By Benjamin von Bredow
My first and most important Anglican formation occurred in a community that used traditional texts — the balanced and beautiful prose of Cranmer, the strange and stately free verse of Coverdale — but my evangelical impulse to pray in everyday language has never disappeared. Consequently, I have experimented with using different modern-language Psalters for the daily offices, but I have always returned to the (Canadian 1962) Coverdale version because nothing meets its poetic standard. When I discovered that the Anglican Church in North America had released the final version of its Renewed Coverdale Psalter (available here) I bound a printout and began using it daily.
Overall, I am very impressed by the Renewed Coverdale Psalter. It is the best modern-language liturgical Psalter I have yet encountered. Does it measure up to the Coverdale translations? No, at least not if one is exclusively concerned about its poetry. It does come close. But it is far and away the best liturgical Psalter available for those who consider Cranmerian dialect inadmissible, especially those for whom continuity with Anglican tradition is important. I hope it will achieve wide use not only in the ACNA but throughout the Anglican world.
The Psalter as it is currently available online does not include a preface describing the principles of the translation, which must be gleaned from the Psalter, from the “Comparison Studies” available here, and from the journalistic comments about the project here. The project is not properly an original translation. It is based not only stylistically but also verbally on Coverdale’s 1535 version, and modifies it (in order of frequency):
- when the language is archaic or unclear;
- when Coverdale’s translation is inaccurate about Hebrew;
- to provide gender-neutral phrasing for some references to human beings.
These modifications were made with reference to the Church of England’s Psalter revision of 1963. No changes are made with specific reference to poetic concerns, unlike the 1979 BCP’s attempt at “sprung rhythm,” on the assumption that the Coverdale translation would provide the poetry if its language were retained as much as possible.
The most surprising changes are those affecting gendered language. The public documents leading to the ACNA’s 2019 prayer book have included next to no discussion of such language, while debate has been raging in the Episcopal Church on the same issue, although TEC is not going through a comparable liturgical revision. In general, the ACNA seems to take the same approach as the translators of the English Standard Version, which retains male terminology when it is relevant to the sense of the original Hebrew or Greek or changing it would require awkward workarounds in English.
In an attempt to keep the language as natural as possible, male pronouns follow gender-neutral pronouns (e.g., Ps. 12:2, “They speak falsely, every one with his neighbor”), and man is occasionally used when humanity would be clunky (e.g. Ps. 8:4, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?”). Moreover, man is retained when it might otherwise have been removed in Psalms with particularly strong christological resonances, such as Ps. 1:1 (“Blessed is the man”), Ps. 65:4 (“the man whom you choose and receive unto yourself”), and Ps. 80:17 (“the man of your right hand”) One might say that the ACNA’s approach has been to use gender neutral liturgical terminology when nothing else is at stake; it is the lowest priority, but it is on the list.
Comparison to Other Modern-language Psalters
Although the Renewed Coverdale Psalter may have a similar translation philosophy to the ESV, the results are worlds apart. I said the daily office for more than a year out of the ESV Psalter, but eventually couldn’t stand it any longer and reverted to the Canadian Coverdale Psalter. The problem was its essentially prosaic nature. It has no rhythm and rebels against being chanted, and rarely chooses interesting words or turns of phrase when common expressions are near at hand.
The more interesting comparisons are to specifically liturgical Psalters. Until the Renewed Coverdale Psalter was published, I was convinced that the best modern-language Psalter available was the Revised Grail used by English-speaking Catholics. It is especially good at emphasizing the Hebrew parallelism of the psalms by arranging them in stanzas, but this same feature is also sometimes frustrating, because it will occasionally use stanzas of an odd number of verses, which are not ideal for singing in two- or four-part chants, be they Gregorian, Anglican, or contemporary. The Revised Grail language also captures the immediacy and simplicity of the Hebrew psalms, which usually communicate in phrases of only a few words at a time, and often in exclamations. This approach runs contrary to the verbosity of Coverdale’s translation.
Therein lies the rub: although the Revised Grail may be a good Psalter, even a good liturgical Psalter, anything but Coverdale’s verbosity is not going to feel like my Psalter, and it is not going to feel like a specifically Anglican Psalter. Although I may insist on a Psalter in common language, the meaning of “common language” is shaped by the words of my church’s common prayer.
What, then, is the status of the 1979 BCP Psalter? It has been the language of common prayer in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada for more than 30 years. However, a few factors should be noted suggesting that it has not yet achieved “traditional” status. As the preface to the Canadian Book of Alternative Services says, “the world of the Psalter is, at the time of writing, in a very fluid state,” and that has not changed since 1985, partly due to another factor the same preface identifies, namely the Psalter’s “not always successful attempt to use gender-inclusive language wherever possible.” This Psalter, perhaps like the 1979 prayer book as a whole, stands in the uncomfortable space between traditionalists who say it departs too much from Anglican tradition and progressives who say the tradition needs continuing revision.
Moreover, during the lifetime of the 1979 Psalter, perhaps beginning beforehand, it has been very rare for parishes to have public daily offices, so that the daily office has become a private discipline for clergy and some laypeople. Every parish I know that has Morning and Evening Prayer every day uses some version of the Coverdale Psalter, which is a sign that the language of the 1979 Psalter has not been successfully integrated into our tradition of common prayer.
Comparison to Coverdale
The ACNA Psalter’s most relevant point of comparison remains the Coverdale translation it claims to renew, and I argue that this renewal is successful. That is, had the Coverdale translation never existed, it is conceivable that a translator in touch with classical English speech patterns and with a poetic sensibility might have produced something like the Renewed Coverdale Psalter from scratch. Although many of its phrases are clearly not in the mode of ordinary speech, they do not immediately stick out as archaic speech — that is, they come across as poetry.
Yet for the reader who is familiar with previous editions of Coverdale, the Renewed Psalter is unmistakably part of the tradition of the Anglican Psalms, conforming to them word-for-word more often than not. Much of the strangeness of the Coverdale version, especially with respect to archaic vocabulary (leasing means deceit) and passages whose English sense was unclear (e.g., the referent for “the same” in Ps. 132:6), has been removed. For the first several days in which I used the Renewed Coverdale Psalter, I frequently tripped over places where I anticipated archaic verb forms, and some of its modernizing changes seem unnecessary, such as replacing verb-subject constructions with more prosaic subject-verb constructions, but the poetic core of Coverdale is still unmistakably there.
Precisely because it is a successful renewal, however, the Renewed Coverdale Psalter does not improve overall on the original. Instead, it updates the original for contemporary use among people for whom the traditional version is unacceptable. It is not, nor does it pretend to be, a work of art in which its objective beauty surpasses the original Coverdale translation; if anything, it ever so slightly dulls the poetry of Coverdale by skewing in the direction of prose. To choose the Renewed Coverdale over the original is prudential, based on one’s commitment to evangelical accessibility, or liturgical conformity in a church that mainly uses contemporary-language texts.
Given that most Anglican priests do, in fact, feel those pressures, the Renewed Coverdale Psalter is a godsend, an opportunity to use a language of worship that retains its connection to “old Anglicanism” (and thereby to “old orthodoxy”) without appearing contrived or passé to the skeptical reader. But if one’s main concern is aesthetic, and if one does not consider contemporary idiom to be good in itself, sticking with Coverdale remains best. We should not expect to hear BBC Evensongs using the Renewed Coverdale Psalter anytime soon, but it is a great option for contemporary North American parishes.
Benjamin von Bredow will graduate from the University of Notre Dame in the spring as a master of theological studies with a concentration in liturgy. He entered the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, while studying classics at King’s College, Halifax. He attends Christ Church Anglican South Bend (ACNA), which uses the 1928 prayer book and its Psalter.