(I write this primarily for my fellow Anglicans who put much emphasis upon the offering of “Praise Songs” to God in their worship, which is usually Eucharistic.)
The canticle known as Te Deum Laudamus, unlike any other of the traditional, daily canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, is not found in the Bible or the Apocrypha.
There was a time when most Anglicans in the West were familiar with it and knew it off by heart in part or total— “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord…” This familiarity was because they had either sung it, or heard it sung, at Matins often throughout their lives.
Regrettably with the virtual disappearance in modern times of Sung Matins, as well as the arrival of the minimal usage of Daily Morning Prayer, too few people know this wonderful canticle. And where they do know it in a modern version it is often one that is unacceptable in style and devotion as be totally non-memorable. One hesitates to cite the worst example which begins: “You are God and we praise you…” (as though God needed us to help him discover his identity)!
The canticle comes from the fifth century and from within the distinct ethos of Trinitarian worship in the Church in the West—that which is captured also in The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed (or Quincuque Vult). Regrettably, the ancient legend, that it was composed at the occasion of Augustine’s baptism in a poetic dialogue between Augustine and Bishop Ambrose, each one contributing one line as they proceeded, though most attractive, is not true.
Te Deum Laudamus falls naturally into three parts:
(1) A hymn to the Holy Trinity, which recalls the praise of God by his heavenly hosts in their unceasing Sanctus (Isaiah 6:3) and the praise of God by the Church and its saints in a doxology to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
(2) A hymn to Christ, recalling the teaching of the Creed, and ending in a prayer his help help.
(3) A series of suffrages taken in the main from the Psalter.
It is generally agreed that the third part was not originally part of the Canticle but was added at a later point of time. Thus it can stand apart as a humble petition address to the Father through the Son and with the Holy Spirit.
The Latin original has a bold opening placing “Te [Thee]” first in order: “Thee as God we praise; Thee as Lord we acknowledge.” And this same word order and emphasis are found later—“Thee the glorious company of the apostles praise: Thee the goodly fellowship of the prophets praise; Thee the noble army of martyrs praise.” This particular Latin style uplifts, magnifies and glorifies God as unique, transcendent, infinite and eternal in his divine Being, alone worthy to worshipped and adored by heavenly and earthly creatures. It is not really possible to bring this style through in translation and it is probably not wise to try.
The translation in the traditional Book of Common Prayer from the sixteenth century is the one most widely known and used, not least because it has been set to music by a variety of top-classic composers, both for use in the Liturgy and as a stand-alone offering to the LORD. Finding a satisfactory contemporary English language translation is most difficult! Here is a simple rendering for those used to “contemporary language in worship” of the two essential parts of Te Deum in which the Deity is addressed in the modern second person form as “You.”
We praise you O God, we acknowledge you to be the Lord;
All the earth now worships you, the Father everlasting.
To you all angels cry aloud, the heavens and all the powers therein;
To you cherubim and seraphim continually do cry:
Holy, holy, holy; Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of your glory.
The glorious company of the apostles praise you,
The goodly fellowship of the prophets praise you,
The noble army of martyrs praise you,
The holy Church throughout all the world acknowledges you:
The Father of an infinite majesty,
Your adorable, true, and only Son,
Also the Holy Spirit, the Counselor.
You are the King of glory, O Christ.
You are the everlasting Son of the Father.
When you took to yourself flesh to deliver man, you humbled yourself to be born of a virgin.
When you had overcome the sharpness of death, you opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You sit at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father.
We believe that you will come to be our Judge.
We therefore pray you help your servants, whom you have redeemed with your precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with your saints in glory everlasting.
The Use today
Here we return to the use of Praise Songs! I suggest that worship leaders and composers in the local congregation take time (a) to study and meditate upon this great canticle; (b) listen to some of the classic settings for it (via 1940 Hymnal etc.), and then (c) compose suitable music to accompany the words and to lift the soul in adoration to the Holy Trinity. (It may be wise to leave out the drum for this music that seeks to uplift the whole person in the Spirit to the Father in the Son.)
I am not suggesting that Matins and its use there be forgotten! It is too good not to use and so if it is not sung in Matins let it be song in the Praise Songs in and around the Eucharistic Service on Sunday mornings.
The Revd Dr Peter Toon, firstname.lastname@example.org www.pbsusa.org March 5 2008