Common Words, Common Song, Common Prayer

Ever since the liturgical reforms of the mid- to late-twentieth century, Roman Catholics and Episcopalians (as well as Christians in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and several other denominations) have shared a number of common texts in the Eucharistic liturgy, mainly texts sung or recited by the entire congregation. These have included the Hymn of Praise Gloria in excelsis, the Creed (with slight variations), the Sanctus, the Memorial Acclamation “Christ has died” and the Fraction Anthem Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God”. These common texts, soon to be lost to Roman Catholics, were largely products of the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), an interdenominational group that adopted some of the earlier work of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) while also producing common translations of other canticles and acclamations used in a number of Christian churches but not proper to the Roman liturgy. ICET eventually evolved into the English Language Liturgical Consultation (ELLC); ICEL remains a separate body.

The great gift of such common texts was their contribution to ecumenism. So notes the Rev. David Holeton, Anglican liturgiologist and professor of liturgy at Charles University in Prague: “Both the sense of being ‘at home’ and of being ‘among friends’ are foundational paving stones on the way to Christian unity and it is the liturgy, more than anything else, that has nurtured this sense of communality.” Holeton reports that the loss of common texts “is a very raw point at the moment and has created an atmosphere of ecumenical mistrust.” He goes on to say “We have seen the fruit that has been borne since the (Second Vatican) council, and we hope that the tree that bore it has just been badly pruned and not hewn down.”

One of the fruits of which Holeton speaks is the music with which congregations have given voice to the common texts. Many settings of the people’s acclamations of the mass ordinary have been shared among Roman Catholics and other Christian bodies for a number of years, becoming deeply ingrained in congregational consciousness. In the United States, the Community Mass of the late Richard Proulx, as well as that composer’s arrangement of Franz Schubert’s Deutsche Messe, and David Hurd’s New Plainsong appear not only in The Hymnal 1982 but in Roman Catholic hymnals as well. The Mass of Creation by Marty Haugen, the Celtic Mass of Christopher Walker, and several other settings originally composed for Roman Catholic use (and not all by Roman Catholic composers, mind you) have become standard fare in many Episcopal congregations. Until now, composers from many churches have been able to prepare settings for use across denominational lines, and publishers have been able to market to an audience beyond the confines of their particular ecclesial affiliation; such a situation prevails not only in North America, but also in the United Kingdom.

So we all have been able to sing shared settings of the common acclamations at the core of our respective liturgies, being brought closer to one another in song by the God-given talents and cultivated stewardship of skilled composers, all without concern for other liturgical, theological and organizational issues that, sadly, still hold us apart.

But soon enough, English-speaking Roman Catholics will discover the (very) mixed blessing of their new translation.

The rest of us stand to lose not only the experience of sharing with them common texts, but also the ongoing outgrowth of musical fruits engendered by those texts. The liturgical music market is flooded at the moment with settings of the new Roman Catholic texts for the people’s acclamations. “Lush,” “elegant,” “powerful” and “rich” are adjectives that come to mind when sampling the audio clips of many of these settings, as posted on music publishers’ websites. From my vantage point — shaped as it is by my various ministries (present and past) as an academic liturgiologist, priest-celebrant, and sometime music director — I can only feel deeply saddened at the thought that these treasures might not continue to be shared for the common Christian good.

It would seem, however, that this need not be the final word on the matter. Under the heading “Concerning the Service of the Church” in the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer, one finds a rather interesting note of provision: “In any of the Proper Liturgies for Special Days, and in other services contained within this Book celebrated in the context of a Rite One service, the contemporary idiom may be conformed to traditional language” (14). This essentially pastoral proviso was framed at a time when The Episcopal Church was first moving away from “traditional language” to the “contemporary idiom,” the idea being that the then-new contemporary texts would thereby be available to congregations that wished to retain traditional (i.e., Rite I) language.

What has happened in the thirty-some years since is that Rite II, the “contemporary idiom” liturgy (including the ICEL/ICET/ELLC texts for the people’s parts) has become the practical, if not the historical or theological, norm. Along the way, the provision from “Concerning the Service” has come to be understood and applied as working both ways. Not only have the texts of Rite II have been conformed to traditional language, but in some places the texts of Rite I have been “translated” into the contemporary idiom of Rite II. Given the unforeseen cultural, liturgical and pastoral concerns of the last thirty years, I am convinced that this vice-versa approach is a fair, responsible and canonically acceptable (if not rubrically explicit) application of the principle underlying the provision. The end results are, admittedly, sometimes uneven: traditional Prayer Book English as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer differs from its predecessors, as they each differed from one another, and there are no definite rules accepted by all for “translating” into or out of it. The best efforts not only change thou, thee and thine to you, you and your (or vice-versa), but also take into account syntactical and vocabulary differences, and respect the Formelgut or stock-phraseology of liturgical expression proper to each idiom. For example, the statement “Grant that we may hear your Word” in the contemporary idiom can become “Grant, we pray thee, that we might hear thy Word,” or “Grant us, we beseech thee, to hear thy Word,” or “Vouchsafe unto us, we beseech thee, to hear thy Word” depending on just how traditional, archaic or complex one wishes to get.

“Translation” or movement in the other direction (traditional into modern) is similarly complex, as there is no one single “modern” English idiom even in the United States. The ICEL/ICET/ELLC common texts were not an attempt to “modernize” extant English translations, whether from the Book of Common Prayer or another source; they were fresh translations from Latin and Greek antecedents, made according to a particular set of principles. Taking already-translated traditional language English texts (such as those found in Rite I) as the basis for a modern-idiom casting would yield different results than those we have known in Rite II — and this brings me to my main point: the people’s acclamations in the Roman Missal newly translated, while differing from the ICEL/ICET/ELLC common texts, bear a striking similarity to their equivalents in the Rite I liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer — so much so, in fact, that the new musical settings of these acclamations could easily be employed (in Rite II, at least) under the pastoral principle of conforming one rite’s language to that of the other.

The Hymn of Praise Gloria in Excelsis, easily the most evident point of difference in the popular acclamations between Rite I and Rite II, serves as a primary example.

1979 Book of Common Prayer
Rite I Gloria excerpt:

We praise thee, we bless thee,
we worship thee,*
we glorify thee,
we give thanks to thee for thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty.

O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ;
O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
that takest away the sins of the world,
have mercy upon us.
Thou that takes away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer.
Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father,
have mercy upon us.

*Since the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) “worship” has been the preferred (and particularly “English”) way of translating the word adoramus or προσκυνοῦμέν in the Gloria.

Newly-translated Roman Missal
Gloria excerpt:

We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.

Certainly, there are differences between these two texts; those differences can be accounted for in the process of reconciling the traditional or literal idiom with the demands of modern English. At some points, less effort is needed: in both the new Missal and the Rite I texts, the Sanctus begins, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts.” Other than the first “Hosanna in the highest” in the Missal, as contrasted with “Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High,” in Rite I, the texts are nearly the same, traditional/contemporary idiomatic differences excepted.

I want to be quite clear: I am not advocating for the adoption of the new translation of the Roman Missal in whole or substantial part by parishes, dioceses, or the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. If we are interested in texts originally produced by and for the Roman Catholic Church — as, we must admit, some provinces of the Anglican Communion are — then we would do better to follow the lead of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and look at the linguistically (and, at points, theologically) superior texts produced by ICEL in the 1990s. What I am advocating for is a continuing tradition of shared popular texts and shared musical settings; for easy access among Episcopalians to the ritual music contributed by Roman Catholic (and other churches’) composers; and for The Episcopal Church to make the best use of the liturgical provisions already in place in The Book of Common Prayer. If at some time in the future, the General Convention sees fit to adopt (or exclude) these texts on a widespread basis, so be it. Until then, we can still sing common words with a common song, in a common prayer (however fractured), continuing to make good use of the best and brightest among the musical gifts of Christians everywhere.

16 thoughts on “Common Words, Common Song, Common Prayer

  1. Are we lemmings? Did we drink the Kool-Aid? Let’s keep all texts and melodies and use them as pastoral imagination and tact dictate.

    1. Joe, much as I’m a fan of pastoral imagination and tact, I know plenty in positions of power in both churches who prefer a more straitened approach to liturgy. For my own church, at least, I’m highlighting the way in which tact and pastoral imagination can be employed within extant rubrical structures.

      And I ardently wish I had something to offer in the same vein to my Catholic counterparts.

  2. I share Father Unterseher’s lament at the loss of common texts, and also his understanding of the way such common texts promoted a positive ecumenical spirit. As a Lutheran parish pastor, I would simply note that these changes in the Roman Catholic liturgy intersect the ELCA a bit differently, since we do not have the Rite1/ Rite II dichotomy, but generally chant the ordinaries according to set formulas. The impact of
    Proulx and others is less in our church because of this.

    One area of continued hope for me is the growth of ecumenical hymnody. I see no reason why this part of our ecumenical journey should be impacted by the translation difficulties with the new Missal which have occupied so much of this blog. As new hymns continue to be written and as they find their way into the musical resources of all our churches, some of that positive ecumenical spirit once embodied by common texts, will surely continue.

  3. While some Episcopalian individuals are remarkably unmovable (THIS IS HOW WE DO THINGS HERE), the general laxity in rubrical legislation in the Episcopal church allows you to get away with a lot (assuming your Rector and Vestry don’t mind). I suggested a while ago that musicians working in Episcopal parishes might take that fact as an opportunity to “try out” some of the new settings (something Roman Catholics cannot officially do yet).

    I used my own setting of the new Sanctus text (not a huge change from old ICEL) at my Episcopal parish last Advent. It went over very well, and I don’t think anyone noticed the text change.

    I change Ordinary settings seasonally, and I’m sure one of these days I’m going to want to use a musical setting that only exists in new-ICEL. I’ll probably just use it. And probably nobody will care that much.

    However- I do think that if composers (and publishers) are smart, they will continue to offer the translation versions used by their Protestant brothers and sisters. (I’m actually a little worried I won’t be able to find some Catholic-published settings in the future when I want to use them).

  4. Although Pope John Paul II was speaking of biblical translations and not liturgical translations as such in his 1995 encyclical letter, Ut Unum Sint, the principle which he invokes would seem to apply to both genres, no? I wonder, therefore, if Liturgiam authenticam marks the first time a Curial document, albeit published by papal mandate, trumps a papal encyclical? Bishop Fellay of the SSPX is quoted, from his recent Winona ordination sermon, as saying that the Secretary of Ecclesia Dei characterised the Congregation for Religious as “incompetent” in rendering an erroneous decision: “Not everything that comes from Rome comes from the Pope!” the Secretary reportedly told Bishop Fellay. Perhaps there is a similar incompetence at work in the manifold errors, translation, grammatical and even doctrinal, in the new translation.

    Pertinent text from Ut Unum Sint:

    44. Significant progress in ecumenical cooperation has also been made in another area, that of the Word of God. I am thinking above all of the importance for the different language groups of ecumenical translations of the Bible. Following the promulgation by the Second Vatican Council of the Constitution Dei Verbum, the Catholic Church could not fail to welcome this development.75 These translations, prepared by experts, generally offer a solid basis for the prayer and pastoral activity of all Christ’s followers. Anyone who recalls how heavily debates about Scripture influenced divisions, especially in the West, can appreciate the significant step forward which these common translations represent.

    45. Corresponding to the liturgical renewal carried out by the Catholic Church, certain other Ecclesial Communities have made efforts to renew their worship. Some, on the basis of a recommendation expressed at the ecumenical level,76 have abandoned the custom of celebrating their liturgy of the Lord’s Supper only infrequently and have opted for a celebration each Sunday. Again, when the cycles of…

    1. Again, when the cycles of liturgical readings used by the various Christian Communities in the West are compared, they appear to be essentially the same. Still on the ecumenical level,77 very special prominence has been given to the liturgy and liturgical signs (images, icons, vestments, light, incense, gestures). Moreover, in schools of theology where future ministers are trained, courses in the history and significance of the liturgy are beginning to be part of the curriculum in response to a newly discovered need.

  5. Have we really a need for common texts? Almost weekly either at a funeral or a wedding I’m celebrating Mass or other liturgy with a congregation that is mostly Protestant. (I’m a Catholic priest in the deep, deep south). Almost no one responds to or sings anything that is integral to the liturgy and their singing of protestant hymns at Catholic funerals such as Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art is rather tepid, although I’m sure in their own church they’d raise the roof.And as soon as I say “Let us Pray” all eyes are shut and all heads are bowed! One of the things that Catholic liturgists railed against in the 60’s and 70’s was the laity using a missal themselves during Mass rather than simply participating without one from memory. Not so in most liturgical protestant churches. It is expected that one use their Book of Common Prayer or other aid and they will tell you the page and number to follow. In most Protestant ecumenical situations, like weddings or funerals, I find this to be the case and even though the words are quite different than what Catholics say, we say them together because they’re printed out for us to see and read. Participation is better in these settings, not because of a common language, but because of a common book.

  6. Why were these common texts adopted in the first place? In one sense, apart from weddings and funerals very few Christians cross the denominational boundaries and worship “next door.” Many Catholics will be unaware that Anglican and Methodist Eucharistic services are so very similar in substantial parts of their wording to their own (current) Mass text. The same is true of the other churches. If we all remain on our own patch, the abandonment of common texts is not important to us.

    Surely the congruence was designed/adopted to foster common worship? And surely it’s time to step over the boundaries and become a regular and appreciative visitor along the Way? Before the fruit-bearing tree is hewn down?

    1. Common worship happens all the time in inter-church families. Which, in the diocese my wife and I married accounted for greater than half of all marriages in the diocese.

      In small towns, like the one where I serve, we try to celebrate special Christian holy days together. Many of the churches on Main Street participated in a Stations of the Cross walk (with a common Kyrie).

      Praising God in a common way seems to me to be essential on the path to unity. Isn’t that one of the arguments for the new missal? That common words will increase Catholic unity?

  7. “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth – boom, boom!” I first heard this translation (paraphrase?) of the Gloria ridiculed in the Union bar of Durham University by students at the neighbouring St Chad’s College (high Anglican), in 1971. It had just been introduced in ‘Series III’, one of the interim liturgies which replaced the BCP.

    Lo and behold, it cropped up in the Catholic Mass five years later. I am happy to say that I have survived 35 years without ever having sung or said it. It is wretched.

      1. Do you mean masculine pronoun? Male/female refer to sex, masculine/feminine to gender. I would have thought with your great erudition you might have known this.

  8. There is nothing to lament, nor anything lost in the adoption of this new translation by English-speaking Catholics. The ‘translations’ of the ICEL are poor and pale reworkings of their Latin originals; their grammatical style artless, and their eighth grade vocabulary an insult.

    I value oecumenism as one of the greatest, most precious, fruits of Vatican II and the late 20th century spirit in general. We should each never miss an opportunity to share that Faith which we have in common. There are, though, many ways to do this other than the recitation in our churches of a supposed translation (or ‘dynamic equivalent’) that taxes one’s ability to keep a straight face.

    1. The solution is available in the 1998 translation.

      The new translation which imports Latin syntax into contemporary English is most certainly not the way forward, stylistically or psychologically.

  9. I fully understand these valid literary observations. Unfortunately, we did not get the 1998 translation, nor the work of Fr Daws, nor other would-have-been-betters. Thus, I will continue to assert that what we have gotten is a God-send compared to the current pablum and non-translation which waters down theological depth and import; and that it is a miracle that we got it over the screeching of the street language champions and bishops who had apoplexy over gibbets and other really nice enriching things.

    Finally – what is wrong with importing Latin syntax into English? It’s been done many times to great artful and stylistic success. Isn’t it time that we stopped making American street language and eighth grade literacy the measure of syntactical usage and style??? I’ll answer that: yes, it is… high time.

    DEO GRATIAS for what we got – the next time can’t but be perfection.

    As an aside – for those of you who really know the BCP – I have often thought that it should be possible with the finest literary style of our time to fashion a Catholic liturgical English which was really worthy to follow in the footsteps of the BCP – characterised by the rich imagery, worshipful pace, memorable collects and language and on and on which would make it the gift to the world that the BCP was/is. What is the problem???
    We’re tired of ‘and with you also’, ‘power and might’, ‘seen and unseen’, and generally bunged up texts. We’re especially tired of the absurd, yes, genuinely absurd excuses for collects which don’t bear more that an unimaginitive whiff of bare pastel similarity to their Latin models. I’ll take the Latin syntax in English any day. We are tired of the vacuousness of expression which has been substituted for the rich imagery found in the Latin and the BCP. We would have been better off if 50 years ago if the Church had simply adopted The Anglican Missal!

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