Saturday, October 02, 2004

Destroying is much easier than Building

To build a wall with proper foundations takes a long time.
To knock down that wall takes a short time.

To design and assemble a motor car takes a long time.
To crash it and make it a write-off takes a short time.

To create a Tradition of English Public Worship & Common Prayer takes centuries.
To desert it or to rubbish it or to destroy it takes not more than a decade.

In the 1960s (with roots reaching back into earlier times) and on into the 1970s a Tradition that had existed for many centuries was actively destroyed, primarily by those who had been raised within it. The stormy winds of cultural change that blew in that era swept away, by the design of those who ought to have known better, much of the English way of prayer and forms of Bible translation. In their places there came to exist a virtually open field in which innovators of all kinds could and did begin to plant their seeds. The fruit of those seeds are all about us today but they present a field of confused colors and shapes, style and forms – it is evident that it was much easier to destroy than it is to create and build in unity. In one thing only do moderns seem united and that it their opposition to that which existed up to the 1960s. Amongst them are many opinions of what could, should and ought to be and agreement that what must never be is the classic Tradition of prayer and worship.

Most people who go to churches these days have no idea as to what was the case in terms of Bibles and Prayer Books not too long ago. They are so used to a variety of versions of the Bible and a variety of forms of services/liturgy and an emphasis on choice and diversity, and they are so accustomed to what is generally known as dumbing–down, that they hardly notice the generally poor quality of English that is being used to address the Almighty and to speak to those who are made in his image. Therefore they are surprised – even offended sometimes – to be challenged about these things. Why should normality be challenged? Why attack the status quo? When there is variety & choice everywhere in the western world why should the same not be evident in the church and her activities?

Part of the reason why most people accept things as they are is that they breathe in the air of modernity daily. They are thoroughly modernized people. Further, they have imbibed the various stories created by church leaders about the need for relevancy & simplicity, about the fact that modern people cannot possibly appreciate traditional, classic English grammar, syntax, style and rhythm, about the fact that modern liturgy and modern versions of the Bible are based on greater knowledge of the ancient languages and contexts, about the claim that God is speaking to us through modern experience and we should be listening, about the fact that only certain types of music and song minister to modern tastes, and so on.

They have not been told (and probably most do not want to know) that in our times not a little of what is called translating of a text is in fact producing a paraphrase that removes from the original what is deemed offensive or unacceptable or unimaginable by “modern” people in the West. So there is much in modern Liturgies and Versions of the Bible that has been adjusted for the benefit of modern ears and is far removed from the original text and its original meaning. Today dynamic equivalency is acclaimed as the way to translate the Bible and to create liturgy. And because the style of modern versions of the Bible and forms of liturgy is like popular journalism, it all seems OK to most people.

Thus it is that a thousand years of the form and style of prayer to the Holy Trinity has been abandoned. Take the pronouns for God as an example. In medieval times and notably during the reign of Henry VIII, the king was always called, “Your Majesty” and addressed in the polite form of the second person singular “ye/you”. If any subject had dared to address the monarch as “Thy Majesty” he would have been immediately arrested!

But English liturgy from well before the Reformation and on through the centuries to the 1960s, always and only addressed God as “Thou/Thee.” One would perhaps expect the address to God to have been as the address to the King (“the Lord’s Anointed”) but English Christian leaders decided prayerfully that to communicate (a) the fact that God is One LORD and (b) that believers are called to have communion with Him, the form of the second person, “Thou/Thee” not “Ye/You” must be used. Obviously “thou/thee” can only be singular and further it is the form used for affectionate and familial relations.

So “Thou/Thee” preserved the transcendence and the immanence of the One God and made him approachable while keeping Him in his own glory and holiness. All this was ditched in the 1960s when it was insisted that God must be addressed in the same way that we address one another – so He was denied his transcendence and became basically the immanent God as He became the “You-God”.

Having abandoned the received, historic and classic way and style of English Prayer in the 1960s, the churches have not yet found a settled alternative for it. This is partly because it is now held that the language of prayer has to conform not only to the general style of language used on the street but also to an ever-enlarging series of requirements of various forms of political and gender correctness. Listening to most modern forms of public prayer it is difficult at times to recognize that they are addressed to God – that is, from a Christian viewpoint, to God the LORD, the God the Beauty who surpasses all Beauty; to God the Excellent who surpasses all excellence; to God the Holy, who surpasses all purity and to God the ineffable, the glorious, the Creator, Redeemer and Judge of mankind.

To address God as “You” and to do so with reverence and awe, and in humility and filial gratitude, is much easier proposed than done. It is not impossible but it is rarely achieved these days, in part because of the association of “you” with human beings who are all equal and have rights and so on.

Traditions of prayer and worship, of Bible translation and commentary, of habit and style of Christian living, are not meant to become fossils. (And this has happened at times to the classic Anglican Way!) Rather, as they are lived and engaged in they are to be gently reformed and perfected and adapted to new situations and contexts. Regrettably, this did not happen in the 1960s. There was revolution instead of gentle reformation and we still reap the fruit of that revolution with an unstable Bible (100 plus versions in print in America); unstable worship (liturgy is now locally generated in many places and classical forms are despised); unstable doctrine (our opinions take precedence over the received Dogmas and doctrines) and, in the case of Anglicans, an Anglican Way that is subject to powerful centrifugal forces tearing it apart and few matching centripetal forces bringing it together and into the classic Tradition.

It is easier to destroy than to build; it is harder to build than to destroy. To create a godly form of the language of prayer that uses “you” is not yet achieved and it may not be possible. Forty years of trying only shows to the observant just how difficult it is to do so!

[for more details on language in worship see Peter Toon and Louis Tarsitano, Neither Archaic not Obsolete. The language of Common Prayer and Public Worship, 2003. from the Prayer Book Society [1 800 727 1928] or in the UK from

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