we were telling God something he did not know before, because in everyday speech that is exactly what we would be doing when we used these words.

Ignoring the need for a distinct public language in worship has a devastating effect upon the quality of church services. In trying to create a sense of “togetherness”, the sense of awe and the sense of closeness to God alike are lost and in their place remains a feeling of strain as language unsuited to the task attempts to achieve the elevation required in a liturgy. Yet the greatest loss lies in the abandonment of continuity with the past concretely embodied in the words we use.

I began by arguing that the conscious use of public language amounts to good manners in our conduct of worship, in the sense that what is well-mannered is what is most appropriate. Let me close (Please!) by misappropriating to a degree a verse of Scripture. The Authorized Version has St. Paul say, “Evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. 15:33). In the matter of being ready to set aside the Prayer Book, good manners are corrupted by no doubt well-intentioned efforts to communicate to the present generation what belongs properly to all generations.