Understanded of the People

“Understanded of the People”:
Is Our Language of Worship Obsolete?

William G. Cooke

‘Is our language of worship obsolete?’. To borrow a retort from the former Dean of Divinity at Trinity College, Toronto, [1] the short answer is no, but the Branch Council wanted another half an hour’s worth of argument! So, let me begin with some anecdotes that will help to illustrate the true state of affairs.

It is said that the translators of the New English Bible went to considerable trouble to ascertain the current terms that professionals would use when dealing with any technical subject that turns up in the books of scripture. The story goes, for instance, that they sought out an actual English butcher — perhaps in the Covered Market in Oxford, or its counterpart in Cambridge; we are not told exactly where — to learn the modern equivalent for a fatted calf. They took care to describe what they wanted to know in a dry and roundabout way, so as not to influence the butcher’s choice of words; but when he finally twigged, he answered at once, “Ah, you mean a fatted calf”. Did he grin? We are not told.

This, however, was not the first time English scholars had wrestled with such questions. in the proposed revision of the 1662 Prayer Book that was laid before Parliament in 1927 and again in 1928, the revisers changed the words “may truly and indifferently minister justice” in the Communion service to “may truly and impartially administer justice”, reasoning that the man in the pew would no longer understand the old words to mean what their authors had intended.

C.S. Lewis, however, was skeptical enough to conduct an experiment. He put both versions to his gardener Paxtead, a crusty character who furnished the original for both Puddleglum the Marshwiggle in Lewis’s children’s story The Silver Chair and Sam Gamgee in J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Paxtead answered that he knew well enough what it meant to minister justice indifferently: that was fairly, without making any difference between people. But as for impartially, “I don’t know that word, guv’nor”. [2]

These come by hearsay, but my third story comes from personal experience. As a freshman at Trinity College, as we were going to dinner in hall one evening after chapel, a chum remarked, “They ought to do something about the archaic words in the Prayer Book. ‘Holpen his servant Israel’: what does that mean?” “Why, it means helped, of course” I answered. “You mean to say you’ve been through Sunday School and worked your way up to being head server in your parish church and your rector never told you that?”

These three stories aptly illustrate the three main points I wish to make. The language of the King James Version, which is in all essentials also that of the Book of Common Prayer, is not so obsolete as some think it is. What revisers seek to put in its place may in fact prove less easy for the plain man or woman to understand than the old familiar phrases. Alongside this, far too many of our clergy, alas, are also not doing their bit to help the young retain our cultural heritage; in stead they are aiding and abetting — if not actively, at least by benign neglect — a creeping cultural erosion and impoverishment.

What revisers seek to put in its place may in fact prove less easy for the plain man or woman to understand than the old familiar phrases.

Let us at the outset clear away one great misconception. The Book of Common Prayer is not a mediaeval book: it is a product of the very movements — the Rebirth of Learning, the Reformation, and the rise of the nation-states of Europe — that mark the modern era off from the Middle Ages.

And the Book of Common Prayer is not written in ‘Old English”; that is the term linguists apply Anglo- Saxon. Nor is it written in Middle English, which the language of Chaucer. Most of the Prayer Book was originally composed in the middle of the sixteenth century, what linguists call the Early Modern period of English. The rest was composed either for the revision of 1661-2, at the beginning of the classical modern period, or else well with that period, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; for instance, most of the occasional prayers and thanksgiving added to the two Canadian revisions of 1918-22 and 1959-62 were relatively recent compositions. Even at the time when Cranmer and his colleagues compiled the core of the book, English had become essentially the same language that it today.

The language of the Book of Common Prayer do contain certain archaic features. Some are grammatical a occur throughout: these are chiefly the use of “thou” and oblique cases when addressing God or individual worshippers (“The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ … preserve thy body and soul”), with the corresponding verb-forms ending in -st (“Dost thou renounce the devil and all his works…?; “Almighty God, who shewest to them that be in error the light of thy truth …”); the use of the older -th ending for the third person singular of the present tense (“He breaketh the bow and snappeth the spear in sunder and burneth the chariots in the fire”); the use of a in the past tense of strong verbs rather than o (“As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets”; “and when he had given thanks, he brake it”); the use of the auxiliary do/doth where there is no intention of emphasizing the truth of the statement such as it would imply in present-day idiom (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”; “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins”); and the frequent use of compound relative and demonstrative adverbs and prepositions (“forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid”; “and thereto I plight thee my troth”).

These, however, present no formidable barrier to a native English-speaker’s understanding; once get on to them, and they no longer trouble you. Part of my job, in helping to edit documents dating from the same time as the older parts of die Prayer Book, is to write glossaries explaining difficult words and idioms. But I never gloss this kind of archaic language; I assume, with the full endorsement of my editorial board, that anyone who wants to read old texts at all is already familiar with it, or will quickly pick it up. Understanding this common or garden sort of old-fashioned idiom requires a minimal outlay of initial effort, and is or ought to be part of a standard good education.

Besides archaic syntax and idiom, the Book of Common Prayer also employs certain archaic words throughout. A good specimen is “holpen” in the Magnificat, mentioned above; but there are actually surprisingly few that keep recurring, and like the grammatical features just discussed they give an intelligent worshipper little trouble. They are new words that need to be stored away in the memory like any others; and in our Canadian Prayer Book their number was greatly reduced by the changes made at the last revision in the Psalter, which was where they mostly occurred. Indeed for those of us who teach older English literature, it is actually something of a nuisance no longer to be able to cite the Prayer Book for examples of old words and idioms such as “knappeth” (now unobtrusively changed to snappeth”) and “well is thee” (now somewhat lamely expanded to “well is it with thee”).

What presents a worse barrier to understanding are words that are still current, but in a different sense from the one they have in the Prayer Book (such as “prevent” in “Prevent us, O Lord in all our doings” or “quick” in “the quick and the dead”) or archaic words that could be mistaken for some current word with an identical form but a different meaning (such as “let” in “sore let and hindered”).

The number of these traps, however, has again been greatly reduced by the two Canadian revisions: we have not used “truly and indifferently minister” since 1922, nor since 1962 have we besought God to “turn from us all those evils that we most righteously have deserved” (“justly”, incidentally, was substituted for “righteously” at this point in the Scottish Prayer Book as early as 1637).

…the language of our Canadian Book of Common Prayer, at least, is not so old-fashioned as we are sometimes led to believe…

It appears, then, that the language of our Canadian Book of Common Prayer, at least, is not so old-fashioned as we are sometimes led to believe; and insofar as it is old-fashioned, it should offer no great difficulty to persons of ordinary intelligence who are willing to make an effort to understand it. For as any good dictionary will attest, the archaic is one thing, the obsolete another.

Obsolete language is old-fashioned language that few understand and practically no one ever uses. Archaic language is old-fashioned language that most people understand and that is still considered quite usable when appropriate. In most civilized societies it has been and is deemed appropriate when the occasion demands solemnity; hence the fields where it finds the most employ are law and government, exalted literature, and, of course, religion.

To anyone acquainted with the general history of human culture the archaisms in our book of worship seem normal, not exceptional. Why, then, are we constantly told that the language of the Prayer Book is out of date and no longer comprehensible to anyone not steeped in the literature of the Elizabethan age?

The real culprit, I believe, is the widespread prejudice now held, even by many supposedly educated people, against being expected to make an effort to understand either writing or speech. The age of radio, cinema, and television is, alas, the age of chatter, in which woefully many persons become vexed, or even resentful, at ever having to ponder words or even pay them close heed.

This is precisely why these same people complain that they cannot understand Shakespeare and that his “archaic” language needs to be translated; but it is also why all who have set out to translate Shakespeare, some with great fanfare, have either given up or failed to sell their new versions. The barrier to understanding Shakespeare is not the difference between his language and our own; as with the Prayer Book and the King James Bible, that difference is in fact trifling. The real problem is the very qualities that make Shakespeare the unique genius he is: the fertility of his mind, and the rapidity with which his thought moves and sends new ideas and images tumbling out. All too many moderns, accustomed to everyday polite gabble or to the particular jargon of their own trade or calling, simply will not rise to the challenge of understanding anything better. When they meet it, it is strange to them and therefore difficult; and when it happens also to be old, they leap to the conclusion that its age is responsible for its difficulty.

In fact, though, no one could compose a book Christian worship that did not offer this difficulty, at least some extent. For every specialized topic or discipline requires its own special vocabulary. I myself have managed to get this far into this essay without using technical language of my own special field of study “oblique cases”, “third person singular of the present tens’ “strong verbs”, and so on — and I assume (rightly, I hope) that my readers concede me that privilege.

No more anyone discuss or celebrate Christian truth without using technical terms — “redeem”, “justify”, “repent”, “oblation satisfaction”, “remission of sins”. Other ways can indeed found to say at least some of these things, but in the Book Alternative Services and the new Biblical translations this often leads to a certain loss of precision.

…the Book Alternative Services and the new Biblical translations… often [have] a certain loss of precision.

Is “forgiveness of sins”, as the Lord’s words are made to run in Eucharistic. Prayer no.1 of the BAS, quite the same thing as “remission of sins” in the Prayer Book canon? Yes and no: both words denote the same action, but whereas we may speak forgiving people quite petty faults, “remission” is used only of serious transgressions that expose the culprit to some penalty. Thus the Prayer Book wording better expresses the graveness of sin. In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Roman.’ “acquitted” in the Revised English Version an adequate substitute for “justified” in the King James Version? To of us, I submit, when a culprit is acquitted, the implication that he was never guilty to start with; and that is not St. Paul’s contention at all.

We have it on the authority of Archdeacon Armitage, who was intimately involved in the first Canadian revision of the Prayer Book, that the committee took such considerations very seriously indeed For instance, they found the word “prevent” used in three collects in a sense that was no longer current in the everyday usage of their own time: “Prevent us, 0 Lord, in all our doings with thy most gracious favour, and further us with thy continual help” in the fourth collect after the communion service; “Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always prevent and follow us” in the collect for the seventeenth Sunday after Trinity; and in the collect for Easter Day “We humbly beseech thee that, as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect”.

While they recognised that this usage might cause worshippers difficulty, the first Canadian revisers chose to keep it, and they did so not merely in order to preserve the familiar sound and rhythm of these particularly well known and well loved prayers. Armitage tells us that they also considered “prevent” in this sense to be a technical term of theology with no precise counterpart in ordinary modern speech; [3]and they were right. “Forestall” will not do, because it suggests hasty improvisation, which can hardly be the way of the all-wise God who views all time at once from His own eternal present and guides it from beginning to end. “Anticipate” offers the same difficulty, coupled with another, namely that it bears the colloquial sense “look forward eagerly”; it is therefore at least as likely to be taken the wrong way as “prevent” itself. Some modern revisers have used “Direct”; but while it preserves the old rhythm and the notion of control, that word leaves out the equally important notion of anticipating (in the proper sense) human action or need. The first Canadian revisers concluded that it was best to let the old word stand and leave the clergy to explain to the people what it meant.

Their successors in 1959 evidently reached the same conclusion, at least about the first two prayers in which “prevent” occurs. In the Easter collect they chose to Omit the clause where “prevent” occurs, probably not because it is used there in the unfamiliar sense but rather because the collect is unusually long and carries an unusually complex load of thought. One can sympathize with this decision while still finding it, on balance, regrettable.

The revisers’ modification[s] not only altered its substance but watered down [the] theological content.

The collect as it stood in the 1662 and 1918 books had come down to us unchanged in substance from the first introduction of Christianity into Saxon England. The revisers’ modification not only altered its substance but watered down its theological content. What was gained in return? Not clarity; the old prayer may have made the point about God’s grace obscurely for the uninitiated, but the new version does not make it at all. Happily, there is very little change of this kind in the second Canadian Prayer Book; it was left to the authors of the BAS to follow this isolated unfortunate precedent from Advent I to Trinity XXVII and from baptism to burial. But I must leave the demonstration of that to others, or this essay will turn into a full-length monograph. [4]

The mere use of technical language, however, can hardly explain why so many of our educated contemporaries find the language of the Prayer Book uncongenial. After all, they, like us, are bombarded daily with the technical language of other disciplines, particularly “computerspeak”. There is reason to think that, as with Shakespeare, the real problem ties elsewhere: not in the language that the authors of the Prayer Book employed, but in the way that they used it.

In Cranmer’s day “artificial” was a term of praise, not disparagement; it meant “made by art or artifice”, and to a Tudor taste art and artifice were good things. Cranmer and his fellow clerics had had a thorough grounding in rhetoric, which was then deemed an essential part of an elementary education. They would no more have thought of turning a sentence without giving it balance, cadence, and a good rhythm than a contemporary joiner would have thought of turning a table-leg without giving it finish, ornament, and a good proportion. It would, indeed, be quite easy to write a textbook of traditional English composition drawing examples solely from the Book of Common Prayer.

Yet even for a skilled craftsman, artifice always presents a danger. It is a horse that, given its head, can easily run away with its rider. The history of all the arts has been a series of swings of a pendulum; two or three generations become increasingly fascinated with ornament, and then a reaction against it sets in.

The greater part of the Prayer Book dates from the 1540s and 1550s, when the pendulum had begun to swing towards the ornamental but still had a long way to go; indeed C.S. Lewis called that period of English writing the “Drab Age” in contrast to the one that was to follow.[5] A generation later, in the middle of Elizabeth’s reign, ornament reached an extreme in the “inkhorn” style which Shakespeare in turn, writing at the beginning of the backswing, was to satirize in Love’s Labours Lost and again in Hamlet in the speeches of the foppish courtier Osric.

While it lasted the inkhorn style left its mark on the language of prayer, and anyone curious to see its effects can find them in the official forms put out by the Church of England at the time for special occasions, [6] and in much greater effusion in the works of contemporary Puritan divines. Happily, none of that ever got into the Prayer Book.

The authors of the Book of Alternative Services have left us in no doubt where on the course of the pendulum of taste we should place them. We read in their preface “Whatever the source of Cranmer’s elegance, it is not characteristic of the English language now. The poetry of our own day tends to be spare, oblique, incisive, relying more on the sharpness of imagery than the flow of cadence “‘.[7]

Clearly these are not the views of a lover of ornament. Instead they bespeak the taste of the age of streamlining — the age that gave us concrete boxes for architecture, furniture made out of steel tubes, giant squares of plain red canvas for pictures, and seemingly random plunks and squeaks for music.

…[these views] bespeak the taste of the age of streamlining — the age that gave us concrete boxes for architecture, furniture made out of steel tubes, giant squares of plain red canvas for pictures, and seemingly random plunks and squeaks for music.

Now to the literary historian it is at once very instructive and rather curious that someone writing in 1985 should have given this as a description of “the poetry of our own day”. Whose work is the writer characterizing? The names that spring at once to my mind, at least, are T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, and perhaps W.H. Auden.

But three out of those four are dead, and had already been so for some years when the preface to the BAS was written. When its author refers to “the poetry of our own day”, what he or she really means, it would seem, is the poetry of mid-century, on which the taste of the Doctrine and Worship Committee was evidently formed.

This brief passage raises many questions. One might well ask whether someone who thinks “elegance” the hallmark of Cranmer’s style really knows what elegance means, and what that says about the writer’s credentials as a literary critic. One might ask what the fashion in poetry of half a century ago really tells us about the capabilities of English now.

One might well ask why poetry has been brought in to the discussion at all, especially when the preface goes right on to assert that “Liturgical language must attempt to speak in its own idiom”. And this is another strange statement, because language no more speaks than musical instruments compose symphonies or a block of marble carves a statue; language, like those others, is an instrument or medium employed by people.

But if the Statement means anything, it means that liturgy is not drama or poetry or storytelling but follows different rules of expression suited to itself. At a time when prelates and even supposed theologians do not shrink from claiming that the very creeds are only poetically true. That is actually reassuring.

    ….liturgy is not drama or poetry or storytelling but follows different rules of expression suited to itself.

That theology is not poetry is a crucial truth, but one that has been well dealt with by Lewis [8] and so need not be argued here. Let us return instead to the fallacy that mid-century poetry proves something about the essential nature of present-day English.

All that the words of the BAS preface really demonstrate is their author’s taste; and they reveal that to be the product of an extreme reaction. Artistic taste has its own history, which is well documented; and that history shows that extreme values seldom hold the field for long. No pendulum ever stops at one end of its range; it always begins forthwith to swing back towards its centre, and in this case there is reason to think that the pendulum of taste is already doing so. Ornament returned with a vengeance in the fashion excesses of the late 60s and early 70s; the reaction has now begun to display itself in “post-modern” architecture; realism ha’s returned to painting; and melody is actually returning, albeit timidly, to music. If so-called serious poetry shows little sign yet of following the trend, that is because it has become largely an academic preserve, and academic poets are always old-fashioned; no one outside academic circles now takes “serious poetry” seriously. Is that perhaps its true point of contact with contemporary liturgics?

Is Prayer Book English, then, really hopelessly obsolete, as the preface to the BAS appears to claim, because of its rhetorical technique? Accumulated human experience does not suggest that it is; that rhetorical technique merely failed to appeal to a taste that characterized the most fashionable literary coterie for two, maybe three, generations and is now once again on the wane. Cranrner’s style has shown, and should continue to show, considerable staying-power, because he did his work, as we have seen, when the pendulum was fairly near the centre. Admittedly, when he wrote long passages, Cranmer’s sentences did tend to suffer from a lack of structure and a tendency to run on; these were characteristic faults of his generation.

Revision in our time, however, has largely mended these faults in the Prayer Book; a comparison, for instance, of the consecration prayer with the prayer after communion in the 1959 Canadian Prayer Book with their sources in Cranmer’s two liturgies of 1549 and 1552 will show how much pruning has been done and to what good effect. But when he had the fixed form of the collect to constrain him, Cranmer wrote superbly. Having been trained to translate between Latin and English from his youth up, he knew that that was not the straightforward undertaking some might suppose. The old Latin collects could not simply be translated word for word into English, because English can achieve neither the sonority nor the syntactic compression of Latin, and a literal rendering that fails to reproduce those qualities is simply flat.

Here, for instance, is the Sarum (and Roman) collect for the first Sunday after Epiphany, literally rendered:

We beseech thee, Lord, to attend to the prayers of the entreating people with heavenly pity; that they may both see what things are to be done and obtain strength to fulfill what they shall have seen; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Latin original is considerably more impressive; but what makes it so is a terseness, and an artful ordering of words, that English with its very different syntax cannot hope to achieve. Cranmer knew better than to attempt the impossible; so he rejected literal translation in favour of a paraphrase, which does not try to reproduce the effect of the Latin but achieves different ones, more in keeping with the genius of English:

O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people which call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

A thorough study of Cranmer’s treatment of this collect would make an essay in itself, and only the highlights can be noticed here. By drawing out the participle “entreating” to the clause “which call upon thee” he has strengthened the rhythm, and by substituting the natural English active construction “what things they ought to do” for the characteristic impersonal passive of the Latin “what things are to be done” he has imparted much vigour. And his typical hendiadys (use of two words or expressions for what is essentially one thought) does not merely round out the rhythm but also deepens the content. “See” has become “perceive and know : it is not enough merely to see what we must do; perception must pass into conviction. “Obtain strength” has become “have grace and power”: the strength we need to carry our obligations out has to come from God and is His free gift. Cranmer knew that an ancient collect, if stripped of its Latin clothes, needed to be dressed up in a new and good English costume.

Cranmer knew… an ancient collect, if stripped of its Latin clothes, needed to be dressed up in a new and good English costume.

His would-be successors in our own day do not seem to have learnt this lesson very well. Here, on a similar theme, is a fair specimen of their usual style:

Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit and make us worthy of your call; through Jesus Christ our Lord [&c.] [9]

Was ever a poor prayer sent forth into a cruel world so mother-naked? And being utterly bare, it is utterly forgettable. But we should have looked for nothing else, since rhetoric more than anything else contributes to that “memorability” that the Prince of Wales has justly praised as a quality of both the 1662 Prayer Book and the King James Bible; it is a simple fact that balance, antithesis, and similar devices, along with good cadence, do greatly aid us in remembering what we have heard or have previously uttered ourselves.

Consider, for instance, such passages as “That they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power” in the Prayer Book collect for Epiphany V, or again “That we, who cannot do any good thing without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will” in the collect for Trinity IX. A whole sermon is packed into each of these excerpts; and the thought of either would probably be very hard to grasp, let alone hold, if it were not reinforced by the arrangement and the rhythm. Cranmer and his successors knew this truth, and realized its importance for imparting the truths of Christianity to congregations who were still very largely illiterate, even after the Restoration when the first collect quoted above was added to the Prayer Book.

It was an old secret, part of a tradition of English preaching that Cranmer must have imbibed as a young priest, long before he became convinced of the need for an English liturgy. For what Lewis aptly termed the “strongly supported rhythms” of Cranmer’s prose are now thought to owe less to knowledge of the rules of the Latin cursus than to a native English tradition of preaching and devotional writing that had endured unbroken since the church revival under St Dunstan, a hundred years before the Norman Conquest. [11]

Strangely enough, though, these “strongly supported rhythms” seem to be one of the features of the Prayer Book that the authors and upholders of modern liturgy find most alien. To judge by what they themselves compose or approve, their notion of good modern English speech is the dull patter of the news broadcast or of the typical modern lecture.

When challenged about this, they are prone to retort “You Eng. Lit. types have so refined your own taste that you’re Out of touch with ordinary people”. This charge can fairly be hurled right back.

For who are more likely to have lost touch with how the great body of our people talk and what moves them: those of us who have made a special study of English speech and its varieties and capabilities, while constantly refreshing our acquaintance with the best writing of the present and the past, or those who pass their study-time immersed in reading or hearing the mass of flaccid pudder that makes up the great bulk of modern academic theological writing and talk? No: it is the new liturgists and their clerical supporters who have lost the key to the hearts of men and women, and particularly of the youth whom they claim to be especially concerned to reach. A very little acquaintance with pop music would teach them that strongly supported rhythms are hardly alien to that segment of their lost flocks.

What is it that has apparently caused our whole ecclesiastical elite to suffer from tin ear? If they were younger, one might speculate that it came of not having had their mothers read nursery rhymes aloud to them, or not having played traditional children’s games — two features of a good old- fashioned upbringing that provide an excellent training for properly appreciating the rhythms of English speech. But their taste in poetry suggests that the authors of the BAS are too old to have had that particular kind of deprived childhood, and one must fall back on the theory that this is merely a symptom of the general decline of culture –at least as that term used to be understood — among the supposedly educated classes in English-speaking countries.

Two generations ago the liberal arts were still regarded as the proper foundation for any of the traditional professions; hence almost every cleric was an arts graduate. At that time, moreover, no one could take an arts degree without acquiring at least a smattering of the classics; down to 1932, for instance, no student could get into even the pass course in arts at the University of Toronto without Grade XII Latin, and for all the honours programmes yet another year of Latin was required. The old curriculum also exposed all pupils to a fair sampling at least of the best that had been thought and said by speakers of our own tongue.

For the past quarter century, though, if not longer, it has been at least as common for students to come to divinity from the social sciences as from the liberal arts, and many others have come from a training in the exact sciences. Now, no one can deny the value of an acquaintance with psychology for a pastor, or dispute that the pure sciences help to develop one’s reasoning powers. One may, however, venture to question whether the pursuit of studies that mostly or wholly employ the scientific method, demanding as they do complete emotional detachment from the objects of study, do much to train the sensibilities; on the contrary, there is considerable risk that such studies will rather tend to wither and stunt them. This is not a criticism confined to cranky humanists, but one that the champions of so-called eco-science are increasingly aiming at their more conservative colleagues; so far, though, such criticisms have had little influence on university curriculums.

Hence for help in appreciating beauty, science majors must mostly fall back on their earlier schooling; but there, too, they are now all too likely to have been short-changed. Ever since the now defunct Soviet Union managed to get an artificial satellite into space ahead of the Western powers, the bureaucrats who decide what is taught in our schools have been fixated with the supposed value of the sciences as our bulwark against either military threat or economic competition; and that fixation has produced a lamentably impractical school curriculum.

Pupils ought to spend a large part of their time in school learning things that will clearly stand them all in good stead in later life — such as how their mother tongue works and how they can best use it to convey their own thoughts and feelings to others, or how the society in which they live came to be what it is and work the way it docs These practical disciplines of English grammar and rhetoric and British and European history have, however, been largely crowded out of the syllabus by the requirement to learn various kinds of advanced mathematics, which only those who become engineers or research scientists will ever use again in their lives.

The pitiful remnant of the humanities still taught is now under further attack as not suited to pupils of non-European stock, who are, of course, in fact the very ones who most need that grounding if they are to function in a country where English (with French) is the working language and the political, social, and economic institutions are all of a completely British type.

It should not surprise anyone that our younger clergy, coming out of such a school system, have ceased to form any part of what Coleridge called our “clericy”: that is, the part of the nation that has truly assimilated our inherited culture and made itself responsible for diffusing it and passing it on. This state of affairs ought, however, to give us grave concern, if we bear in mind how completely that culture and the Christian religion have interpenetrated one another.

Dean Inge of St. Paul’s was quite right to identify the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages as at once the heir of classical civilization and the transmitter of its legacy to the modern West. [12] And in making that happy marriage (so to term it), Christianity committed itself to that culture’s greatest achievement: the belief in a God who is not only absolute Goodness and absolute Truth but also absolute Beauty. If, with Inge and the main stream of Christian philosophy, we call these three attributes of God the “Absolute Values”, then logically we must accept the further proposition that (in Inge’s words) “they exist in their own right and cannot be made means to anything else, not even to each other”. [13]

What has all that to do with the language of worship?

Simply this: that if God is absolute Beauty as well as absolute Truth and Goodness, then we go as far wrong when we employ ugly or slipshod language in His service as when we employ lies or half-truths to propagate our faith, or when we do evil or questionable deeds “that good may come”. God deserves nothing less than the best, in our prayer and worship as much as in our evangelism and our service in the world.

A Christianity that abandons that conviction will not only fail to convert the world but will lose any hold that it yet retains on the nations of historic Christendom; for Christianity is for the whole human being. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul, not merely all thy mind; and how shall heart and soul he fed without good art, in word and music as in glass and wood and cloth and stone?

It was Roger Ascham, tutor to the two sovereigns who gave us our Prayer Book, who wrote “Ye know not what harm ye do, who care only for matter and not for words”. [14] But there is a higher authority for what I have advocated here, even our lord’s own chosen messenger to classical civilization, and his seem the fittest words with which to clinch the argument:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are winsome; if there be any excellence, and if there be aught praiseworthy, attend to these things. [15]


1. Rev’d Colin Proudman, writing in the Toronto Anglican, 1992.2. C.S. Lewis “Christian Apologetics”, in Undeceptions, ed. Walter Hooper (London, 1971), p.70.

3. W.J. Armitage, The Story of the Canadian Revision of the Prayer Book (Cambridge & Toronto, 1922), pp. 253-6.

4. See the Submission of the Prayer Book Society of Canada to the Book of Alternative Services Evaluation Commision (1993).

5. C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (Oxford, 1954), pp. 156 ff.

6. See, for instance, Christian Prayers and Holy Meditations, comp. Henry Bull (Cambridge, 1842), and Private Prayers Put Forth by Authority during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, ed. William Keatinge Clay (Cambridge, 1851).

7. ‘Introduction’ to the Book of Alternative Services (Toronto, 1985), p. 12.

8. C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”, in They Asked for a Paper (London, 1962), pp. 150-165.

9. Book of Alternative Services, collect for Epiphany 3, p. 351.

10. C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, pp. 217-20.

11. See R.W. Chambers, On the Continuity of English Prose, extra isue for the Early English Text Society, 1932. Several of the characteristic rhetorical devices of Cranmer’s collects are already to be found in the Anglo-Saxon prayers at the canonical hours, recorded in the British Library MS, Cotton Galba A. XIV, ed. Bernard James Muir as A Pre-Conquest English Prayer-Book, Henry Bradshaw Society CIII (1988), pp. 138-9.

12. R.W. Inge, “Hellenism and Christianity”, in The Church in the World (London, 1927), pp.101-40, particularly 109-11.

13. R.W. Inge, “Confessio Fidei”, in Outspoken Essays: Second Series (London, 1922), pp. 31-2.

14. Roger Ascham, The Schoolmaster, ed. W.A. Wright (Cambridge, 1904).

15. Philippians 4:8 (author’s translation).

Understanded of the People