Magazine article The Spectator

Whose Rite Is It Anyway?

Magazine article The Spectator

Whose Rite Is It Anyway?

Article excerpt

Sometime during the Seventies, in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the English-speaking world, a strange (and for many, unwelcome) kind of language began to issue forth from the mouths of clergy and faithful. In most places of worship, a new kind of liturgical English - bare, sparse, apparently wilfully lacking in elegance or sonority - gradually replaced both Cranmer's English and the Latin of what became known as the old Mass. The old books, familiar for three centuries or more - for Anglicans, the Book of Common Prayer, for Catholics, the old Latin Missals - disappeared from the Churches.

Though some took to the changes like ducks to water, for many they were traumatic. I remember a Catholic Mass in the Seventies (I was myself still an Anglican) at which the priest - forgetting the changes - intoned, as he had done all his priestly life, Gloria in excelsis Deo, to be followed by the little choir screeching 'and peace to his people on earth'. The liturgy came to a ragged halt. 'What shall we have,' said the old priest, thoroughly confused, 'English or Latin?' The people, as one man, called back 'Latin'; some pleaded, 'please, father, please'. And so, for the last time, the people sang their hearts out to the old, familiar plainsong setting. What in the years ahead they had to get used to was not simply the loss of the Latin text and the glorious music of the Missa de Angelis to which they sang it (the bouncy new version of the Gloria can be sung to the Eton boating song), but an English version which was both crass and seriously inaccurate: 'Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis' simply cannot defensibly be translated as 'Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth': the peace prayed for here is not for everyone indifferently, but is specifically confined to 'men of goodwill' (to be fair, Cranmer got it wrong, too).

Anglicans, at around the same time, were undergoing similar upheavals. Suddenly, instead of singing (often to the widely used and much loved Elizabethan plainsong setting by Marbeck) 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts', we found ourselves singing (to a fearsome, jingly new setting, probably by some trendy RC) 'Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might'. Much worse, when the vicar said 'the Lord be with you', instead of replying 'and with thy spirit' (Cranmer's uncomplicated translation of 'et cum spiritu tuo'), we now had to mouth the graceless and pedestrian response 'and also with you'. Cranmer's obvious translation of Credo in unum Deum ('I believe in one God') became, in a hit against something called 'privatised spirituality', 'we believe' (one vicar told me that he was greatly relieved by this; he didn't himself believe the whole of the Creed and that 'we' meant that there could always be someone to believe the hard bits on his behalf).

For this, and all the other reductionist mistranslations, we blamed the RCs. It was all a matter of ecumenical agreement, we were told, quite accurately as it turned out: the translations by ICEL (the Catholic Church's International Commission on English in the Liturgy) were in general adopted by Anglicans. There was one major exception. The Church of England, for a time at least, saddled itself with ICEL's clumsy and inaccurate new version of the Lord's prayer, in which 'lead us not into temptation' (Cranmer's perfectly accurate translation of 'ne nos inducas in tentationem') became 'Save us from the time of trial'. The Catholics (with a delicious irony) decided, after all, to draw back and to go for something very close to Cranmer's Protestant version, so familiar throughout the English-speaking world.

Well, most of us got used to it (the ones at least who didn't voted with their feet) and never supposed that such a revolution might be undone. And in one way we were right: almost certainly the Book of Common Prayer's Holy Communion service and the old 'Tridentine' Mass will not return to normal use as the predominant liturgy of their Churches. …

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