Monday, May 27, 2002

"Contemporary" or "traditional" language in prayer?

A discussion starter.

It is possible to take the period of the 1960s and to state that (a) before that date in the English speaking world the traditional English dialect of prayer was everywhere dominant (from Roman Catholic to Protestant fundamentalist), and (b) after that date there began a massive movement towards what is called "contemporary" English.

The amazing thing - 40 years later - is that there is still a sizeable minority which uses the traditional dialect of prayer. Why?

Before answering, let us remind ourselves of the situation.

In the 1960s the Roman Catholics abandoned Latin and began to use the vernacular. After Vatican II it was decided from Rome that the modern vernacular was to be used, and used it was by translators who had little experience of doing such work. So, in rendering the Mass and Offices into English, a contemporary English created by the translators was used rather than the form of English (similar to that of the classic Book of Common
Prayer) that RC's had used for centuries in semi-official translations of the Liturgy. This meant that virtually overnight in the USA some 30 or more millions began to address God as "YOU" in liturgy and devotional exercises. And all the familiar and long used translations of the Creed, Canticles and Psalms were forsaken. (To this day there is massive controversy in English-speaking Catholicism about translations being used and prepared - and not a few people are reverting to Latin!)

But not only the RC's. The 1960s saw a passion for relevance overwhelming Protestants of all kinds. New translations of the Bible to replace the KJV, the ASV and the RSV (a 1950s translation) were embarked upon and one basic rule was that they were to be in modern "contemporary" language. So we had the TEV, Living Bible, New International Version and so on. Millions who had heard God addressed as "Thou art our God" now heard "You are our God." Evangelicals were virtually wholly committed to this movement for relevance for it was seen as the way to win the masses for Christ. They agreed with Roman Catholics on this point!

And as the translations presented the revealed Word of God in the language of the ordinary person (as it was claimed) so preachers began the new adventure of praying in the pulpits in a new way - addressing God as "You." (Many of them found this difficult and for years mixed their language and reverted to "Thou" on occasion out of habit rather than design.)

As the 12 million or so Southern Baptists, together with millions of other Protestants, engaged in this change of the language of prayer (ditching centuries of practice and experience) the liturgically based Protestants, especially Episcopalians, began to produce contemporary language liturgies. These went through various trial forms until they became the dominant forms in the new prayer books of the 1970s and 1980s. Now they are seeking to push out of the books to come any traces of the traditional form.

So the revolution of the 1960s succeeded right across the spectrum. Relevance, and being up to date, and being with it, triumphed in a very short period. The practice and experience of five or more centuries was ditched in a mere decade.

Then Why is it that so called traditional language is still around? Why do the older Bible translations - KJV, ASV and RSV - still command interest and use? Why do many still use the traditional Book of Common Prayer? And why do many Roman Catholics go to the Latin Mass? And why are so many hymns still sung in their "Thee-Thou" form?

There are many reasons and here are a few,

1. The traditional language is seen to have a dignity that carries with it the faith and devotion of the centuries. When we use these words we are joined to the heritage of prayer of the English-speaking people. 2. The contemporary language is seen to be lacking in power to raise the affections, to thrill the heart and to inspire the mind. Further, no-one is really sure what is contemporary! 3. The use of the contemporary has not proved that it has a relevance that is truly an evangelistic tool; in fact, there is something attractive to many seekers in using a language for addressing God that is different from that of the street or the media. 4. The use of the contemporary has been an opportunity for modern church leaders to dumb down the Gospel and the Doctrine of Christianity and thereby to open the door for the revival of ancient heresies. The traditional translations and forms of prayer preserve the biblical Catholic Faith. 5. The problems in adapting to the classic English vernacular of prayer are much less than adapting to the language of computer use or other modern technical forms of modern jargon. 6. No-one seems to be able to tell us all exactly and precisely what is contemporary English and which form of it is truly suitable for addressing the CREATOR, JUDGE and REDEEMER of humankind!

And so on.

Trinity Sunday 2002.

The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America

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