Imagine my delight, therefore, when, about eighteen months ago, I discovered his podcast on Ancient Faith Radio. He does a series called Faith and Philosophy, which provides much food for thought. I enjoy many of the episodes, (although his and my understanding of how best to apply our faith to the politics of our time may not exactly be in harmony). The most recent to date deals with the question of the form of English to be used in the Orthodox worship of God.
I have some of my own views on the subject but find that Dr Carlton's piece provides a worthy springboard, largely because I agree with much of what he says, and he articulates it better than I could.
This is a significant factor in deciding on translations, and it is one that the Roman Catholic church has got right, at least in its approach. Its new mass of 2002 (in Latin) has been translated into various languages, and the English translations were rolled out a few months ago. Yet, the official translation used in the United States of America is not the same as that in England & Wales. While the translators may have drawn on each other's work, they were working very much as local groups, producing translations for local use.
Is there any need for Orthodox to follow the example of Rome? Well, to give you an idea, the ROCOR-produced Jordanville translations, while almost universal in the North American dioceses of ROCOR, are not used by any of the English-speaking ROCOR parishes in England. We may be few in number but we are all agreed that they are less than satisfactory for our use here. (And that is the sanitised version for public consumption. There are other, good translations blessed for use in ROCOR but they are not as well known because not everybody has the facilities that Jordanville has to mass-produce liturgical books). Britain is a land where most non-Orthodox Christians use a form of modern English in church, and where the largest Orthodox jurisdiction does the same. The King James Bible does not have the same sort of following among British Christians that it does in parts of the USA, (many people have never heard a reading from it), and we are generally a less religious society anyway, meaning that it is not difficult to find people from at least two generations who have had no real church connection for any of their lives. What all of this means is that we do not have large swathes of converts coming from churches where they were accustomed to 17th-century English. Two implications of this are that proportionally fewer people here have an attachment to such language and fewer people here have a working understanding of such language. I am not saying that Orthodox Worship ought to be in the common language of the street, but it does mean that, in finding a suitable form of liturgical English, we have a different starting point from somebody like Dr Carlton, for instance.
To give you an example, in the podcast, we were told of the beauty of A Psalter for Prayer, recently published by Jordanville. This is the work of Mr David James, and Dr Carlton couldn't do enough to sing its praises. Then he read an excerpt, and I was left wondering whether he had perhaps picked up the wrong book by mistake. It certainly did not fit the description that I had just heard. Mr James' work is an adaptation of an existing psalter to bring it in line with the Septuagint, thereby making it a psalter acceptable for Orthodox use. For this, he is to be congratulated. We need more people with these skills to be doing this work for Christ's Church. His mistake lies in his choice of psalter: that of Miles Coverdale.
Now The Psalter According to the Seventy is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is OK. Some parts of it are quite lovely, and some of the choices have made me actually think about what I am praying in a way that the Coverdale of my childhood did not, due to a combination of familiarity and the use of words in a way that no longer carries the originally intended meaning, (more on that later). However, the translators do seem to like their haths and other -eths. Those who study the development of English tell us that, even in the seventeenth century, when these older spellings were current, the words were not actually pronounced like that. People may have seen hath but what they said was has. They may have seen walketh, but what they said was something along the lines of walke's - much closer to our own walks. The point is that, by insisting on these old spellings in an age where we are likely to pronounce them as we see them, publishers of liturgical texts are not merely continuing an older form of English, but they are trying to resuscitate a form of English that, at least in speech, was already dead 450 years ago! Is there any good reason for this?
A Psalter for Prayer has this same problem with verbs as The Psalter According to the Seventy but, being based on Coverdale, manages to further compound the problem with all manner of words that no longer exist, at least not in the same sense: doth, stablish, lift (rather than lifted), and so forth. It sounds clumsy and is simply a non-starter for liturgical use. Our parish shall likely stick with the Psalter of Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore). It largely complies with the consensus of English-language ROCOR parishes here in our diocese, which generally involves replacing such phrases as them that with those who, and rendering of the third person singular verb in its modern form. It's amazing what those two seemingly minor changes do to the make the psalms grate less on the ear. We ROCORites in Britain also tend to use more readily understood words (splendour/radiance rather than effulgence, as an example), while generally showing a preference for a commonly-understood alternative word to a Romance word where such exists, (hallow or make holy instead of sanctify, for instance). Our Western Rite people here have identified that the liturgical material so far made available to them has been produced by non-British, ex-Anglican converts who love their Prayer Book language, and whose efforts simply won't fly here.
This brings me to the matter of comprehensibility. This is another point on which I both agree and disagree with Dr Carlton. It is true that nothing in Orthodoxy is intended as a quick-fix. The Orthodox life is one of nourishment and growth. We are imbued with the prayers, music, actions, readings, and all of the elements of Orthodox worship over time and through repetition, so it is not an aim of ours for Orthodox services to be immediately and completely understood by somebody walking in from off the street. Instant gratification is not the Orthodox way. However, that nourishment and growth become difficult when the words of the services are incomprehensible, and the readings are unclear due to employing archaic words and grammatical forms. Many of the Orthodox people in Britain do not have English as a first language, and when the English that they hear in church is so incredibly different from the English that they have learnt, it can be difficult for them to join in. I'm afraid that I absolutely reject Dr Carlton's umbrage at the suggestion that this ought to be taken into consideration. His comparison of this with an English-speaker going to Greece or Russia and asking for them to break with their tradition and request services in modern Greek/Russian is nonsense. The two situations are not comparable. Russians, Greeks, Serbs, Arabs, and others from traditional Orthodox lands are not coming in as outsiders and asking us to break with any long-standing tradition. The fact is that we Orthodox in the west do not have a particular liturgical linguistic heritage. What they are doing is bringing their Orthodoxy to lands where it has been lost, and joining those of us who are native to this part of the world in trying to establish an English-language tradition that is Orthodox. After all, the forms of English found in the current books are also alien to many native speakers of English.
Aside from anything else, for the sake of basic good sense, I wish translators would realise that, when the meaning of a word has changed so very drastically that not only will its intended meaning not be conveyed, but also a meaning very different from that intended will be understood in its place, the time has come to stop using that word. I can think of a few examples that occur regularly:'Virtually all know the words of this psalm and they continue to sing it at every age, without knowing, however, the sense of what has been said. This is not a small charge, to sing something every day, putting forth words from the mouth, without searching out the meaning of the thoughts residing in the words.'- St John Chrysostom
- Most people know that the prefix pre suggests something that is placed before something else, and may be able to work out that the old word vent is essentially the same word as wend, (as in "to wend one's way") but that does not change the fact that, to most speakers of English today, the word prevent no longer carries the simple meaning "to go before". The usual meaning has the additional sense of getting in before an incident in order to stop it happening. Therefore, "Prevent us, O Lord", makes no sense (Prevent us from doing what exactly?). If what is meant is "Go before us, O Lord", then that is what should be said.
- Acknowledge. This occurs in some translations of the Creed and in the prayer/hymn Of thy Mystical Supper... While there is nothing wrong with the word per se, in context it is quite unsatisfying. I do not merely acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. This makes it sound as though I suppose I accept it because that is what the Church teaches but don't feel particularly strongly about it myself - a sort of passing nod. Acknowledging is what the United Nations does to a new governmental regime somewhere. It is there so they acknowledge that it is there. But is this the spirit in which we wish to sing our faith? Compared to "I confess one baptism for the remission of sins", "I acknowledge", which, in the 17th century, may have had the same meaning, now sounds weak and insipid, in a way that the Christian's confession of his faith ought not to be.
- "We offer Thee incense, O Christ, as an odour of spiritual fragrance"... "...having accepted Them (the Holy Things) on his heavenly altar as an odour of spiritual fragrance..." I mean, really? Who sat down at a desk one day and thought this would be a good idea? In my Anglican childhood, I grew up with Hymns Ancient and Modern, and one my favourite hymns was Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Anthem, so I am well aware of the verse that begins "Bring your harps and bring your odours" (although I note that more recent revisions of that hymnal have rendered it as "Bring your harps and bring your incense"). Yet, even though I know what it means, it still makes me giggle because it sounds so ridiculous. Let's be honest with ourselves: while odour may once have referred generally to any sort of smell, however revolting or pleasing, today it means only one thing: something that stinks. We use it to refer to rotten eggs, unwashed armpits, and flatulence. It is not a word that we should be using to refer to the offering of incense to God, and most certainly not to the offering of the eucharistic Liturgy and with it, the Holy Things of the Body and Blood of the Saviour, particularly when the simple modification to the much more elegant "aroma of spiritual fragrance" would convey the sense so much better.
- It should be recognisable as English. Words whose meanings have changed so radically that their old meanings are not even a memory should be avoided. Alien turns of phrase should not be imported from translations made in, by, and for another country where the same language is used very differently.
- It should be church English. I mean that it should not be the English of the street or the English of a medical report. There should be a beauty of rhythm and poetry in the midst of accuracy.
- It must be accurate. Care must be taken that the doctrinal sense of the services is not lost. These words are the tools by which we pass on our tradition. There may be a legitimate discussion to be had about the ability of modern English to convey the distinctions between prayers addressing the Holy Trinity and those addressing one of the three Divine Persons, having lost any distinction between singular and plural in the second person.
- If an older form is preferred, then the elements of this should not be so archaic that it poses a real and unnecessary challenge for non-native speakers of English and indeed many native English speakers to understand it. The prayers may not be offered to them but they are offered on their behalf. If the prayers are audible, they must be such that the people can truly enter into them from the heart and be moulded by their beauty, giving their "Amen".
Please, let us have services and prayers that are in an elevated form of English, worthy of the Church's offering of worship to God, which may serve as a vehicle for God's people to truly enter into that offering of worship, so that, when priest says to the people, "Let us lift up our hearts", they may truly respond, "We lift them up to the Lord".