The Lord Be With You – and the same to you mate

A brief critical analysis of the New English Bible and the Alternative Service Book

It is often assumed that those of us who object to the “modern” language of the “Alternative” Church services and the New English Bible are yearning nostal¬gically for some past age, and that we want all religious worship to be couched in language which is respectably 400 years old. Not at all. The objection to the “modern” language is precisely the opposite: it is not modern at all. It is a grotesque mixture of language and style which is neither ancient nor modern, but simply the corruption of a masterpiece which now bears little resemblance to English either spoken or written in any era for any purpose. The sad thing is that many people inwardly recognise the disaster but outwardly pretend that the Alternative services (and the New English Bible) are better written and more comprehensible than the originals. Why use them otherwise, except in a feeble attempt to appear more relevant to the modern world?

Few people (on this score, anyway) object to, say, a Deep South revivalist meeting where the elements of a service are all of a piece: jazz music, much shouting and singing of Hallelujah, and the purple rhetoric of the preacher; and I personally rather like the interiors (at least) of, say, Coventry and Clifton cathedrals. It is the juxtaposition of unequals which is so embarrassing. Does nobody else squirm, as I do, when the Nicene creed is followed by an up-tempo folksy “We love you Lord, zippe di doo dah, yeah”? Have you ever heard anything so bizarre and absurd and dated as the 50s liturgical music of Geoffrey Beaumont? What we impoverished Anglicans are offered in the dreaded Alternative Service Book, Rite A (need we look much further than the title?) is much of the original structure and language with what are intended, presumably, to be modern “improvements”.

To take an architectural analogy: it is like modernising a great Gothic cathedral by putting in suburban windows (double-glazed, no doubt, by Ted Moult) to replace the stained glass; plastic-covered bar stools for the pews; and a public-house bar with fairy lights for an altar (a cosier communion with God). Such improvements would shock the eye of the propounders of the ASB, surely, as much as the supposed improvements of the liturgical language shock the ear of anybody who has one.

The New English Bible and its ghastly prose has been effectively demolished by Ian Robinson in his admirable book “The Survival of English”, and the ASB by the Not the Nine O’Clock News team; but perhaps I could give here the briefest of indications of what it is which offends the ear – the aural equivalent, if you like, of the plastic bar stools in the Gothic cathedral.

The writers of the King James Bible wrote in a tradition of carefully crafted prose which was designed to be heard, and thus it appealed to the ear’s sense of rhythm and balance. Much of the language is essentially musical, written in balanced and measured phrases: “wálking in the gárden in the cóol of the dáy” with its repeated two emphases shows just this judicious, harmonious, and pleasing balance and the almost onomatopoeic “cool” enhances the scene. Compare this with “wálking in the gárden at the tíme of the évening bréeze” and we are suddenly in the world of the man from Japan who couldn’t make his verses scan. There is not space here to demonstrate further the inadequacies of the New English Bible in conveying meaning any more clearly than the King James Bible (even if that were desirable), and those who are interested should buy Mr Robinson’s book.

In the almost literally unspeakable ASB, Rite A, we have – to use another analogy – formerly great wines which have been diluted with Coke. We have retained the aura of sanctity, tranquillity, reverence and so on, but where once the language went hand in hand with that reverence and humility, the priest now bows and solemnly intones the language of Coronation Street. Except that Coronation Street is far better written. When did you last hear the subjunctive “be” in the Rovers Return? Or even the response? “Health be with you, Jack” “And also to you” What is that also doing? The argument is about the aim of the language: is it supposed to be ancient or modern? Elevated and mysterious? Or conversational and everyday? The Book of Common Prayer leaves us in no doubt, and the language derives directly from the vision of the original writers.

The fact is, quite, simply, that the writers of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer conceived the notion of God as a figure who was colossally more important and powerful than ourselves, and the language of reverence and humility goes hand in hand with that conception of God, as does the action of the priest and congregation in showing deference and so on. Above all, God was mysterious. If you want to reshape your idea of God so that all is plain and clear and readily explicable, and God is really much more like the man next door than some remote figure whom we should all revere and even fear, then you must rewrite your liturgy from scratch, and not just tinker with the tint of the windowpanes.

Yes, there is an element of nostalgia. Once upon a time, long, long ago before the 60s, the idea was that education and religion (amongst other things) tried to raise the level of the people so that all could appreciate greatness. Nowadays, sadly and disastrously, the tendency is to simplify greatness and reduce it down to our own often pitiably low level (of vocabulary, if nothing else). Perhaps the church will soon be putting false ceilings in the great cathedrals so that they should not seem so exalted (is God an elitist?). There is nostalgia, too, for a time when the weekly or even daily repetition of the liturgy and readings from the Bible gave almost all the people access to some of the greatest writing in our language to the extent that vast chunks were learned by heart; there was a justified pride that our nation had inspired such glories as the work of Shakespeare (“To be, or I wonder whether not to..”) and, to take just one magnificent example from hundreds I might have chosen:

“We do not presume to come to this Thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in Thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table. But Thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of Thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His body, and our souls washed through His most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us.”

Remember that? The point is, of course, that the Thees and the Thous and the ending -eth are an integral part of the original language just as the stained glass was an integral part of the design of the great cathedrals. You do not make it any more modern or comprehensible by changing them to You and Your, and you are not modernising the language when you retain such a strong Latinate flavour. Much of the language of the ASB, Rite A, remains ludicrously archaic (Almighty, magnify your holy name, eternally begotten, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, one holy, Catholic and apostolic church, hosanna in the highest), and so it seems, in fact, a very feeble attempt to modernise if – as one supposes – that is the intention.

So what is to be done? I haven’t the remotest idea. My inspiration for being rash enough to send this to The Cliftonian and be inundated with waves of clerical wrath – although it was written in an idle moment after a particularly hideous experience (perhaps the excruciating ASB wedding service) – was that the Pope has at last recognised the daftness of the banning (yes, banning) of the glorious Latin mass, known widely to Protestants through countless settings in sacred music (yeah, yeah); and decreed that, subject to assorted special circumstances which no doubt conform with some committee’s recommendations on the subject, priests in the Catholic church may again be allowed to use what is, I suppose, the Roman Catholic equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer. There seems little prospect that the dear old C of E (in, I think, Betjeman’s phrase) will retreat from its futile attempts at trendiness and revert to the finest example of liturgical language available, at least until a worthy successor can be found. And even then, of course, if such a startling possibility ever came to pass, the flower of the English language should never be squirted with paraquat.

c. 1980

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