Heaviness, weeping and joy

Title_Page_of_Coverdale_Bible
Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.

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English-speaking Lutheranism: lost in translation?

Luther's Bible and the Book of Common PrayerSo, why has “Augsburg Evangelicalism” (see previous post) failed to make much headway in the English-speaking world?

There are many reasons for this. Partly it’s because Lutherans have tended to be diffident about evangelism. Partly it’s because there isn’t that much of a “gap in the market” for a church tradition that is more sacramental than “low-church” Anglicanism, and more evangelical (in the sense of making justification by faith the centre of its teachings and practice) than Anglo- or Roman Catholicism.

To some extent there is a “chicken and egg” problem, which we can deduce from the following observation made by Gene Veith in the introduction to his book The Spirituality of the Cross. While “any Christian could draw on the spiritual insights of the Lutheran tradition that will be described here,” Dr Veith observes that:

The full dose of Lutheran spirituality can only, of course, be found within the day-to-day life of a Lutheran church […] Spirituality, after all, must be lived, not merely intellectualized, and its locus is the mysteries taking place in an ordinary local church.

In other words, no theology or spirituality can be abstracted from the church community in which it is incarnated – which makes it hard for such a theology or spirituality to take root in places where there are few congregations confessing it and living it out.

Wilhelm Stählin, in his book The Mystery of God (see previous post), suggests a deeper reason. He is discussing how the church of Christ is found “in, with and under” human society, so that the Christian faith cannot be abstracted from the human societies within which it is incarnated:

The Church lives within the nations, and the divine mysteries which by it are distributed in the world are united in the Church with the living forces of nationality. He who undertakes to preserve the Church’s purity by the method of only forming a church out of the essence of the Church, without any reference to the laws and ordinances of the nation’s life into which the Church seeks to sink its roots, is likely to fall into a dangerous self-delusion and ignore the way of God. For He wants to embed His mystery in the nation and in history.

While Stählin’s references to “the living forces of nationality” make me a little uncomfortable, I think he is still correct that it is a mistake to seek the pure “essence of church” abstracted from the church’s concrete existence within human society.

Stählin goes on to identify language as the main way in which the church and its social context are bound together:

If the feeling for the depths of language itself had not been concealed from us through the dominance of a purely conceptual way of thinking, then we should have noticed much more clearly how much Christian thought is linked on to the root factors of national culture by the use of the mother-tongue.

Stählin describes this as “self-evident to us of the Evangelical Church” (i.e. the Lutheran church in Germany), given the role of the Reformation in shaping German national identity. However, it is true for other traditions and languages as well:

Christian knowledge expresses itself in different languages, and in every language takes something from the native wisdom that is deposited in every living tongue. Luther’s translation of the Bible is to us all (i.e. in Germany) the classical instance of such a consubstantiatio.

Another classic example of how a Christian tradition is rooted in “the native wisdom” deposited in its “mother tongue” is, of course, Anglicanism, whose very essence was for centuries shaped and expressed in the language of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer. The most significant example of all, perhaps, is the role played by Latin in the (western) Catholic Church. It remains to be seen what the long term effects will be for these churches of their move away from these traditional languages in recent decades.

Of course, Lutheranism has never been solely a German-language tradition, as my Scandinavian (and Baltic) Lutheran friends will be quick to remind me. But Scandinavian Lutheranism is almost as long-established as the German variety, so that it has long spoken the native tongues of those countries. In any case (and perhaps significantly in this context), Scandinavian Lutheranism can be a very different beast from the German variety, both culturally and theologically.

For Lutheranism in the English-speaking world, the problem becomes that it is always a tradition in translation, losing something of its essence and vitality along the way, never quite finding a fully comfortable way of expressing itself in English. Thus Lutheranism – and, as a consequence, “Augsburg Evangelicalism” – remains something of an “introduced species”, rather than a native plant.

The mystery of the missing “O”

O_SapientiaToday is O Sapientia – and so was yesterday.

In the western church, the “O antiphons” have traditionally been sung at Vespers before and after the Magnificat, in the period from 17 December to 23 December.

However, in the calendar for the Book of Common Prayer, 16 December is marked as “O Sapientia”. Why the 16th rather than the 17th?

As this post explains, 16 December was the date the O antiphons began in the Sarum Use. In this scheme, eight antiphons (rather than seven) were used, the extra antiphon being O virgo virginum, sung on 23 December:

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before thee was any like thee, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel ye at me?
The thing which ye behold is a divine mystery.

Cranmer drew heavily on the Sarum Use in writing the Book of Common Prayer, which explains the retention of 16 December as the date for O Sapientia. Except it doesn’t, because beyond that mysterious reference in its calendar the Prayer Book makes no provision at all for the O antiphons. As the post linked above observes:

Interestingly, while the 1662 Calendar preserved the pre-Reformation English date, there is no evidence for the use of the O Antiphons in Anglican worship in the 17th century, and the Marian antiphon appointed for December 23 in Sarum Use would not have been sung in the reformed Church of England at the time.

Finally, as Wikipedia observes, the inclusion of O virgo virginum changes the acrostic formed by the initial letters of each “O” (written in reverse order) from ERO CRAS (“I shall be with you tomorrow”) to VERO CRAS (“truly tomorrow”).

Just passing through

Roman Missal, New TranslationI’ve written before about the painful contrast between Archbishop Cranmer’s translation of the collect for the fourth Sunday after Trinity, and the translation used by the Catholic Church between 1973 and 2011.

In his essay “An Apology for Grief, Fear and Anger”, from his book Faith of our Fathers, Eamon Duffy discusses the same collect, and draws a similar conclusion. Prof Duffy begins by quoting the Latin version of the prayer:

Protector in te sperantium, Deus, sine quo nihil est validum, nihil sanctum: multiplica super nos misericordiam tuam, ut, te rectore, te duce, sic transeamus per bona temporalia, ut non amittamus æterna. Per Dominum Nostrum I.C.

Duffy then quotes Cranmer’s version, which “translates this almost perfectly”:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy; Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal: Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

The one point on which Duffy criticises Cranmer is his “not sufficiently bringing out the meaning of the phrase bona temporalia“. The tension in the original prayer arises from the need to pass through the good things of this world; to affirm the goodness of this world, but still to “keep moving”. As Duffy observes:

To us who live in a grossly materialist culture, which rates people’s value by their earning and spending power, and assesses human happiness by the possession of good things, it is difficult to imagine a more salutary and necessary emphasis.

Prof Duffy then turns to what was, at the time he wrote his essay, the current version in use in the Catholic Church:

God our Father and protector, without you nothing is holy, nothing has value. Guide us to everlasting life by helping us to use wisely the blessings you have given to the world.

Why is this so awful? Because, as Prof Duffy notes, it robs the prayer of its tension; it removes “the notion of danger, and the sense of journeying“:

All that is left is a rather banal prayer for the sensible use of a good creation. No message here for post-Thatcher Britain.

However, since Prof Duffy wrote his essay, the Catholic Church has adopted the New Translation of the Mass. This, by all accounts, strongly divided opinion when it was introduced, and the new version of this collect perhaps provides a good example of both why the new Mass is loved by some and loathed by others:

O God, protector of those who hope in you,
without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy,
bestow in abundance your mercy upon us
and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide,
we may use the good things that pass
in such a way as to hold fast even now
to those that ever endure.

Overall, this is much better than the ICEL translation, and restores something of the Latin prayer’s tension. Equally, though, I can see why the new translation is not to everyone’s taste. As a piece of English prose, this new collect falls a long way short of Cranmer, lacking his sense of rhythm and his economy of language.

Personally, though, I think the improvements outweigh any remaining deficiencies. Using this collect as an example helps me understand why, on my own relatively limited exposure to both the old and new translations, I’ve found myself preferring the new – that and the fact that, every time I hear the response “And also with you” in modern Lutheran or Anglican liturgies, I now find myself hankering for “And with your spirit”…

Note: for more on the Prayer Book version of this collect, see this 2004 post discussing C.S. Lewis’ essay, “A Slip of the Tongue”

Percy Dearmer on the contents of the Prayer Book

Family Tree of the Book of Common PrayerI recently read Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, a short history of the Book of Common Prayer written by Percy Dearmer (perhaps best known as the editor of the English Hymnal) and first published in 1912. The book is available to read online.

The whole book is well worth reading (as I’ve described here), but in this post I wanted to share three interesting nuggets of liturgical nerdery which particularly struck me as I read Dearmer’s book.

First: I hadn’t fully appreciated until reading Dearmer that the term “Divine Service” refers specifically to the daily office – i.e. what St Benedict calls the Opus Dei, “the work of God” – while the “Liturgy” refers to Holy Communion. This isn’t the Lutheran usage: we use the term “Divine Service” (or Gottesdienst) to refer to the Communion service. (I wonder if there is a causal link, in either direction, between this detail of terminology and the relative marginalisation of the daily office within Lutheranism.)

Second, expanding on this, Dearmer describes in his third chapter how the full title of the Book of Common Prayer divides the book’s contents into distinct sections:

  1. The Book of Common Prayer
  2. And Administration of the Sacraments,
  3. And other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England
  4. Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David pointed as they are to be sung or said in Churches
  5. And the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

The other contents of the book as we have it (the State Services, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Table of Kindred and Affinity) are then only appendices to the Prayer Book proper.

The contents of each part are then as follows (links are to Lynda Howell’s online version of the 1662 book):

  1. Common Prayer
    1. The Order for Morning Prayer.
    2. The Order for Evening Prayer.
    3. The Athanasian Creed.
    4. The Litany.
    5. Prayers and Thanksgivings.
  2. The Administration of the Sacraments
    1. Collects, Epistles, and Gospels.
    2. Holy Communion.
    3. Publick Baptism of Infants.
    4. Private Baptism of Children.
    5. Baptism of those of Riper Years.
  3. Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church
    1. Catechism.
    2. The Order of Confirmation.
    3. The Solemnization of Matrimony.
    4. The Visitation of the Sick.
    5. The Communion of the Sick.
    6. The Burial of the Dead.
    7. The Churching of Women.
    8. Commination.
  4. The Psalter
    1. The Psalter.
  5. The Ordinal 
    1. The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of BishopsPriests, and Deacons.
  6. Appendices
    1. Forms of Prayer to be used at Sea. [added in 1661, and actually located – somewhat illogically – between the Psalter and the Ordinal]
    2. Forms of Prayer for the Anniversary of the day of the Accession of the Reigning Sovereign.
    3. Articles of Religion.
    4. A Table of Kindred and Affinity.

It will be seen that the Prayer Book thus provides a complete system for Christian public worship. Dearmer, an Anglo-Catholic, also observes that the “Other Rites and Ceremonies” section includes four of the “five commonly called Sacraments” (the Ordinal containing the fifth): confirmation, holy matrimony, private confession and absolution, and healing – the last two both being contained in the order for the Visitation of the Sick. The Prayer Book gives far more attention, though, to the two uncontested sacraments that are “generally necessary to salvation”: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Finally, the “family tree” which I’ve included at the start of this post has a line running from Eastern Orthodoxy to the Book of Common Prayer. When I posted this on Tumblr, someone asked what the Eastern Orthodox influences on the Prayer Book were. Having now read Dearmer’s book, it seems there are (or at least, have been) two:

  1. The “prayer of St Chrysostom” that closes Morning and Evening Prayer (“…that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests…”)
  2. The Epiklesis, or prayer for the Holy Spirit to hallow the elements to make them the body and blood of Christ, which Cranmer included in the 1549 Book but which was subsequently dropped: Heare us (O merciful father) we besech thee; and with thy holy spirite and worde, vouchsafe to bl+esse and sanc+tifie these thy gyftes, and creatures of bread and wyne, that they maie be unto us the bodye and bloude of thy moste derely beloved sonne Jesus Christe.

Clive James on the Bible for non-believers

King James Version, photo by Sarah Nichols.

One of the 49 biographical essays in Clive James’s magnum opus Cultural Amnesia (see previous post) takes as its start point the following quotation from the Polish writer Czesław Miłosz:

The scriptures constitute the common good of believers, agnostics and atheists.

As James observes, this ought to be taken almost for granted:

That the Bible, for a Western civilization, is the common good of believers and non-believers ought to be obvious, but for some reason it is a truth hard to see except when that same civilization is at the point of collapse.

This had certainly been the experience of Czesław Miłosz, who had seen the collapse of civilisation in his home country, Poland, during the second world war. After the war, Miłosz and his fellow artists could not escape the memory of what they had gone through:

When they looked over their shoulders […] there was little else in view, except rubble. Milosz was living with that knowledge when he said this about the scriptures. Looking for something to count on, he found the Bible in the ruins.

We live, James suggests, in a rather more “comfortable set of ruins”, in which “there seems less to be afraid of”. As a result, “we can persuade ourselves that history is a linear development, in which even the eternal can become outdated, and be safely forgotten.” He continues:

Perhaps our own catastrophe will never come in any readily intelligible form, so it will never matter if there is nothing to go back to, no past to legitimize the permanent present, which will legitimize itself by doing us no evil except by its puffball bombardment of triviality. There is always the chance that our confident iconoclasts are right. Milosz is telling us not to bet on it, but perhaps he was unlucky.

James goes on to discuss his own relationship, as a lapsed Anglican, with the Bible – and his dismay at the enthusiasm with which the Church of England has abandoned the Authorised Version:

You can be a non-believer, however, and still be amazed at how even the believers are ready to let the Bible go. In England, the most lethal attack on the scriptures has been mounted by the established Church itself. The King James Bible is a prose masterpiece compiled at a time when even a committee could write English. The modern versions, done in the name of comprehension, add up to an assault on readability.

James quotes T.S. Eliot, who said that the Revised Standard Version “was the work of men who did not realize they were atheists”. He is even more scathing about the New English Bible, with its “successful reduction of once-vital language to a compendium of banalities”.

I normally start sighing and rolling my eyes a little when faced with this line of argument, as it brings to mind Eliot’s comment that “Those who talk of the Bible as a ‘monument of English prose’ are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity”. James, however, has more interesting things to say about the Bible than merely admiring the monumentality of its prose.

But why should a non-believer feel entitled to express a view on this in the first place? James describes how he was accused by Richard Ingrams of “being in bad faith” when he joined a public protest against changes to the Book of Common Prayer despite not being a practising Christian. James responds:

But it was my book too. I had been brought up on the scriptures, the prayers and the hymns. I had better reasons than inertia for deploring their destruction.

For James, the Authorised Version stood as a rock of humanism against the levelling forces of consumer capitalism:

For me, the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against the pervasive falsehoods of advertising, social engineering, moral uplift, demagogic politics—all the verbal corruptions of democracy, the language of illusion.

Miłosz had even better reasons to value the Bible. For him:

the scriptures provided a standard of authenticity against a much more dangerous language, the language of legalized murder.

James suggests that the church’s flight from its literary and liturgical heritage may lie partly in its established status:

Sooner than become the enemy of its own classical texts, the Anglican Church would have done better to seize the first opportunity of disestablishing itself. However tenuous, its offical connection to the state has been enough to saddle it with the doomed ambition of maximizing its popular audience, like a television channel in desperate search of more viewers who eat crisps.

This brings us to one of the weaker aspects of James’s argument in this essay. He describes the potential benefits of disestablishment as follows:

Separated from a fully secularized state, it might have fully enjoyed the only civilized condition for a religion, which is to provide a spiritual structure for private life. […] In its proper sphere, private life, a religion can keep its teachings as pure and strict as it likes, as long as they do not break the law.

That is, to put it mildly, far too simplistic – and imposes a privatised, liberal-secular understanding of religion on its adherents (“We will tell you what your religion is allowed to mean“). James himself goes on to describe the impact the the Pope’s visit to Poland had in 1979, which surely refutes his reduction of Christianity to “a spiritual structure for private life”. As N.T. Wright always points out, Christianity has constituted a political challenge to the “powers that be” ever since the first believers went to their deaths insisting that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. The role of the church in opposing apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s is another example of how taking seriously the challenge of the gospel in the political sphere, and refusing to retreat to becoming a “spiritual structure for private life”, needn’t have as its ultimate aim the imposition of a theocracy.

James is moving, however, when he describes the continuing attraction of Jesus for him, and for others who yearn for something more than the therapeutic moralism that is the main spiritual diet on offer today:

It is true that Jesus never spoke the language of the King James Version of the New Testament. But the language of the King James Version is of a poetic intensity congruent with the impact Jesus must once have made on simple souls, of whom I am still one: simple enough, anyway, to need my sins forgiven. Now that there is nobody to do that for me, I must try to do it myself. Like most men with a conscience, I find that very hard, and spend much time feeling absurd. But without the scriptures we poor wretches would be lost indeed, because without them, conscience itself would become just another disturbance of the personality, to be cured by counselling. We are surrounded by voices telling us that everything will come right if we learn to love ourselves. Imagine the torments of Jesus in his passion, if, on top of the sponge of vinegar and the spear, they had offered him counselling as well.

So, too, for Czesław Miłosz, exiled in California after his defection from Poland in 1951, who “saw enough of America’s culture of personal fulfilment to wonder what he had got himself into”:

But he never forgot what he had got himself out of – a repression so arid that it left him thirsty for a language he could respect, even though it came from a book he couldn’t believe.

In the end, though, I suspect that all this amounts to an attempt to live off the inherited capital of the Christian past; and that a Bible detached from faith in Christ and from the life of the church is, whatever its literary qualities, a cultural asset that depreciates faster than Clive James realises.

The life aquatic

Image: Stefan Kellner.

Christianity is a waterlogged religion. Baptism is often mistaken for a single moment in the Christian life: an initiation, or a public declaration of faith. But, as Norman Nagel expands on in his rather freewheeling essay Lured from the Water, the Little Fish Perish (PDF), the whole Christian life is lived in the waters of baptism.

Prof Nagel quotes Tertullian:

We are born in water as little fish in the way of our fish Jesus Christ.

Tertullian was writing against the Gnostics, who sought to separate the work of the Spirit from the “lowly earthly, physical, carnal, specific water.” But we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), and “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). As Prof Nagel continues:

where there is no water, the little fish perish. Apart from the water where Christ is, waterless death. “Nunquam sine aqua Christus” [Christ is never without water].

Tertullian “has a whale of a time finding any water in Scripture that can then be used to extol what the water of holy baptism does and gives” – a tradition continued in Martin Luther’s Sintflutgebet, the Flood Prayer, which is steeped in imagery from both Scripture and church tradition:

Almighty, eternal God, in your strict judgment you damned the unbelieving world with the flood. By your great mercy you preserved faithful Noah and seven with him. You drowned hardened Pharaoh and all his men in the Red Sea. Through it you led your people Israel with dry feet. In this way you signalled ahead with this bath your holy baptism. By the baptism of your dear child, our Lord Jesus Christ, you hallowed and set forth the Jordan and water everywhere to be a blessed flood and boundless washing away of our sins.

For the sake of that unfathomable mercy of yours, we implore that you would graciously look upon this N. and grant salvation with true faith by the Holy Spirit. Thus through this saving flood drown and put an end to all this as born in him from Adam, and all that he himself has added to that. Separate him from the number of the unbelievers, and preserve him dry and safe in the ark of your holy church. Keep him always fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, serving your Name, so that with all the believers he may come to eternal life according to your promise, made worthy through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

As Prof Nagel observes:

One can hardly imagine a baptismal prayer heavier with water than the Flood Prayer.

A version of this water-sodden prayer subsequently made it into the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. However, its rich imagery has often proved too much for subsequent generations:

There is so much in the Flood Prayer. Some of it is devastatingly hard to take; no wonder it has been clipped about. There is so much water that a congregation fed mostly on what Chemnitz calls “pleasantries” would almost certainly blow bubbles.

Thus later editions of the Book of Prayer, while retaining a form of the prayer, lose much of its more vigorous imagery, such as “wycked kyng Pharao with al his armie” and the “holesome laver of regeneration”.

Within Lutheranism, too, the prayer has had a mixed history. The church of the Enlightenment era regarded it as an embarrassment, and it is even omitted in 1982’s Lutheran Worship. It is restored, though, in the Lutheran Service Book, published in 2006.

“Where there is no water, the little fish perish”, and so the whole Christian life is a baptised life, begun, lived and consummated in water:

[W]hen the watery liturgy of the baptized is over, it is not over, for there flow the waters of life, the Lord’s river and fountain of the water of life flowing, enlivening us through all our days to his consummation. Now it is day by day. “In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “The Old Adam in us be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and a new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” And so on to the New Jerusalem with its river of the water of life.

In short, the Christian life can be summarised in a single, loosely metred couplet:

Your sins too are washed away. Clothed in Christ you go on wetly garmented all the way.