Friday, 23 October 2015 16:14

The Language of Worship

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The Language of Worship

Anthony Harrigan

Anthony Harrigan is the author, co-author, or editor of twenty books. He has lectured at Yale University, Vanderbilt University, the University of Colorado, and the National War College.

Listening to a CD of the King's College chapel choir at Cambridge University in England, I was struck again by the extraordinary beauty of the language of the ancient Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It is one of the supreme literary marvels of the English language, combining purity of expression, great dignity, and the best of English spirituality. I consider myself tremendously fortunate that from my earliest years I was exposed to this beautiful language of faith--the expression derived from our English forebears of the 16th and 17th centuries. The historic beliefs of the Catholic Church found expression in the written word of Anglo-Saxon civilization.

Some might argue that the language of faith is irrelevant, that only the bare bones of theology count. But faith is not an arid, abstract experience. The language in which it is expressed is integral to the process of understanding and believing. The power of the epistles written by St. Paul is very much the product of the extraordinary gift of language he possessed, as exemplified in the soaring words of First Corinthians. Generation after generation has been moved and inspired by the language of his letters to the new Christian communities in the Roman-Greek world.

Tragically, the writers of the new prayer book concluded that they could improve on the ancient language found in the 1928 Prayer Book and the earlier Prayer Book of the Church of England. They imagined that contemporary people could not understand 16th and 17th century language. So they dumbed down the prayers and the liturgy, substituting drab, pedestrian, late 20th century wording for the rich language of earlier times--the period when the English language was at its height. Imagine what English literature would be like if this rationale were applied to Shakespeare, John Donne, and other giants in our literary heritage. Imagine if the language of the 18th century U.S. Constitution were tampered with in this manner so that the great document was revised to conform with the Congressional Record of today.

This approach is a prescription for literary atrocities and the gross impairment of meaning. Indeed it is well to remember that most of the authors of the U.S. Constitution had grown up on the Book of Common Prayer and had their literary styles shaped by its superb, balanced language. As every good writer knows, style and meaning are inextricably combined. As one listens to the chants sung by the King's Chapel choir, one is reminded that the words of the liturgy represent the ultimate model of literary expression for anyone in the English-speaking world who aspires to be a writer or public speaker. For all its richness, it also is perfectly succinct and embodies completely economical expression.

As one listens to the chants sung by the King's College choir, one appreciates the familiarity of the words. They are imprinted on the minds and hearts of those raised in the Anglican tradition of worship. There are very few, if any, spiritual situations that aren't covered by the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer or the order for the celebration of holy communion. The Litany, the oldest part of the Book of Common Prayer, is both specific and comprehensive as a form for asking personal deliverance, expressed so well in the second sentence in which we ask to be delivered:

. . . from all blindness of heart, from pride, vainglory and hypocrisy, from envy, hatred and malice, and all uncharitableness.

In Morning Prayer, one confesses one's sins in the most clear and simple and complete terms, saying that:

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.

And that:

We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.

And in the prayer for the whole state of Christ's church we ask the Lord to:

. . . comfort and succor all those who, in this transitory life, are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.

These are priceless words that have provided immense spiritual help down through the generations in the English-speaking world. To deprive the faithful of them surely is a sin. The Book of Common Prayer is a spiritual resource that our civilization must not be deprived of. If it is lost to those Christians whose forebears had it, then it must be restored. It must be cherished in the decades and centuries ahead as part of the armor of light. *

"There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." -Albert Einstein

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