Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Thus Saith the Lord

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Thus Saith the Lord

Article excerpt

One Sunday in high school, we went to the Anglo-Catholic parish where my headmaster served as an assistant priest. Catechized by evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, I believed that the Bible was divinely inspired by God. But I had never seen it treated as such in a physical or ritual way. Down Mr. Jarvis came, robed in damask and the smoke of incense, into the congregation to sing and kiss the Word of God. He spoke the words of the King James Bible, a language steeped in the same reverence for Scripture that the liturgy made manifest.

My thoughts drifted to that day on seeing the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to review Liturgiam Authenticam, the Congregation for Divine Worship's 2001 instruction governing translations of the Mass and sacramental rites into vernacular languages. More recently, he issued a decree giving local bishops' conferences greater control over such translations. The conflict is partly over jurisdiction: Who should decide what is an acceptable Japanese translation of the liturgy, a committee in Japan or in Rome?

It is also a matter of aesthetics. America magazine's Gerard O'Connell reported that some bishops' conferences are unhappy with the instruction's requirements, which, they claim, prescribe translations that are literal to the point of being unsatisfactory and rigid. More than that, they "do not accept that there is such a thing as 'sacral language.'"

The aesthetic concerns raise theological ones. Fr. Michael G. Ryan, the pastor of Seattle's Cathedral of St. James, has argued that Liturgiam Authenticam is not in the spirit of Pope Francis, who "points to the importance of simplicity, clarity, directness and adapting to 'the language of the people in order to reach them with God's word . . . and to share in their lives.'" Therefore, we cannot justify "using words like 'consubstantial,' 'conciliation,' 'oblation' or 'regeneration.'" Moreover, Fr. Ryan charges the recent English translation with exalting "merit over mercy" and emphasizing "human weakness at the expense of human dignity." Its "sacral vernacular" keeps God "at a majestic distance." Anglophone episcopal conferences should take the opportunity Pope Francis has given them and revise accordingly.

If we put aside the jurisdictional issues, the questions at hand are: Is there such a thing as sacral language? Should rites use uncommon or theologically technical vocabulary? In what way should they be poetic or beautiful? And does sacral language conflict with the ability to speak God's Word into the lives of ordinary people? The formation and ongoing use of the King James Bible help us answer all of these questions.

Liturgiam Authenticam says that translation must be comprehensible within its intended cultural context. That culture's genius, its particular animating spirit, must be in some way part of it. But we should not be surprised if liturgical language differs from ordinary speech, because it is not ordinary speech. Hence, the document continues, liturgical translation should "facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship."

According to these terms, sacral language unquestionably exists in English. It is the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible; it is also the language of the DouayRheims translation from the Vulgate, published in its entirety two years before the King James but less influential. More than any other documents, their words have shaped English language and culture. They constitute a vernacular proper to the worship of God and recognizable as such, to believers and unbelievers alike.

In the case of the Prayer Book, the language came largely from the mind of one man, Thomas Cranmer. The origin of King James was more miraculous. Committee documents are ungainly and turgid. This is no less true of ecclesiastical documents: Think of the organization of Gaudium et Spes, the proclamations of denominational bodies, and the prose of Liturgiam Authenticam. …

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