The rejection of the old Prayer Book was something like the demolition of a historic building. For over four centuries it has been regarded as a monument of great prose. It has influenced the English language with memorable images and phrasing. Only the King James translation of the Bible and the works of William Shakespeare have affected our language so much. Why did the Episcopal Church discard this precious inheritance? Various people have asked the question publicly, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, and many who profess no Christian faith at all. A man of letters of international stature has more than once asked me: “Why in the hell has your church discarded the one thing it has that could seriously attract people who value language of beauty and power? I just can’t understand it.” Yet this act is what we must try to understand.
We must try to understand it if we are to hope to understand the present character of those who now have the ecclesiastical machinery in their hands. Their own justification of what they have done will reveal a great deal. One might begin by examining their charge that those who defend the traditional Prayer Book worship a book instead of the Lord God on High. Since you worship the old Prayer Book, they have said, you are really idolators. No matter how splendid the traditional Prayer Book is as a work of great prose, there is something far more important than any book: the knowledge of God himself and his mission for his people. One can cheerfully grant that any prayer book is only a means to an end. But the proponents of radical revision beg the real question here. For though they argue that the language used in liturgy and prayer is finally of no importance in itself, they do not themselves put language aside as if one could reach God directly and without the mediation of language. Thus the revisionists are not asking the ordinary communicant to seek the wordless revelation of God that a few of the saints have attained in mystical experience. Not at all. Instead, they turn up with a new book of their own.
The issue, then, is not whether we can discard language in our worship, but whether the language of the 1979 version is superior to that of the traditional book: does one book serve the parishioner better than the other?
On this ground, every defender of the old book would be happy to meet them. The problem of the defenders of the old book has been that they have found it difficult to persuade the revisionists to take up the challenge. Rather, the revisionists have preferred to rest on the assumption that a prayer book must use language that is up-to-date. Just as any good American would automatically want to trade in his old 1972 automobile for a 1981 model, they yearn for a contemporary prayer book. Some years ago an important Episcopal layman observed in the New York Times that the traditional Book of Common Prayer doubtless had been a good book for the Elizabethans, but that he and the rest of us were not Elizabethans. We needed a twentieth-century production.
Actually, the foundations of the traditional Prayer Book were laid before Elizabeth I ascended the throne. But never mind; our layman’s slip is minor. What is not minor is his bland assumption that a book of another age is, by that fact, of no importance to a later age. Are the plays of Shakespeare outmoded because he was born over four centuries ago? Has Milton’s Paradise Lost, now some three centuries old, nothing to say to men of the last decades of the twentieth century?
I can hear the voice—if not of the layman I have cited, then of many like him—protesting that literary works of art are different. Shakespeare and Milton wrote poetry, but with a prayer book we are not talking about poetry but about the great verities, matters of the highest moment.
Such expostulation is to be expected. In this country, the man in the street still does not take poetry seriously. He sees it as a kind of make-believe, a kind of frippery, an embroidery on life. It is small wonder that he distrusts poetry, for he has a general distrust of language itself. He characteristically says that he wants to get down to brass tacks—diehard facts. One can agree with him that language can be deceptive, can be ambiguous, can be misused by advertising agencies, public relations men, fraudulent politicians, and just plain liars. The term “rhetoric,” which originally meant simply the ability to choose words and arrange them for effective exposition, description, or persuasion, nowadays gives off a certain smell. This formerly honorific term is definitely in bad odor.
We do need to be careful in our handling of language. But, again, we can’t simply dispense with it. For better or worse, we are stuck with language. Therefore, the more we learn about language, the sillier it becomes to think that we can determine, by referring to the publication date, whether some works—poetry or prayer books—are worn out. Our language itself is old. Moreover, some of the newest fabrications of language are the least effective. . . .
Dorothy Mills Parker, in her excellent pamphlet The Prayer Book Issue, cites typical infelicities. In the old Prayer Book, verse 1 of Psalm 69 reads: “Save me, O God, for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.” The 1979 Prayer Book renders it thus: “Save me, O God, for the water has risen up to my neck.” We move from austere grandeur to awkward literalness. The cry sounds like that of a careless bather who has let himself be caught offshore by the incoming tide. The reader will exclaim, “Save me, O God, from such a translation.”
Margaret A. Doody, in her devastating commentary on the 1979 Prayer Book, collects several such gems of ineptitude from the new translation. In the old Prayer Book, verse 9 of Psalm 84 reads: “For one day in thy [the Lord’s] courts is better than a thousand.” The corresponding passage in the 1979 Book reads: “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.” Professor Doody observes that the addition of “in my own room” is irresistibly comic, reminiscent as it is of the bed-sitting-room, that abomination of the British boardinghouse. Besides, “who wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than shut up in one’s room for a thousand days?”
It may be, for all I know, that the new translations represent faithful, literal translations from the Hebrew. But if so, that circumstance is not good enough. For we also have to be concerned with the impact of the Psalms, the prayers, and the liturgy upon English-speaking worshippers, and the matter that counts is what they say and do to the worshipper.
Much more is at stake than updating—and so often destroying—the poetry of the Psalms. The process of distortion and enfeeblement goes on throughout the 1979 text. For example, consider the new response to the priest’s salutation to his people, “The Lord be with you.” Instead of the traditional book’s “And with thy spirit,” the revisers give us “And also with you.” I submit that this new form is just not current English. As Ben Jonson rather ungraciously said of Edmund Spenser’s poetry, it is “writ in no language.”
If the aim of the revisers was to translate the Prayer Book into modern conversational idiom, they have signally failed. How might the reply of the worshippers be phrased? “I pray the same for you”? “The same to you”? Even, just possibly, “And with you too”? All these seem to me “sayable” in contemporary English, though varying in tone from a formal utterance to a jaunty colloquialism. But if being up-to-date is really of great importance, then let’s be truly up-to-date, not merely protest that we are.
So much for the failure to put the Prayer Book services into up-to-date English. Lack of space forbids any multiplying of examples. The reader who wants more can find them in abundance in Margaret Doody’s article, a contribution to The State of the Language. . . .
How could all this have happened? Because the strength of the Standing Liturgical Commission lay in its knowledge of the origins and history of the liturgy, the varieties developed in the Eastern Church and in the Western, with their special virtues and deficiencies. Such scholarship is important and has its uses. The members or the Commission apparently sought to recover the ancient rites of the primitive Christian church—an aspect of the age-old Protestant dream?—and to remove from the traditional Prayer Book what they perceived to be undesirable accretions from the Middle Ages. In particular, they have sought to encourage the active participation of the laity and to lighten the penitential tone of the liturgy. They wished to transform it into a joyful thanksgiving. (Some theologians feel that they have gone much too far in minimizing the sense of sin and man’s need to feel penitent.)
Yet it can be plausibly argued that, in their concern to recover the modes and rites of the primitive church, they— and not the defenders of the traditional book—have become the true antiquarians. For even if the authors of the 1979 Prayer Book could recover the structure of the primitive rite, they cannot recover for the present-day English or American worshipper the now dead languages in which the ancient rites were expressed. Therefore, what shall it profit the Liturgical Commission, or the bishops who accepted its findings, to know all about the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Galilean liturgies, the ancient forms of the epiclesis, and so on, if the English they employ fails to touch the heart or give a sense of the numinous and the holy? How shall we sing the Lord’s song “in a strange land?” the Hebrews lamented in their Babylonian captivity. It may be even harder to sing the Lord’s song—or even to speak it—in an inept prose.
Those who direct the course of the Episcopal Church seem to have reposed complete confidence in their committee of experts—how American all this is!—not asking whether the members of the Commission possessed an expertise in the English language that matched their expertise in the history of liturgical development. Furthermore, the members of the Commission did not make use of such experts in the English language as were available: the Church’s poets, fiction writers, and literary scholars. Very few of the writers and scholars whom I know personally feel that a radical revision of the traditional book was necessary.
One of them was indeed approached for help—W.H. Auden, the poet. He replied that a committee could no more produce a good prayer than a committee could produce a good poem. Anyway, he did not serve, and as for his opinion of the revision, he was to write: “The Episcopal Church … seems to have gone stark raving mad. . . . The English language [in the sixteenth century] had already become more or less what it is today . . . but the ecclesiastics of the sixteenth century possessed a feeling for the ritual and the ceremonies which today we have almost entirely lost.”
The Anglican Church’s failure, on both sides of the Atlantic, to make use of its brilliant literary figures among the laity of our century amounts to a scandal. If additions— propers and alternate prayers or special occasional prayers— were needed for the Prayer Book, why did the Church not turn to its masters of prose like C.S. Lewis, or poets like T.S. Eliot? For example, Eliot’s wonderful chorus of praise in Murder in the Cathedral is a magnificent modern Te Deum. No one wants to bar first-rate twentieth-century writing simply because it is new, any more than sixteenth-century writing simply because it is old.
For a long time the Episcopal Church has taken a proper pride in its learned clergy. The melancholy fact is that it might be very difficult to vindicate such a claim any longer. (Recommended for the Episcopal seminaries: a course in logic—enough at least to help the student recognize a non sequitor or a false option when he encounters it; several courses in English literature, sufficient at least to acquaint the student with the way the English language works and what it can and cannot do; and of course, solid training in theology).
It ought to be pointed out that the Episcopalian in the pew did not ask for a radically changed prayerbook. The incentive for change came from the top. And, one may ask, what has been the general attitude of the ecclesiastical establishment toward the man in the pew? Apparently pretty much that of any bureaucracy. There was a confidence that, with the passage of time and with some retaining, the layman would become habituated to the new book. An elaborate retraining process was devised and spread out over nearly two decades. Thus, various “trial” services were issued; reactions and constructive suggestions from the laity were requested. . . .
Nevertheless, after many years and all the trial services, many Episcopalians still do not like the new book. The Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer again and again asked the Church authorities to hold a referendum on the subject. The request was steadily denied. Finally the Society engaged George Gallup to conduct a poll, which was carried out in May and June, 1979. The results showed that the laity overwhelmingly favored the traditional book. Preference for the traditional Prayer Book was approximately three to one (63 percent to 23 percent), with those in favor of the traditional book feeling more strongly about their choice than those who favored the revised book. By contrast, 80 percent of the clergy preferred the revised book (14 percent the traditional book). The results would indicate that the opposition to the 1979 Prayer Book was not merely that of a group of disgruntled English professors. The laity lined up solidly with them against the bishops and the rest of the clergy.
How seriously must one take the Gallup poll? Well, it can hardly be simply dismissed. The Gallup organization is generally regarded as the most respected of all our polling services. In its method of sampling, the poll on the Prayer Book was of exactly the same character as the other Gallup polls. In any case, the Gallup poll is about all that we have that has any sort of claim to objectivity. Its results certainly accord— for whatever that is worth—with my own experience in my parish church in New England and with what I have heard from Episcopalian friends throughout the country.
I was present at the press conference where Mr. Gallup presented his report and where he answered questions about it. I remember talking at that time with a young priest, the representative of one of our Church papers. He had not been impressed. The Gallup report, he maintained was not the voice of the Episcopal Church. He did not specify what that voice was, but clearly it was and is the voice of those who control the ecclesiastical machinery. This young priest did not expect the Episcopal Church to retain the traditional Prayer Book, and of course he was proved right, for later that year the Convention of the Church at Denver made the revised Prayer Book the Church’s official Prayer Book.
It did vote, however, that the traditional Prayer Book might be used under certain circumstances. But the use was, among other things, conditional on the permission of the bishop of the diocese and on that of the rector or vicar of the parish—permission that the layman quickly found was not always forthcoming.
Not long ago what I take to be the official voice of the Church was heard through the Reverend Richard J. Anderson, the executive for communications for the Episcopal Church. He deposed that “the intent of the Denver Conference was to change, not to use [the old Prayer Book] for ever and ever. The proposal [to allow use of the traditional Prayer Book] did not authorize the use of the old on the same basis as the new forever.”
Consequently it seems reasonable to regard the Denver proposal as merely a sop to the conservative man in the pew, just as in the 1979 Prayer Book, Rite I—a rite using traditional language and bearing a fairly close resemblance to the traditional book—is a sop, to the older parishioners who cannot get used to the newer rite. When the older generation dies off, that problem will have solved itself. The future clearly belongs to the radically revised Rite II.
In view of such changes and some subsequent defections from its membership, what is the future for the Episcopal Church in America? I am no prophet and it behooves me to be very chary of predictions. In this essay I have been primarily concerned to show how the Church has been affected by (perhaps has compromised with?) the forces of liberal secularism. The revised Prayer Book seems to me an excellent barometer for recording these changes. The very fact that the new Prayer Book was adopted against the wishes of an overwhelming majority of the rank-and-file communicants may also have some significance in any speculation on the future of the Episcopal Church.
Will the Episcopal Church continue to lose disaffected members? Again, I prefer not to prophesy. The breakaway churches, such as the Anglican Catholic, may or may not swell their ranks with dissident Episcopalians. A number of my Episcopalian friends have become members of the Anglican Catholic Church; others have become Roman Catholics or Greek Orthodox. But who knows with any certainty what will happen?
Yet the Episcopal Church as newly reorganized has already received one snub that must hurt. Episcopal leaders tended to shrug off the warnings that the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches might be disturbed by the Episcopal Church’s ordination of female priests. They pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church includes many who favor the priesting of women, and they predicted that eventually such ordination will come about in the Roman Catholic Church too. They even surmised that the role of the Episcopal Church is to lead the way. A few months ago, however, Rome spoke to this effect: it offered a haven to those Episcopalians who have been dismayed by their Church’s ordination of women, and indicated that even married Anglican clergymen might become Roman Catholic priests in something like a Uniate status; if married, they would not have to give up their wives and would be allowed to retain most of their Anglican liturgy.
The feasibility or desirabilty of this step for either dissident Episcopalians or for the Roman Church itself is not my point here; rather, it is Rome’s implicit rejection of the hopes of the Episcopalian establishment and Rome’s apparent willingness to come to some kind of terms with disaffected Episcopalians.
As earlier noted, the Episcopal Church has long been regarded not only as an umbrella church which could offer shelter to quite disparate groups. It has also been regarded as a “bridge church,” a church that stood in a mediate position between Protestantism and Catholicism, both Greek and Roman, and therefore a body that held out a promise of someday bringing about the unification of Christendom.
In Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus sardonically defines a pier as a disappointed bridge, a bridge that has not made it across the water to the other side. At the moment, the Episcopal Church would seem to be a disappointed bridge. On one side, it is now all the more firmly anchored to the shore of what may well become a large American pan-Protestant church. But the Roman—not to mention the Orthodox—bridgehead looms even farther away.
This article was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine, Summer 1983.