The language of the Roman liturgy in its English translation has long been criticised by Anglicans as banal and unhelpful. The ASB was in truth little better, and Common Worship, though an improvement, has its own inelegancies.
With the publication of the fifth Instruction ‘For the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’, Liturgiam authenticum, the Vatican has at last addressed some of these problems. It is, the state of the English language at the beginning of the new millennium being what it is, a tall order.
‘The vocabulary chosen for liturgical translation must be at one and the same time comprehensible to ordinary people and also expressive of the dignity and oratorical rhythm of the original.’ ‘Translations must be freed from exaggerated dependence on modern modes of expression and in general from psychologizing language. Even forms of speech deemed slightly archaic may on occasion be appropriate to the liturgical vocabulary.’
In those two statements a whole series of problems present themselves. For English translators the ghosts of Cranmer and Shakespeare haunt every phrase and sentence. Evening Prayer in the ASB was, as someone wittily remarked, like encountering a much loved relation after a long and disfiguring disease: every cadence falling short of the sublimities of the Cranmerian original. How to develop a public language which is truly of our own day, and yet has the dignity and poetry of its seventeenth century antecedents? That is the question; and the more acutely because we have no tradition of sonorous modern prose. The wartime speeches of Winston Churchill come as close as the last century ever got – other attempts, from James Joyce through Dylan Thomas to Iris Murdoch are too idiosyncratic to be of use.
In addition (and not addressed in the new Instruction) is the problem of liturgical performance or action. The slovenliness of much modern liturgy is pitiful to behold, and clergymen, it has to be admitted, are seldom ideal performers. Few producers of amateur dramatics would look instinctively to the local Vicar to play the leading man. The parsonical voice, often, paradoxically, among those who pride themselves on their modernity and ‘relevance’, is alive and well. Nor do bishops (who give the liturgy their ‘Thought for the Day’ voice – either thoughtful-but-emollient (James Jones) or calculatedly-down-to earth (Tom Butler)) do much better.
The new Roman norms will impinge on the parish in simple and obvious ways: ‘And with your spirit…’; ‘I believe in one God…’; the disappearance of ‘inclusive’ language. But the real test of their effectiveness will be the emergence of a new and more dignified liturgical English. ‘A prime consideration should be the fact that liturgical texts are intended to be publicly proclaimed aloud and even sung’, says the Instruction. But both the auditors and the practitioners of the new liturgical English will remain strangers, for the most part, to either oratory or opera.