Raymond Chapman looks at the language of Common Worship

‘I am the man that has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath’ (Lamentations 3.1). Generations of worshippers have heard these words, especially in Passiontide, and have related them to the sufferings of our Lord. Old Testament scholars will have opinions about who was the original subject of this lament, but Christians have found in it a particular relevance which has become a hallowed part of the liturgical tradition. If we hear the same verse in a modern service, it is more likely to come out as ‘I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath’. Here, as elsewhere, the translators have not been faithful to the original. NRSV here masks the decidedly masculine Hebrew word geber, ‘man’, and indeed also a definite article’.1 The adjustment of familiar words to the demands of inclusive language no longer causes much surprise, but there is more to the matter than social homage to political correctness. It is easy to sigh wearily at the transformation of ‘forefathers’ into ‘ancestors’; or the rare word ‘forebears’ in the Benedictus and to find that the first disciples were not to be ‘fishers of men’ but to ‘fish for people’. Not all the new translations are so harmlessly banal.

An English problem

The argument and the linguistic problems from which it arises have been often discussed. The case for inclusive language has been made many times and the points at issue need be only briefly recalled. The English language has certain features which are not widely found elsewhere and which result partly from its history of linguistic blending through the mixture of races. Grammatical gender has disappeared and words of common gender like ‘friend’, ‘student’, ‘worshipper’ apply equally to both sexes. The masculine pronouns have come to be used after these words unless there is a qualifier like ‘woman’ or ‘female’ or a clear contextual feminine reference. Current usage has followed the inclusive path by bringing the plural pronouns into use for common-gender words: ‘If you know a friend who might be interested, tell them about it.’ This still jars on the older generation, but it is almost universal. The other and even more controversial feature of English is the lack of two words like homo and vir which can differentiate between a human being without gender reference and a male person. Nobody seems to have been troubled about this until recently, when ‘for us men and for our salvation’, and the above-mentioned ‘fishers of men’ entered the taboo area of language formerly occupied only by obscenities.

A special register?

We have to accept as a fact of history that language change is irresistible and irreversible once the majority of native speakers have adopted it. But is the language of faith and worship to be regarded as no different from the language of everyday social communication? It needs no special linguistic skill to recognize the concept of register in language: the selections of certain items or grammatical forms as appropriate to a particular situation. Register choice is often personal, as decided by the degree of formality required in addressing another person, the situation of speaking, writing or telephoning and so on. But it can also be shared, as in the distinctive usage of Parliament or the courts of law. The liturgical register can take different forms, whether in the case of a totally different language like Latin or Greek, or in the preservation of distinctive selection within the common language of daily use. The religious register of English has been for centuries the language of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorized Version. It may be that some modern equivalent will gradually emerge, though the old one shows no sign of slipping away. The present point of discussion is not which type is best, but the fact that it has always been accepted that the language of worship is doing something special, different from common usage and not subject to change with social fashion. It is not the language of nostalgia or antiquarianism, but language which safeguards the tradition. It helps to preserve the integrity of the paradosis, the handing on of faith from one generation to another.

The Gift of the Ages

Therefore when there is a distinctive change in the language of faith and worship, it is to be examined not sociologically but in terms of devotion and the belief that undergirds it. The irruption of inclusive language into the Church has led to many strange renderings, such as these noted above. One particular concern should be for what has happened to some of the Psalms. They have always held a special place in Christian worship as the first hymnal of the Church, a staple of conventual offices and included either by monthly course or selectively in Mattins and Evensong. Some of them have been given Messianic interpretation; whether these interpretations are valid in the original sitz in leben of the Psalms is not the point at issue. They have been hallowed by usage and become part of the Christology which sees the New Covenant rooted in the Old. This too is part of the paradosis, not of doctrine but of the spiritual insight with which the Church has strengthened the faithful. It goes back to the earliest years of Christian apologetics.3

The replacement of man and men by neutral words like one or those has been carried out across the Psalter in both Common Worship (CW) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) which is its favoured translation. Most of these are merely fussy and irritating, but there are some which have doctrinal implications and point to a trend which needs to be watched with concern. A few of the more important examples will suffice to make the point, comparing them with the familiar Psalter printed with the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).


Psalm 22, uttered by Jesus on the Cross, has the well-known verse 6, ‘I am a worm and no man’ kept in CW but changed in NRSV to ‘and not human’. Psalm 40 has often been found appropriate for Good Friday or Easter Eve. BCP verse 5 reads ‘Blessed is the man that hath set his hope in the Lord’, a reading which makes a link between Jesus in the tomb and the earlier words of being brought ‘out of the horrible pit, out of the mire and clay’ CW ‘Blessed are they that put their trust in the Lord’ and NRSV ‘Happy are those who make the Lord their trust’ turns it into a general commendation of trustworthy but no longer personal.4 Psalm 88 is the most sorrowful of all the Psalms, unrelieved by the bursts of hope which punctuate Psalm 22 and it is a suitable choice for Passiontide; it is sometimes read to accompany the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Some of it is general but BCP verse 3 has ‘I am counted as one of them that go down into the pit: and I have become even as a man that hath no strength’. CW has ‘I am like one that has no strength’ and NRSV ‘I am like those who have no help’, again looking at shared human mortality rather than its acceptance by God made man.

Another devotional relationship between the cry for God’s help in trouble and the human sufferings of our Lord is made in Psalm 86, verse 16, ‘give thy strength unto thy servant, and save the son of thine handmaid.’ The link with the words of Mary, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ is deeply moving. Augustine is lyrical about the verse. ‘[God] saved the Son of his handmaid, and his own Son of the handmaid of God, therefore, the Son was born in the form of a servant.’5 This will not do for CW, which prefers ‘Save the child of your handmaid’ or for NRSV which has ‘Save the child of your serving-maid’.

That the legs of Jesus were not broken on the cross is referred in John 19.36 directly to Psalm 34, verse 20, ‘He keepeth all his bones: so that not one of them is broken’. This is generalized as ‘He keeps all their bones’ in both CW and NRSV. The previous verse makes the reference personal with ‘Great are the troubles of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of all’, but both CW and NRSV describe the righteous as ‘them’.

Types of Christ

Psalms which give a kind of character-study of a righteous man, obedient to God and finding favour with him, have sometimes been taken as patterns of the perfect manhood of Christ. Thus Psalm 1: ‘Blessed is the man…’ becomes ‘Blessed are they’ in CW, ‘Happy are those’ in NRSV, with the consequent change of the repeated masculine singular pronouns to the common-gender plural. Similarly Psalm 65.4 ‘Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and receivest unto thee’ loses identity with ‘Happy are they whom you choose’ in CW and ‘Happy are those whom you choose’ in NRSV. Again Psalm 84.5 ‘Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways’ dwindles to ‘those’ in both versions.

Perhaps the worst example is in Psalm 80, and here CW is innocent and NRSV guilty. BCP renders verse 17 ‘Let thy hand be upon the man of thy right hand: and upon the son of man, whom thou madest so strong for thine own self.’ Whatever Old Testament scholars may find to have been the original sense, Christians have said and sung these words as an affirmation of their Messiah. The longer ending of Mark tells of the ascended Christ seated at the right hand of God, and there Stephen sees him in his dying vision. His self-given title of ‘Son of Man’ appears in the Gospels, particularly that of Mark, proclaiming his perfect humanity. CW keeps the essential words here but NRSV has ‘Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you have made strong for yourself’. The christological reference is destroyed, leaving only a vague and uncertain sense of divine favour.

The uniqueness of Christ

The danger of these and other changes to the traditional wording is clear. The uniqueness of Christ, prefigured in the Old Testament and revealed in the New, loses some of its most powerful links between the two. God’s dealings with his chosen are seen as general and impersonal, rather than the shared love with one who alone unites the human and the divine, who represents not just the human race but its restoration in the image of God, created to be good but damaged by sin. If a vague ‘spirituality’ is a major threat to the faith today, it is just such unfocused references which encourage it. The Son took flesh as a particular man, redeeming general human nature certainly, but not entering the human world in an abstract way. Anything that seems to reduce his real manhood edges towards Docetism or the heresy of Apollinarius.

The argument that in some cases the translation is a better rendering of the Hebrew may have weight for academic study, but one of the problems with liberal theologians seems to be inability to distinguish between the seminar and the worshipping community. In many instances, as in the verse from Lamentations quoted above, the changes are in fact inaccurate and must be politically intended. The new translations are surely not intended to diminish the uniqueness of the Incarnation, but in the avoidance of male-related words they sometimes suggest that the divine purpose was not focused on the Son, prefigured in some of the Psalms. If the Christian centrality of Jesus as Man and God is denied, a path begins to open by way of ungendered humanity towards feminization of the divine.

It is a basic linguistic principle that words are not things and do not have a kind of magical life of their own outside actual use and contextual reference. But is also true that we can change attitudes to things by the way we name them. What may sometimes be a difficulty or a limitation in the English language can also have a special quality of preserving the specific and unrepeatable fact that Jesus Christ was a real and complete man in whom was the real and complete Godhead, and that his coming was part of the divine purpose, partially revealed to those whom God choose to be his voices under the Old Covenant.

Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London and an NSM priest in the Diocese of Southwark.


Barton and Muddiman eds The Oxford Bible Commentary Oxford: OUP 2001

Making Women Visible London: Church House Publishing 1989.

Extensive use of the Psalms as Messianic proof texts is made by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho and Irenaus Against Heresies.

St Ambrose makes Christ the voice of the entire Psalm: NPNF vol 10 p129.

Expositions on the Book of Psalms NPNF vol 8 pp417f.