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To speak as a Christian

I am one of those weird people who care about things like relative pronouns. I assume that this might give me assurance of a lifetime membership in the Professional Organization of English Majors, which supports the arts in our country with its sponsorship of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. And I’m going to make myself even more of a oddball by suggesting that relative pronouns might have something to do with our assumptions about the world and about God.

A little explanation is obviously in order.

One of the few most obvious changes in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer was the rendering of most of its liturgical rites in an idiom it called “contemporary” language. The so-called “Elizabethan” traditional language, which we usually characterize by its use of different pronouns (thee and thy replacing the singular you and your) and sometimes verb forms (didst give becomes gave), is called “traditional” in the ’79 BCP.

Some commentators (see here and here) have taken to characterizing these differences in a different sort of way by using the term “hieratic.” Here, the term is used in quite a technical way to connote particular qualities of its vocabulary, syntax, and repetition, among other features that set it off as a particularly Christian and liturgical form of language. There are, of course, a whole host of negative reasons for people to prefer this other style: nostalgia, fear of change, or reactionary conservatism.

The implication of speaking about this other style of English as “hieratic” is, however, more significant than we might think. The assumption that underlies this way of describing a particular approach to the construction of liturgical language is this: that there are forms of a language (English, in this case) that more fittingly denote the sacral character of its use — namely, the public worship of God in rites that have been authorized by the Church.

Christine Mohrmann, in her book Liturgical Latin: Its Origin and Character, suggests that this concept of language is found in other languages, and in particular in the Latin used in the rites of the Western church:

… Latin used in the liturgy displays a sacral style. The basis and starting point of Liturgical Latin is the Early Christian idiom, which, however, through the use of features of style drawn from the Early Roman sacral tradition mingled with biblical stylistic elements, has taken on a strongly hieratic character, widely removed from the Christian colloquial language. In this liturgical Latin the requirements demanded by Hilary for the style of the Christian exegete are realized to the full: Non enim secundum sermonis nostri usum promiscuam in his oportet esse facilitatem: “There is no place here for the loose facility of the colloquial language” (In Ps. 13.1). The advocates of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy who maintain that even in Christian Antiquity the current speech of everyday life, “the Latin of the common man,” was employed are far off the mark. Liturgical Latin is not Classical Latin, but neither is it, as is so often said, the Latin which was considered decadent by educated people. The earliest liturgical Latin is a strongly stylized, more or less artificial language …. This language was far removed from that of everyday life, a fact which was certainly appreciated, since, at the time, people still retained the sens du sacré (p. 60).

The argument put simply is this: there are forms of construction, vocabulary, and syntax that together connote the sacred in a way not available by other means.

For Roman Catholics, this was never a question (at least officially) until the Second Vatican Council, when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, raised the question of translation. After first stating, “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (par 36), it goes on to introduce one of the most momentous changes explicitly directed by the council: “The vernacular language may be used in administering the sacraments and sacramentals” (par 63).

For Anglicans, the introduction of the vernacular in the mid-16th century coincided with the introduction of a single unified series of rites in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Remember: it was not until around the same period that unified rites could also be imposed in Catholic contexts as a result of the Council of Trent — though the implementation of those reforms took at least a century to come to fruition, even with the full force of the papacy standing behind it. It is difficult to know whether Cranmer believed that the BCP should embody some form of hieratic language. But what is clear is that the language of the English BCPs (and those that followed in Scotland and then the United States) came to embody hieratic ritual language. The degree of praise showered upon the stylistic qualities of the book and its profound impact on the English language at the 1662 BCP’s 350th anniversary in 2012 (along with, for instance, the Authorized Bible and Shakespeare’s corpus) indicates its profound power.

ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid ….

ALMIGHTY and everliving God, who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers, and supplications, and to give thanks for all men; We humbly beseech thee most mercifully to receive these our prayers, which we offer unto thy Divine Majesty ….

WE do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies ….

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility ….

The changes introduced in the twentieth century — first in the preliminary English vernacular translations that began to appear in the late 1960s for English speaking Catholics, with the first full translation appearing in 1970, and later for American Episcopalians in the 1979 BCP — did not simply replace the pronouns thee and thou and some antiquated spellings, terms, and verb forms, such as those that end in ­–eth, and others like betwixt, dissemble, shew, peradventure, and wantonly (as well as the remarkable use of the term unicorn in Ps 22:21; 29:6; 92:9). The changes also included a fascinating modification: the disappearance of the relative pronoun in favor of an alternate construction.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit… (1662 BCP)

This prayer became:

Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit… (1979 BCP)

One of the reasons for the change, I suspect, is that many thought that this other form of syntax is easier to understand. And clarity was one of the key aims of the liturgical reform and something Sacrosanctum concilium emphasized quite explicitly:

In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community (par 21).

This syntax is, arguably, simpler and easier to process audibly. Nonetheless, the restoration to relative pronouns of the Latin appears to be one of the principle changes in the third major translation into English of the Roman Catholic Missal in 2011: the relative pronoun is almost always restored in the rendering of collects.

While I recognize that this is a very debatable position, I want to suggest that the disappearance of the relative pronoun in translation has the possibility of expressing a different kind of interior posture. The relative pronoun does a few things:

  • First, the relative pronoun construction functions as a way of naming God. Almighty God “who gave his Son to take our nature upon him and be born of a pure virgin” is a variation on a scriptural method of identifying him: e.g. “the God who brought our forefathers out of bondage” (Jer. 34:13) or the one “who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11). The relative pronoun provides a kind of connection between God and his economy (God’s action in time) that is essential to Christian theological discourse.
  • Second, the relative pronoun introduces a kind of reverent distance that “you did ___” quickly erases; to my ear, the former sounds more like an ascription of adoration while the later sounds more like a simple recounting of a part of history.

On its own, I doubt this would convince many who maybe don’t already have a nostalgia for the older language. But Catherine Pickstock’s incredible, albeit dense, work, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, has convinced me that this aspect of the linguistic change is but a piece of a completely different approach to language. I had some nascent inclinations about all this; but when I discovered her work, I found it mapped and excavated in a dazzling display of erudition that I was quite sure had passed me by.

I could not possibly summarize her incredibly complicated argument. But here are a few nuggets:

  • Modernity has its own kind of language, even its own syntax. This is characterized by qualities such as the “prioritization of the noun,” where the object is elevated in way to indicate that objects ARE and that language encapsulates them. In short, it assumes that the only things about which we can speak are the things we can measure, weigh, subject to study, and after which it is disposed.
  • The syntactic ascendency of “asyndeton” is “regarded as typically modern syntax, linked with the search for scientific clarity, and the unadorned ‘simple’ rendering of reality” (After Writing, 98). Asyndeton describes the lack of conjunctions between coordinate clauses, phrases, and words. E.g. from Kennedy’s inaugural address: “…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

She argues that the “recent revised liturgies of the Anglican and Roman Church … have (unwittingly) incorporated the linguistic and epistemological structure of a modern secular order” (170), which she describes with a great degree of technical prowess in the book’s first 160 pages.

This might be seen most clearly in the eucharistic prayer. The so-called West Syrian structure was much favored by most liturgical reformers for its clarity of style and trinitarian structure:

  • Thanksgiving address to the Father
  • Institution Narrative and Anamnesis of the historical saving events of the Son
  • Offering and request of the Holy Spirit’s action in the Epiclesis

The structure of the Roman Rite, the most widely used anaphora and the principle place from which all Reformation-era rites began, is quite different. Some have argued that it has no structure but is the result of the clumsy concoction of prayers from different places into an amorphous mess. But Dominic Serra’s brilliant essay on the topic is just one example of an utterly convincing decimation of this idea: see “The Roman Canon: The Theological Significance of Its Structure and Syntax,” Ecclesia orans 20 (2003), pp. 99-128). Pickstock suggests that the Roman Rite,

provides a model for a genuine consummation of language and subjectivity in and through a radical transformation of space and time. It will be argued that in the Roman Rite, the configuration of language as simultaneously “gift” and “sacrifice” exalts a different and salvific formulation of the various dichotomies which have been seen to reside at the heart of immanentism: orality and writing, time and space, gift and given, subject and object, active and passive, life and death.” …

The “signs” it uses (“signs of speech, gesture, art, music, figures, vestment, colour, fire, water, smoke, bread, wine, and relationality”) are both things (res) and figures or signs – of one another and of that which exceeds appearance (Ibid., 169, 170)

The prayer is in fact, one long sentence, joined by various relative pronouns and coordinating conjunctions. And the auditorial experience of it can be somewhat dizzying. “The many repetitions and recommencements in the mediaeval Roman Rite” can only be situated within an “oral provenance conjoined with an apophatic reserve which betokens our constitutive, positive, and analogical distance from God, rather than our sinfulness and humiliation” (173).

What the new compositions and translations have done is create the sense that we know what’s happening, that we know all the proper parts of the rite and we have put them in the right order, that right praying is a matter of including all the correct elements. What is lost is what connects the various parts. We feel this most acutely in that period from after the homily until the dialogue between priest and people that begins the Eucharistic Prayer in the 1979 BCP and many of the other modern ordos. Have you not often felt as if you are being jerked around between different “parts” (Creed, Prayers, Confession, Peace, Offertory rites) whose relationship to each other is just so difficult to discern. It is possible with extreme care and planning to allow the faithful to experience the rite as one continuous action, but this is quite difficult and extremely rare.

Even more, in the eucharistic prayer itself, the relationship between the parts (and, of course, we assume that it has discrete parts) is not always clear. One of the significant ways in which the Roman Canon makes this clear is through the use of these connecting words at the beginning of each paragraph, linking all the petitions, the offerings, the intercessions, the institution narrative, and everything else that can be found therein into one complex whole that is unified (Serra’s article demonstrates this with a remarkable degree of skill and clarity; space bars me from demonstrating it here). But one is also given the sense that this unity comes about in large part for the same reason that we can even come to God, that our sacrifice might be pleasing, even that we might be saved: because God has acted and because God so wills it.

These are the types of issues that must be considered if and when the Episcopal Church and others come to revising their rites … yet again. The question of what it is that we are doing when we gather on the Lord’s Day to offer worship with reverence and awe to that God who is a consuming fire — that is the question that should occupy our thoughts. And our prayers.

Matthew Olver’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is “Book of Common Prayer” (2011) by Diane Brennan. 


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