Redeeming the Time: Part III
(The third of three essays written in 2015 by the Revd. Gordon Maitland, PBSC National Chairman, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Book of Alternative Services in 1985.)
One of the most dramatic changes wrought by the Book of Alternative Services was the change of liturgical English. The archaic language of the Book of Common Prayer was replaced by the “contemporary” language of the BAS. One of the ongoing criticisms of the BCP is that it does not use a modern English idiom that is readily understood by modern readers. Furthermore, it is alleged that the liturgical language of the BAS is more ecumenical because it is used by all the English-speaking Christians of the world. Many people were pleased when a Roman Catholic visiting an Anglican Church using the BAS would comment that the service was just like the one they were used to. However, since 2011 this is no longer the case. In fact, the contemporary English-speaking liturgical scene is now a chaotic mix of voices. In this essay I hope to show how this came about, and what is really happening with liturgical language at the present.
If the landscape of liturgical prose were surveyed in1960, it would be apparent among churches that used English language liturgical prose, that the field was dominated by the twin influences of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized (King James) Version of the Scriptures. The Anglican Church of Canada had just brought out a new revision of the BCP which maintained the liturgical language that it had inherited. The United Church of Canada used the “Book of Common Order” which used texts borrowed from the Book of Common Prayer, and the Presbyterian “Book of Common Order” used similar texts. Lutherans were divided among many different groups and synods, and many of them at this date continued to worship in “old world” languages such as German and Swedish, but some of the precursor bodies which later came together to make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and its Canadian counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) used the English language “Service Book and Hymnal”. This worship book also used liturgical prose similar to (and in some cases directly borrowed from) the Book of Common Prayer.
Up until the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church used almost exclusively the Latin tongue for its liturgical rites. Even on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII promulgated a document entitled Veterum Sapientia which solemnly reaffirmed the necessity of using Latin for the Church’s worship. It is worth noting, however, that in bilingual Latin/English missals published for the use of the laity, the translation of the Latin used a traditional English consistent with the language of the Book of Common Prayer. The Scripture lections were taken from the Douai Rheims version of the Bible.
The event which changed everything in regards to traditional liturgical prose was the decision by the Roman Catholic Church to begin to use the vernacular in its worship and to use a contemporary English style for that vernacular. In article 36 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), promulgated on December 4, 1963, allowance was made for the introduction of the vernacular into the administration of the sacraments. However, it was to be for “the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority . . . to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language [was] to be used.” Furthermore, it was intended that bishops in neighbouring regions which employed the same language were to consult with one another to ensure uniformity.
It was with this mandate in mind that a number of English-speaking episcopal conferences set up the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) in order to produce standardized English translations of the liturgical books of the Roman Rite, the originals of which were, of course, in Latin. After the publication of the Novus Ordo in 1969, ICEL produced a standardized English translation of the new Missal which was published in 1973. This version of the translation of the Latin texts was to remain in use for the celebration of the Mass until replaced in 2011.
In 1969 the Vatican published an important document (in French) entitled, Comme le prévoit, which provided the guidelines and instructions as to how the Latin texts were to be translated. This document was critical as to the English translations which were subsequently produced. What the members of the Consilium had in mind in terms of translation technique was what is today known as the “dynamic equivalence”method of translation. It is not a literal word-for-word kind of translation but a more paraphrastic approach. It was by following these translation principles that the response to the presider’ greeting –“The Lord be with you” (Dominus vobiscum) –was rendered “And also with you” which is not a literal translation of Et cum spiritu tuo. This response was supposed to convey the “true meaning” of the phrase “And with your spirit” and was considered more acceptable.
In 1969 a body known as the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) was formed in North America. This organization emerged from ecumenical meetings of Roman Catholic and Protestant liturgical scholars held in the mid to late 1960s. Its mandate was to develop agreed versions of contemporary English language liturgical texts used in common by the churches involved in the consultation. A similar body called the Joint Liturgical Group (JLG) was set up in the United Kingdom, and other groups with complementary aims were set up in other English-speaking countries as well. With the assistance of ICEL, the Consultation on Common Texts and the Joint Liturgical Group set up an international body called the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET). The texts which this body worked on were the Lord’s Prayer, the Creeds (the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds), the unvarying texts of the Eucharist (the Kyrie, Gloria, Sursum Corda, Sanctusand Benedictus, and Agnus Dei), and the canticles used in the Offices (the Gloria Patris, Te Deum, Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis). These texts were published as “Prayers We Have in Common” in three editions from 1971-1975. The texts were quickly adopted by the churches which were members of the consultation and appeared in the experimental rites produced throughout the 1970s. They were incorporated into the final, standard liturgical books which appeared around the beginning of the 1980s, such as the Church of England’s “Alternative Service Book” (ASB), the North American “Lutheran Book of Worship” (LBW), and the Anglican Church of Canada’s Book of Alternative Services (BAS). A peek at the acknowledgements on page 925 of the BAS will confirm this fact.
However, there was another intellectual current at work in the 1970s that would begin to seriously impact liturgical texts in the 1980s, and that was the feminist movement and its concerns around the perceived sexism and patriarchal bias in Biblical and liturgical texts. These concerns were articulated in books such as Marjorie Procter-Smith’s, “In Her Own Rite: Constructing Feminist Liturgical Tradition”. Partly in response to these new intellectual currents, a successor body to ICET (which had ceased to function in 1975) was formed from ICEL, CCT, and several other smaller English-speaking groups. In 1985 the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC –pronounced as “elk”) came into existence. In 1988 the ELLC published “Praying Together” which was a revision of the ICET texts from “Prayers We Have in Common”. These versions of the Lord’s Prayer, Creeds, Eucharistic texts and Office canticles appeared in the revised service books of many denominations after this time. They appear, for example, in “Celebrate God’s Presence: A Book of Services for the United Church of Canada” and “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” (used by the ELCIC and the ELCA).
In the 1990s the American Roman Catholic bishops attempted to get approval from the Vatican for inclusive-language revisions of texts in the Roman Rite similar to what had been already developed by ELLC, but this was rejected by the Roman authorities. Partially in response to this initiative the Vatican department, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued in the spring of 2001 a document entitled Liturgiam Authenticam which was meant to replace Comme le prévoitin giving principles to be followed in translating all liturgical texts into the vernacular languages. In the same year the Congregation for Divine Worship set up a committee of English-speaking bishops entitled Vox Clarato advise the Congregation on matters of translation of liturgical texts into the English language.
It is quite evident from reading Liturgiam Authenticam that the dynamic equivalence approach to translation was being abandoned and replaced by a reversion to formal equivalence principles of translation. Thus, any translation produced is a fairly literal and formal one. One can also discern in this document a considerable “pushback” to many of the concerns which gave rise to the revision of texts to accommodate inclusive language in other Christian traditions. However, there is more in Liturgiam Authenticam than a reaction to current trends in liturgical revision. There is also an underlying rejection of some of the worldview shaped by modernity. This attitude is reflected in Peter Elliot’s critique of the old ICEL texts:
“The didacticism of the current ICEL texts embodied a stage in history when communication was the key to everything –the era of Marshall McLuhan and the ‘global village’,when mankind reached for the stars and we could hear men talking from the moon. Clarity, comprehensibility, access to data and information, and the triumph of the Enlightenment were also marked by the jostling of ideologies, each claiming to carry the light and future whether of ‘modern man’,‘secular man’,or ‘socialist man’,to use the language of the pre-feminist vocabulary of those times. …. But there is little place for mystery if communication is based on being consciously modern and enlightened, hence in control of meaning. Mystery eludes human control.”
The principles enunciated in Liturgiam Authenticam led to a new English translation of the Roman Missal which came into effect on the First Sunday in Advent in 2011. Needless to say, the appearance of Liturgiam Authenticam was not warmly received by many scholars in the liturgical “establishment” who were now witnessing the undoing of all their work over the last forty years. In an address to the Societas Liturgica conference in 2007, Dr. David Holeton lashed out at the style of the new English translation of the Roman Missal:
“It seems very odd indeed to some of us to see proposed texts put into the manner of speech that is highly reminiscent of the language that Anglicans (and many English-speaking Protestants) once used before they finally realized that the language of the liturgy needed to be understood by the faithful of our time and not those of the sixteenth century. This revision to archaic patterns of speech may work at some English universities but it is thoroughly classist and I cannot imagine it receiving a wildly warm welcome in the average pew …”
In other words, the problem of the new translation of the Roman Missal is that it sounds too much like the liturgical prose of the Book of Common Prayer! This angry and bitter outburst by one of the principal architects of the Canadian Book of Alternative Services shows the depth of feeling which has accompanied the introduction of the new Roman texts.
Even the brief survey of English language liturgical texts in this paper reveals that there is less uniformity in English texts across the various churches in North America than at any other time in history. The Roman Catholic Church has produced English translations of ritual texts without reference to any other church. Likewise, the Eastern Orthodox churches have produced translations which not only differ from those used in the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, they differ across different jurisdictions within Orthodoxy. While many of the Protestant churches in North America have adopted the ELLC texts, there are many others who continue to use the ICET texts or some other translation. The Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church of Canada continue to use the ICET texts in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer and the 1985 Book of Alternative Services respectively, although both churches have authorized the use of ELLC texts in various optional or supplementary rites. Some of the more conservative churches, such as the Lutheran Church –Canada and its American sister the Lutheran Church –Missouri Synod continue to use the ICET texts but have not authorized the ELLC texts. The Anglican Church in North America, a dissenting body of Anglicans from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, has just published a set of provisional worship texts for the Eucharist and Offices entitled “Texts for Common Prayer”. These services use a combination of the ICET texts, modernized versions of Cranmerian texts and some of the new Roman texts. For example, the Gloria in Excelsis is the ICET text, but the response to “The Lord be with you” is “And with your spirit” as it is in the new Roman Mass. Thus, it would appear that the broad consensus which prevailed in the North American churches in the use of traditional English liturgical prose in the years previous to 1960 has given way to a cacophony of voices using many, and in some cases radically dissimilar, texts for their worship.
There appear to be two broad trends in regards to liturgical language. The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches and the conservative Protestant or Evangelical Churches all appear to be moving towards a more “classical” or conservative kind of liturgical prose for their worship texts. The more “liberal” or progressive Protestant Churches appear to be sticking to the ELLC texts or something along the same line. The same thing is happening in regards to Biblical texts as well, with “conservative” churches using the English Standard Version (ESV), Revised Standard Version –Catholic Edition (RSV-CE), the New King James Version (NKJV) or something similar, while the “progressive” churches stick with the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or some similar inclusive language version.
The ironies of this story should not be missed. Anglicans abandoned their traditional liturgical prose in the 1970s, and adopted the old Roman Catholic ICEL texts, in order to be more ecumenical. Since then, the more progressive protestant churches have moved on to the more radically inclusive ELLC texts and the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned the ICEL texts in favour of their own translations. This leaves the Anglican Churches as among the few still using the old ICEL/ICET texts. The Anglican Church of Canada discarded traditional liturgical prose in order to be ecumenical, only to be left ecclesiastically isolated by texts no one else uses.
In closing, it is worth noting that although the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have, generally speaking, moved to using contemporary English for their rites, the one prayer which remains in traditional liturgical prose for all these churches is the Lord’s Prayer. Even many of the Protestant churches continue to print the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer as an option in their service books. Thus, if there is reason for hope, it might yet be found in the fact that the one prayer which may be said to be genuinely ecumenical across all Christian denominations is the prayer that our Redeemer himself taught us to pray. Perhaps the quest for common English language liturgical texts may be found in the petition, “thy kingdom come.”
- Peter J. Elliot. “Liturgical Translation: A Question of Truth” in Antiphon 10.3 (2006), 232.
- David R. Holeton, “Ecumenical Liturgical Consensus: A Bumpy Road to Christian Unity”, Studia Liturgica38.1 (2008), 14.
- “Texts for Common Prayer,” Anglican Church in North America.