In the Introduction to Contemporary Prayers for public Worship (1967), the late Congregational divine, Caryl Micklem, wrote:
There are some familiar constructions of liturgical language which are themselves unacceptable in modern English. One such is the Collect form, in which the opening address to God is expanded by a relative clause indicating the special grounds on which we approach him.
And in a footnote he adds:
Conversely (and this, we think, is even more important) there are many words and phrases which ought to be usable in public prayer today which are quite incompatible with “thou” and its attendant verb-forms.
As examples of that which will not fit into or convert to the “thou” form, he points to two prayers in the collection, both of which are to be used especially when children are present.
Here we are, our Father. You called us, and we’ve come.
You want us to learn more about your love for us,
and we want your help to make our lives less selfish and more loving.
So we have come to church
to listen to what you have to say to us,
to give you thanks for what you do for us,
and to share with you the hopes you have given us through Jesus.
Help us to make good use of our time together:
and when we leave here again help us to take our worship home with us.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Father God, we sing our praise and thanks to you; for you are our friend.
You love us and look after us, and nothing happens without your noticing.
You keep on being kind to us, however little we deserve it.
In Jesus you show us the right way to behave:
and if we trust you, you help us to live as your family.
So everyone who knows you thanks you and loves you. Together we thank you now.
Father, help your children everywhere to grow up and to grow together.
As we follow the example of Jesus may we get wiser:
and not only wider but more loving.
Through our life in your family may we learn unselfishness,
and be ready to make sacrifices for your sake.
Dr Micklem is right that these prayers will hardly convert satisfactorily into a “thou” form. The model of relation upon which they are based is apparently that of a Deity who is easy to approach, friendly, and who enjoys being talked to in the same way that decent human beings talk to each other. He is like a kindly grandfather to whom children easily speak and with whom they feel comfortable.
Let us recall a few facts. What is significant is that the “thou” form was not only in the 16th & 17th centuries the second person singular in grammar, but also the language of intimacy, between lovers as well as family members. The “you” form was both the second person plural and also a means of polite address between strangers or to superiors (cf. your majesty).
What has happened in the language of public prayer (Anglican & Congregationalist) is that the “thou” form as second singular has functioned in public prayer as setting forth first of all the unity of God and then secondly it has expressed the intimacy with the almighty Father of those who are adopted by grace in Christ as His children. But this intimacy has never been a familiar one; but, rather, one resting in the relation of penitent, obedient, loving hearts to the holy, almighty Lord.
The use of “you” in modern prayers, such as the chatty ones above, has the ability to present a relation of closeness and friendliness; but, it seems not to have the power to communicate that the genuine intimacy with the Lord our God, prized by the saints, is truly only within the real context of holiness and majesty on the divine side and of humility on the human side. So, as the decades since 1967 have shown, the “you” form is well suited to church situations and contexts where the immanence of God, that is God present with his people, is seen as prior to his transcendence over them! Conversely, “thou” is more suited to a situation where the immanence of God is seen as flowing from his majestic transcendence and being dependent upon it.
Although the “thou” form is an expression of intimacy, in the relation with the one, true and living HOLY ONE, the Lord, that intimacy is not familiar or easy to gain. Rather it is possible by grace when the human soul is humbled before the Majesty on the righteous LORD.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon M.A., D.Phil. (Oxon.),
Christ Church, Biddulph Moor & St Anne's, Brown Edge