August 2014

[Our leading article for August has been written by Rev Trevor Morley - Thank you Trevor]


Dear Friends

Here we are already in the month of August named after the first Emperor –Gaius Octavian – who became Augustus Caesar inaugurating the Imperial period of Roman rule after the civil wars that followed the murder of Julius Caesar who had authorised the Julian Calendar and from whom the month of July takes its name. Following the Roman system and their pagan gods our year now begins with January after Janus the two-faced Roman God, the God of gateways, looking into the past and facing the future. Then February –said to be named after Februa a goddess of purification, March from Mars the god of war marking the beginning of the campaign season, April from Aprilis and the idea of the opening buds. Next is May, Maia goddess of honour and the spring and June, Juno the consort of Jupiter followed by the aforementioned Roman Dictator with the first Emperor. Illogically then begins numbering: September a seventh month now in reality the ninth month, October an eighth month, now becoming the 10th month, November indicating a 9th month and irrationally ending our 12 months with December a 10th month. How did we get into this mess? And why, in English, is the principal Christian feast of Easter named after –a Norse goddess of the spring, though it could have come from the idea of dawning light – hence the East. For most other countries the name of this principle feast is related to the Jewish Passover and the name Paschal or some derivative is preferred. To the thinking mind it just doesn't make much sense. Then there are the days of the week: they are related to a North Germanic understanding of the Roman system of days but related to their own gods – hence Sunday, Monday, etc. It doesn't really make any sense yet we accept it as hallowed by established ancient tradition.

Should you want to consider real anomalies – just look at our English language in the way its spelling has gradually evolved. Recently I read a book "Spell it Out" by David Crystal one of the authorities in the way our language has developed. It deals with the various different ways well-meaning people tried to commit the spoken word into the written form we have today. I think we realise that most of our common words have come to us through the various Scandinavian invasions of our country. Words like: man, woman, king, queen etc. Apparently the great problem has been that the Latin alphabet did not have enough letters to represent the sounds that were being made when the language was spoken. So first the Norman-French clerks made valiant attempts to transcribe what they heard the Anglo-Saxons say. Later those steeped in the classicism of Renaissance education tried relating spelling to their understanding of Latin and Greek. The next great revolution was the development of printing. By now a variety of spelling was available, what was the poor compositor to choose? Consistency of "house style" from a multitude of printers eventually progressed and for no particular logical reason some proved more acceptable than others. Hence for all these reasons our English spelling has evolved into what we use today. We can see how changes take place: just look at our American cousins, some spellings for them have taken a different form, or as others would say: we spell correctly, they are wrong! But what you can you expect of thosewho even drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road!

Gallant attempts were made a century or so ago to make our spelling more phonetic and related to the sounds we make, so that like Spanish or even Welsh (probably not the easiest example) what we see on paper is what we say. But all these were resisted by traditionalists who said that this is the way it is hence ‘the mess’ we have today. Pity really because in the early stages of the evolution of English, the Norman French-speaking nobles and their Latin clerks, in short all the ‘pedants’ interested in grammar and all those awful things like declensions we had to wrestle with at school, just left the ‘peasants’ to develop a simple easy language. Thanks to these ‘rustics’ we don't have to bother trying to make everything agree, or rearranging the order of sentences to fit the verb and we simply add an "s" to make most plurals. Our present ‘mess’ has become a hallowed tradition and won't betide anyone who misspells an English word! What a boon we have in the spell-checker of our computer!

I'm sure all that is an oversimplification of very complicated matters and yet it resonated with me and thoughts of the usefulness of modern Bible translations and our liturgy. This was again brought to mind and prompted by a Church Times article from the pen of Canon Angela Tilby, of Christ Church Oxford, a well-known broadcaster and commenter for Radio 4.

In an article entitled, "Why the Old Lord's Prayer Makes More Sense" (Church Times 18th July 14 – P 15) she wrote, "At the time that the ASB came out, I came to the conclusion that some of those who choose our liturgical texts have cloth ears. I now know, having worked for more than a decade in the liturgy business, that it is an anxious desire for relevance, linked to over-cautious pedantry, which leads to the worse decisions."

We are often told that the three main formative influences for the way we use our English language have been Shakespeare, the Authorised Version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. They come from a high point in the development of English which was meant to be heard as well as read. There is a rhythm to the pattern of the words: they sound right. Many phrases have entered and become adages, a part of everyday speech.

Of course there is an undeniably important role for scholarship and especially where it unearths original meaning. The myriad new translations are sometimes helpful in dealing with the more difficult passages as in St Paul's writings which even the early church found puzzling (cf II Peter 3 v 16). Our liturgy, most particularly the Holy Communion, has been remodelled in what is now understood to be its more ancient and original form. It has been freed from some of the preoccupations of the past when, for example, in the BCP seemingly the reformers appear never very sure that God will actually forgive us: perhaps today we are more hopeful of Salvation. All this is to be welcomed as good and helpful. But there is then just a lingering thought, are we losing the richness of the language and so selling-short our inheritance?

For me familiarity with the liturgy is important. We ought to be able to relax to the point where the words act almost like the "hat pegs" on which we can hang our own thoughts, feelings and concerns. After all, Liturgy is the work of the people. It is that coming together in the presence of God which is our shared communion with Our Lord and with his people. We ought to be able to take our eyes off the book in order to look up to Him and to see around us His people.

And in conclusion? While in other spheres of life we seem to accept so much which has come to us by tradition and which has been formative in the development of custom and language I hope in any future reform of Bible or Liturgy our own heritage will be valued and we shall be protected from the well-intentioned whom Canon Angela Tilby suspects may have "cloth ears".